Gareth frowned as he read his most recent report from Anne Bosteel. The endowment had spent the last couple weeks looking into ways to either slow Matthias down or prevent the nobles from moving openly without much success. A week and a half ago, the Knight-Commander had announced that slavery was also a sin. While that likely would have garnered some support with the masses, the idiot then announced that slavery would continue with the Church owning all slaves and renting the slaves out to anyone who could afford their prices. Even the apolitical amongst the peasants saw the announcement as rank profiteering, and according to Anne’s reports the peasants had begun to refer to the man as “Matthias the Moneygrubber.” Luckily the Knight-Commander didn’t have his own spy service, after all, why would the inquisition actually need to investigate anyone. Instead he relied on the second hand reports from inquisition detectives, most of whom were intensely corrupt, and none of whom wanted to come to Matthias’ attention. If any of them had caught wind of the new nickname, they knew better than to report it. If the volatile man heard of his slipping public persona, who knows exactly what he would have done, but the chances that it would have involved a bloodbath were high. It’s all Matthias knew.
Of course, the nobles themselves hadn’t been idle. Their agents wandered the halls of the Ember Palace, trying to sew chaos and dissent. According to Anne, already several of the inquisitions elders had privately stated that there would be no investigation into Matthias’ hypothetical accidental death. While worrying and a bad precedent, no head of state wanted assassinations of heads of state to become the unpunished norm, Gareth couldn’t help but agree with the sentiment. The inquisition had been run poorly before, but usually that was a matter of incompetence or corruption. It had never reached the level of daily bloody show trials it sat at today. At least a corrupt inquisition could be bribed or cajoled, but Matthias was a direct threat to the life and well-being of anyone not exempted from his investigation by divine decree. A list that consisted of just Balthus Aster and Gareth himself. It made sense that the elders would want the man gone given how many of their number had been referred to the Chamber of Truth, but a noble controlled inquisition would be almost as bad.
Gareth reached across his desk and rang a small bell. Shortly thereafter, his door opened and a young man stepped into his office with a wordpad and a quill. He’d miss Lily as an assistant. She was almost pretty enough to make up for the fact that she was a naive idiot. It really was a shame that Al’Shazan required everyone in the priesthood, including those who worked in the treasury, to be eunuchs. As much as he liked his job, if Gareth was pretty sure he’d prefer the ability to indulge in more carnal pursuits. Alas, the decision was made for him as a child. Theoretically he had some say in the process, but what ten year old is going to say no when a priest that he had respected his entire life tells him that the One True God has called him to its service and that he only needs to make a minor sacrifice to become an influential member of the Church. Minor. Of course that’s what they would tell children that knew nothing of what they were agreeing to. It’s easy to give up a lifetime of touching women when you thought that they all had cooties.
The young man before him shifted uncertainly. He would have to learn patience if he wanted to succeed as Gareth’s assistant. Administering to the Church’s budget and treasury was hardly an exciting or glamorous position. Unless of course you found glamor in a distressing amount of reading, comparing figures and attempting to pass off borderline baseless guesses as projections and analysis. After all, how in the blaze was he supposed to know what the next harvest would look like? He might know that the Church would get a quarter of the harvest as taxes, but how could anyone know whether a drought would kill the crops or whether an early cold snap would damage them before they could be harvested. Even the best weather seers could only look a month into the future, yet still the Church demanded projections so Gareth found them the same place he suspected Matthias discovered new sins. In tightly coiled lumps on the palace lawn, found after the local noble ladies took their lap dogs for walks.
Finally, Gareth put down the report and looked up at the nervous young man. Was his name Adam or Andy? He looked a bit like an Andrew but to be perfectly honest it all ran together at some point. Matthias was probably going to have him tortured in the next couple of months anyway so it hardly seemed worthwhile to try and remember the man’s name.
“You there, Andrew,” Gareth began, watching as the young man began frantically writing every word in his notepad. He would have to work on that too. At least three quarters of what was said in the halls of government was an absolute waste of time. The key was to only write down the important bits rather than the small talk, pointless compliments and mastubatory self congradulatory reports. It was a trait that Gareth wished that more of the Palace’s assistants and scribes would pick up given the expense of writing materials. In the last week alone he had been in three meetings where an appropriately trained scribe had generated no notes whatsoever. Truly a testament to the Church’s efficiency.
“I am going to need to meet with a representative of the Rosewood family,” he continued, still slightly annoyed. “I am going to need this off the official log, so that Knight-Commander Samuels doesn’t interfere. I want to talk to them about some minor financial irregularities in their reported taxes and tithes, but more importantly I wanted to talk to them about de-escalating the current situation.”
