Balthus strolled through the Ember Palace’s Spring Garden, a slight frown on his face. The letter from Gareth troubled him more than a little. Once upon a time the inquisition had served as a scalpel to cut out the corruption in a priesthood that had grown arrogant. Now the inquisition itself had gone mad with power. Truly a case where the cure was worse than the disease. At least corrupt priests could be bribed, wheedled, or blackmailed into doing what was right. Matthias could be directed, but he was a feral animal. You could only point him in a general direction and hope he wouldn’t break something useful in the process. Balthus had tried both, but as the present situation demonstrated, bribery and blackmail were much more predictable than any attempt to guide Matthias.

Unfortunately, Knight-Commander Samuels had somehow managed to break the very fabric of Imperial society. In the end, it really was his own fault Balthus mused. Matthias was a blade, unreasoning and violent. Balthus had overestimated his own abilities and tried to turn Matthias’ barbarity to a useful end, and now everyone was paying the price.

Of course, things were only going to get worse. He hadn’t had a chance to publicly announce Al’Shazan’s edict on slavery. That gem wasn’t going to earn him any friends amongst the nobility given that most of their quarries, mines, farms, and vineyards were worked by slaves. If the Church just freed the slaves, it would be easy to present the edict to the public as one of moral fortitude and righteousness. Instead, it was going to be perceived as a power and money grab coming immediately in the wake of an actual power and money grab. There was no doubt in his mind that when the edict was announced, the Church was about to lose its hold on the minor houses as well.

Stepping slightly off the path, Balthus stared blankly at an array of tropical flowers that the palace gardeners lovingly cultivated in the more temperate environment of Diyall. Usually this walk relaxed him, let him discard the worries and frustrations of the day, but today his jaw just refused to unclench. Al’Shazan was enough of a problem on its own without Matthias multiplying things by lashing out at everyone simultaneously. He ran his hand through his balding and greying hair. Despite the efforts of the best magi in the Empire he wasn’t getting any younger, and he wanted his legacy to be something more than presiding over a bloody and incompetent purge. Pausing next to the flowers for a handful of seconds, Balthus turned decisively and began walking back to his office. The garden had failed to clear up his stress so he might as well return to work. The sooner he resolved this idiocy, the sooner he would actually be able to relax and enjoy a soothing walk once again.

The problem with Matthias is that you couldn’t simply tell him what to do. He treated anyone other than Al’Shazan who gave him an order with suspicion. Well, more suspicion than he naturally treated everyone else. The man had perfected paranoia into an artform, seeing sin under every rock and around every corner. Instead, Balthus usually appealed to his sense of duty and pride. It was a great method to push him to investigate someone that the Church needed to put pressure on, but it was much less useful in situations like this where they needed him to back off. For some reason the Knight-Commander was convinced that his ‘100% confession rate’ spoke to his abilities as an investigator rather than the talent of his torturers and he would not shut up about it. It would be easier to convince a starving dog to give up a scrap of meat than to pull someone arrested by the inquisitors from Matthias’ grasp.

Arriving at his office, Balthus nodded to his assistant before stepping inside and closing the door. Quickly, he wrote a missive requesting Matthias’ presence and began pondering what he would do when the man actually arrived. Gareth wouldn’t be much help at such a meeting given the Knight-Commander’s unreasonable hatred for the Minister, so it appeared that the burden fell upon Balthus alone.

Balthus leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. Matthias was erratic enough that even predicting what would move him was a chore. Sure, he was vain and consumed by his faith to the point of myopia, but it was borderline impossible to figure out what the man actually believed in. Every theological conversation with him devolved into Matthias quoting some off-handed remark of a high priest that died more than two hundred years ago. Every time he talked with the Knight-Commander, Balthus became more and more convinced that the younger man had cobbled together a belief system from a disjointed collection of these off the cuff remarks. It didn’t help that half of the older high priests were the source of the corruption that led to the establishment of the inquisition and that most of their statements were nothing more than attempts to deflect blame and scandals. The other half probably just had dementia.

Really, Balthus’ only option was to dive deeper. Trying to figure out what Matthias actually believed inside the tapestry of self-serving to downright insane statements that the idiot had misinterpreted was a fool’s errand. Instead, the only real constant was Matthias’ pride in rooting out sin. Any attempt to deflect the man would come from dangling a shiny new task or sin in front of him, like distracting a newborn by jangling keys before it.

Before Balthus could finish his thought, Matthias nervously stepped into his office. Balthus quickly hid a smile as he took in the way the younger man’s magically dyed ice blue eyes flitted over everything. Even under the perfectly polished silver plate mail that Matthias wore everywhere, Balthus could see the man’s unconscious fidgeting. It always amused him that the psychopath crushing Diyall beneath his reign of terror was as nervous as a child being scolded in front of the class before a sixty eight year old man.

“Thank you for arriving so promptly Knight-Commander,” Balthus said, motioning with his hand. “If you could please close the door I have some matters to discuss with you.”

Matthias closed the door before taking a spare seat, the poor chair creaking under the weight of his armor. Balthus simply returned to his reading, letting the other man sit in silence while Balthus watched him out of the corner of his eye. After stewing for almost a minute without speaking, Matthias’ nerves gave out on him.

“High Priest Aster,” he stated, nodding briefly to Balthus. “I believe you said that you had something to discuss when you called me here?”

“Yes,” Balthus replied, enjoying the other man’s uncomfortable shifting. “The God of All called me before itself recently and we had a discussion. According to the God of All, it is an affront to its majesty for a human being to own another. Instead, everyone’s primary loyalty should be to our Lord, Al’Shazan rather than to a petty temporal master. It asked me to root out the scourge of human slavery and instead ensure that all slaves are property of the Church, to be rented to those whose purses and faith are strong enough to warrant such a favor.”

The Knight-Commander shifted slightly, awe replacing his previous anxiety at the mention of Al’Shazan. Despite his severe flaws, Matthias was truly pious. He believed in the infallibility and sanctity of Al’Shazan’s word on a level that many of the more jaded members of the Church hierarchy found alarming. A combination of Matthias’ faith and absolute insanity made the man completely incorruptible. He simply believed that he understood Al’Shazan’s will better than anyone save Balthus and Al’Shazan itself, and considered anyone questioning that belief presumptively sinful.

“Originally,” Balthus continued, slightly unnerved by the sudden fire in Matthias’ eyes, “I had planned to simply issue an edict to that end. That said, after your effective work on rooting out corruption amongst the nobility, it only seems appropriate for you to be rewarded. I called you here to discuss giving the inquisition the honor of announcing the end of private slavery. After all, your investigators will be auditing all of the noble houses shortly, and it only makes sense that you seize their slaves as part of the process.”

“Did the One True Flame,” Matthias began questioning slowly, trying to break Balthus’ statement down into chunks that he could understand, “did it say that private slave ownership was sinful?”

The Knight-Commander’s words were distressingly reverent. The younger man ran his tongue over his lips, wetting them. The way he drew out the word sinful, cradled it on his tongue like a lover before releasing it into the world, truly upset Balthus on a level that he didn’t know was even possible anymore. A brief shudder ran down his spine. Given the almost sexual interest that Matthias had taken in the edict, it seemed that he had convinced the Knight-Commander to reveal the edict for him. At least the priesthood would not take the political hit for revealing the edict. It would simplify things later if all of Matthias’ actions could be chalked up to some form of corrupt power grab on his part.

“I would hardly dare to speak for our Lord,” Balthus replied, “and I must be honest, it did not mention sin. That said, it did say that private slavery wasn’t allowed, and High Priest Pontheel the Wise did speak out against it in 812. I can only assume that those owning slaves despite Pontheel’s directive in the intervening years did so knowing that they opposed the will of the Church and thus the will of the God of All. I am nowhere near the expert on sin that you are, Knight-Commander Samuels, but it seems to me that knowingly opposing the revealed word of Al’Shazan is probably sinful on some level if not downright heretical.”