“The name is Adam Ser, and I’ll get right on it.” The man stood in Gareth’s doorway and kept writing for a couple of seconds in an effort to record the entire conversation word for word.
“Andy,” Gareth replied with a brief sigh. “What in the blazes are you doing?”
“Uh, Adam Ser,” he finally looked up from his notes, confusion written all over his young face. “I’m taking notes so that I can put in a work request with a courier to contact the Rosewoods?”
“Adam,” Gareth spoke slowly, trying to avoid losing his temper with the new assistant. “What part of ‘I am going to need this off the official log’ did you not understand? If you relay the message in writing to a courier, the courier’s office will have a record of it, the courier used will have a record of it, and whoever the message is actually handed to will have a message of it. That is three spots where even the most rudimentary investigation would reveal what you are doing. Again, if the inquisition finds out they will interfere and my efforts will all come to naught. So now, please tell me what you are doing?”
“Just a second Ser,” Adam replied while scribbling even more furiously. “I’m making a note that I should dispose of all notes from this conference. That way there won’t be a record of this conversation.” He closed the notepad and looked back at Gareth, seeking the minister’s approval.
“Here, let me see what you have written there,” Gareth extended a hand towards his new assistant. Proudly, the young man handed the notepad over. After glancing it over for a couple of seconds, Gareth nodded and mumbled a quick incantation under his breath. In a brief flare of fire and mana, the notepad was reduced to dust.
“There, I fixed it for you” he said with a smile, brushing the ashes of the notepad off of his desk and ignoring the devastated look on Adam’s face. “The more times something about this conversation is written down, the more likely it is for a third party to find out about what we have said. There will be no written recordings and it will not be a courier contacting the Rosewoods, it will be you. You will get in contact with Anne Bosteel from the Imperial Endowment for Art and Music and let her know that you need to talk to the Rosewoods. You will then personally follow her instructions and relay back to me what the Rosewood representative has to say. Again, at no point whatsoever will anything be written down. Not for our records, not in your diary, not in your day planner. No. Records.”
“But Ser, Imperial Code 26:19(b) clearly states,” Adam began frantically, only to be interrupted by Gareth.
“Young man,” Gareth’s stern gaze bore into his assistant, borderline melting the man. “I wrote chapter 26. I am well aware that sub 19 requires a clear record be kept of all official activities for the purpose of audit and reimbursement. I am the final auditor. There will be no audit, and if you keep acting like a prat, there will be no reimbursement for your expenses. Now get a move on.”
As Adam left, Gareth shook his head in bemusement. Maybe he was too hard on the man. At least he knew the code well enough to cite it back to him and had the fortitude to do it. Not every assistant would accuse their boss of illegal activity their first day on the job. Gareth chuckled to himself, it was illegal too. Every official action that went through the treasury required a written order authorizing it as well as a written statement of completion. The paper trail helped greatly with ferreting out corruption and incompetence, but it also helped spies keep track of the treasury’s internal activities. Of course, outside of the Endowment which was funded via a grant with no oversight and thus no records, the treasury really didn’t have anything to hide. The state of the budget and taxation while not advertised were hardly prime secrets, and most of the reports and analysis generated by the treasury were readily available to all priests above a certain status anyway.
He was probably still upset over having to fire Lily and taking it out on Adam. She really did have a tremendous figure and it just didn’t seem fair to replace her with some reed thin clammy nerd even if he actually knew how to do the job. Oh well. He’d just have a working lunch with the man after this entire ‘undercover civil war’ thing blew over and let Adam know that he was just grumpy. If he survived the meeting of course. The Rosewoods were hardly happy with Matthias targeting them and they might lash out. It was why wiser and more experienced figures such as Gareth delegated such clandestine meetings to interns and other disposable individuals.
The next couple of days passed in a flash. Gareth received intermittent reports that anti Church activity, always under the flag of ‘anti corruption’ had begun flaring up all over the Empire. Of course, Matthias responded in the only way he knew how and crusader squads had begun escorting inquisitors on missions. Already there had been a handful of massacres where someone incited the crusaders into creating a bloodbath. Amongst the peasants, the belief that Matthias had ‘led the Church astray’ had become almost universal. It was only a matter of time before things passed a breaking point from which there was no turning back. He was unsure if the nobles didn’t believe the histories of Al’Shazan destroying entire kingdoms for turning their backs on him or if they just didn’t care. He had seen the ruins. Al’Shazan didn’t bluff, it simply swatted that which annoyed it.