“We have found untold amounts of sin amongst the nobles,” Matthias nodded gravely. “They hide secrets and conspire amongst themselves. Already two houses have resisted the inquisition with force, a sure sign of a guilty mind and a soul laden with sin. It would be my pleasure and honor for the inquisition to purge this new sin from their ranks, but I must think on your words. To profit from a sin for so long does sound like heresy to me. It might be more appropriate to send those captured to the cleansing flames so that they may be reborn rather than to waste time and resources with the Chamber of Truth.”

“It’s a good thing that you take your work seriously,” Balthus agreed. “Even though it is a great honor, shouldering the burden of revealing Al’Shazan’s newest edict is a grave responsibility. I’m sure that many of the corrupt will see their corruption in you once you reveal the edict.”

“The ignorant and the sinful will always find sin in the ways of the righteous,” Matthias replied. “The words of High Priest Sulliagaro ring as true today as they did six hundred years ago. I will remind the sinful that their duty lies at the feet of Al’Shazan, respectfully following its divine will. Too many have tried to insert themselves in between the Lord and the masses via lies and artifice. It is my humble pleasure to show them the error and gravity of their sins.”

“Sulliagaro is a good choice,” Balthus attempted to keep a straight face. The High Priest was a famed champion of writing, the arts, and logic. If she were alive today, Matthias would try to have her put to death immediately. “I often find myself trying to emulate her wisdom and poise. If the history books remember me as being half the leader that she was, I would consider it a supreme honor.”

“Indeed,” Matthias intoned as he stood up to leave. “I am glad that we could help each other out on this occasion, but I have a lot of work to return to. The corruption of the upper classes runs deep.”

“Thank you for coming to see me on such short notice” Balthus replied, standing up to see the Knight-Commander out. “I am just glad that I had a suitable honor available for you on such short notice given the service you are performing for the Empire.”

After Matthias left the room, Balthus slumped back into his seat. Even though the man was terrified of him, Matthias still gave him the willies. His unique combination of complete self assured idiocy and extreme violence was very unsettling. Matthias was an incredibly deleterious factor on the Empire, but unfortunately without Al’Shazan getting involved, there was nothing that he could do. Apparently Matthias’ intensity and faith towards the God creeped it out to the point where it refused to interact with the Knight-Commander, even just to fire the man. Instead, like so many other things Al’Shazan just told Balthus that he should deal with it.

So here Balthus was, with no choice but to double down on the erratic man’s pride. Hopefully Matthias would stay on brand and take full credit for the new edict. The combination of the edict and the end of slavery would make the Knight-Commander the target of every smear and assassain that the nobles could muster, hopefully leaving Balthus out of their crosshairs while he tried to steer the Church out of this mess.

Hopefully. Balthus poured himself a snifter of port and stared into the reddish brown liquid. He had been waiting for the day when his administration of the Empire wouldn’t revolve around such an uncertain word for a long time. Every time things started actually working the way they should, something seemed to go wrong: barbarians or the deceiver would invade, a natural disaster would rock the Empire, or Al’Shazan would issue an incomprehensible edict. Balthus drank the entire snifter with a brief grimace, letting the sweet burn flow down his throat.

The worst of it was that Al’Shazan could fix everything if it really wanted to. As far as Balthus could tell, the being was either as omnipotent as it claimed to be or so close to it as to make the distinction meaningless. It was just lazy. The records were clear, Al’Shazan was only roused to act about once every fifty years, but every time its power was staggering. Be it turning a mountain to a desert, boiling an ocean, or most memorably, shrinking all of human life by three inches in order to win a bet, there just didn’t seem to be an upper limit on what it could do. It just found the frantic struggle of human existence intriguing, like a celestial child tormenting ants with a looking glass. He sighed and poured himself another glass of port. It was a bit early in the day to get drunk, but a meeting with Matthias certainly warranted it.


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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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