That was why Gareth was here in a cramped inn on the outskirts of Diyall staring at a dubious bowl of stew. Arguably it was ‘meat stew in a spicy broth’ but he was fairly sure that his boots contained more actual animal product than the ‘meat’ in the bowl in front of him. Gareth was quite hungry after sneaking out of the Palace under the cover of darkness and trekking two miles to arrive at the ramshackle inn outside Diyall’s walls, but it was going to take something much closer to starvation to convince the portly man to stick a fork into the bubbling bowl of ‘food’ sitting in front of him.
Outside he could hear the inns sign slapping against the wall as the wind howled. Diyall was in the middle of one of its infamous rainy season squalls, and it was absolutely pouring outside. Already Gareth was dreading the hike back to the Ember Palace. As bad as the inn was, he would have been tempted to rent a room to wait out the storm if it wasn’t for the fact that he would be expected back in the Palace for a nightly meeting with the budget and planning council for the Edra reconstruction. It was highly irregular for any of the higher priesthood, including himself, to ever leave the Palace in the best of times. In the middle of heightened tensions and a storm? Anyone who was aware that he had left would automatically conclude that he was up to something secretive and nefarious. Luckily, everyone knew how much Gareth enjoyed his meals undisturbed, a trait he had been using to slip away to clandestine meetings for years. Unfortunately, that meant that he would not be able to actually eat dinner when he returned to the Ember Palace without giving away that he had not actually taken dinner in his office as the official log showed.
All of this just made Gareth that much more annoyed as we waited for the Rosewood representative to arrive. They knew he was on a tight schedule and they were already twenty minutes late. Finally, the door slammed open and a middle aged woman walked in flanked by a young man in a trench coat that jingled faintly. He sighed. At least Lady Rosewood’s bodyguard was doing the bare minimum to conceal that he was carrying enough steel to arm a contingent of crusaders. With a wave of his hand, Gareth drew her attention. Evelyn Rosewood strode through the crappy inn, every inch a noble matriarch, barely deigning to glance at the drunken ‘local color’ as she breezed past them. Gareth sighed again. So much for being unmemorable. He had even worn a threadbare stained tunic for the occasion.
“Mister Theones,” she said, waiting patiently as her man pulled out the chair opposite Gareth for her before sitting down. “I was informed that you wanted to meet me about all of the recent unpleasantness.”
“Yes,” Gareth replied, gratefully shoving the bowl of stew away from himself. “Although the Rosewood family did… underpay… its taxes, both High Priest Aster and I have been taken aback at the aggressive stance taken by the inquisition. We had expected a fine to be levied and a warning to be given, but the current state of the Empire has us all teetering on the edge of chaos and ruin, obviously not an ideal situation.”
“The Rosewoods have paid every bent copper we have owed,” she spat out, rage in her eyes as she lunged to her feet. “We have been kicked out of our homes and hounded across the countryside over nothing but a madman’s accusations. Several of my lesser cousins have been tortured over absolutely nothing. I am willing to talk about an end to the simmering hostilities, but I will not sit here and be insulted.”
“Oh sit back down Evelyn,” Gareth fired back as the older woman pushed back her chair and prepared to storm out. “I have the numbers. Your Onyx production facility and both of your cloth looms didn’t report their product or profit accurately and they haven’t done so for years. You’re guilty and you know it. This affronted indignity act of yours might work in front of the masses or your dumber colleagues but there was a reason your family was ready and able to escape ahead of the inquisitors. You knew you were playing a dangerous game and you were ready for the consequences. I know for a fact that the ‘lesser cousins’ captured by the inquisition all slighted you last yule by not arriving to your holiday party on time. Frankly, I don’t care overly much. There’s a reason we haven’t pushed the issue for the last decade.”
“A decade?” She asked, slumping back into her chair, face going pale. “You’ve known for that long? Why are you just acting now?”
“Easy,” he replied smoothly. “You were under reporting but you were being careful about it. The Church had the money it needed and despite what your agents tell the peasants, we don’t actually live in gilt palaces while virgins feed us peeled grapes and dates. The instability created by going after the families under reporting their earnings would harm the Empire as a whole much more than simply letting you be. Then, when our budget was stretched to near the breaking point, the God of All demanded another celebration. An expensive one. We needed the money and we needed it quickly and then the calculations changed. The plan was never to punish your family beyond a scapegoat and a fine, but the Knight-Commander of the Inquisition had his handler tortured and he slipped his leash. Right now, he has no oversight and no control.”
“Matthias Samuels,” venom dripped from Evelyn’s voice. “That snake has claimed more lives than the pox and the forces of the deceiver combined.”
“And ruined even more via torture,” Gareth agreed cheerfully.
“Wait,” caution flashed on Evelyn’s face as she stopped herself warily. “That’s what this is all about isn’t it. The rest of the Church wants the Knight-Commander gone, but no one has the conviction or the wherewithal to make it happen. You’re about to spin some story to convince me to make your little problem disappear and then you’re going to clean house, kill all of us to avenge your pet madman. Turn him into a martyr to gloss over the last couple months of chaos.”
“The thought had crossed my mind,” he nodded appreciatively at the older woman, “but there are just too many Rosewoods left. Enough of you would survive any purge and word would get out of the Church double crossing you. No, I think it would be much easier for a Tyban or Stallsworth scion that you are sheltering to ‘go rogue’ and do… whatever needs to be done. You would be investigated and all that would be found is some mundane tax fraud. Your family would pay a minor fine and decry the senseless murder, but there would be no lasting harm. Neat and tidy.”
“That could work,” she nodded slowly as she chewed over Gareth’s proposition, “but I still need to know what’s in it for the Rosewoods. We would be taking all of the risk while you sat in the Ember Palace, safe and sound.”
“That is true.” he replied brightly. “I just want to make the stakes clear though. If Matthias isn’t stopped, you and your entire family will die. You will be wiped from the face of the Earth and your memory will be struck from all public history books. Only the Church actually maintains records of the shunned houses, and the fate of those that annoy Al’Shazan isn’t very pretty.”
“Al’Shazan,” she snorted. “Only the fanatics of the Church actually fear that thing. It hasn’t acted publicly in years and even then the miracles attributed to it could easily have been performed by a high level mage. For all we know it doesn’t exist, it’s just a bogeyman used by the Priests to line their pockets and keep the Empire in line.”
“Interesting,” Gareth replied, “you’ve made me two gold richer.”
“What?” Evelyn asked, confused and distrustful.
“High Priest Aster and I had a little bet going,” he continued, a mirthless smile on his face. “Aster believes that your lot are nihilists. That you know the penalty of rebelling against Al’Shazan but you simply don’t care and that you wish to cause as much damage as possible before disappearing into a pillar of divine flame. My wager was that you didn’t believe the ancient warnings and instead thought you actually had a chance. In short, you’ve made me two gold richer with your ignorance.”
“You can’t simply expect us to believe that our cause is lost before the battle is even joined,” Evelyn sputtered, her voice rising to a shout and taking on a shrill tone. “Our forces are training even now, and the Church will have to pay a price in blood if they truly want to defeat us.”
“I’m sure they would perform admirably in the little play wars we let the nobles engage in against each other,” Gareth agreed affably, unmoved, “but you haven’t seen what the warrior mages of the crusaders can do against the barbarians and the forces of the deceiver. We don’t even need Al’Shazan to completely wipe out your little mountain stronghold and six warbands of irregulars. The issue isn’t that we would win, the issue is that if Al’Shazan finds out about your little rebellion it will act. When Al’Shazan it acts, it doesn’t care about collateral damage. Your fortress will be blasted into a glowing crater and mana sickness will kill crops for miles around. Once the crops wither and die, a famine will set in and the Empire’s economy will grind to a halt. We could kill you easily, but it would cost the Empire an insane amount of money so it is much easier for your family to live on. Congratulations.”
“That’s what this is, isn’t it,” she sunk down into her chair, the vitality drained from her. “You have predictions for what it would cost to fight us traditionally and with magic, probably down to the last gold piece. My life, and the life of everyone in my family are just gold pieces to you.”
“Damn,” Gareth responded with idle frustration. “Now I owe Balthus one of those two gold back. But yes, you are correct. Defeating this rebellion using traditional forces will cost the Empire approximately 1,300 gold pieces so long as outsiders do not invade. That could spike the cost by almost 400 more gold pieces depending upon when, where and with how many people they strike. Magical intervention to destroy you will almost certainly cost the Empire at least 3,000 gold pieces due to the inevitable economic downturn. Personally, you are worth at least 150 gold pieces to the Empire as a stabilizing factor and figurehead. Far more than any of your peers. Obviously, that influence and respect is why I am approaching you with this deal now.”
“You’re a monster,” Evelyn stated evenly, the energy completely sapped from her voice. “I hope you understand that. We’ll do it, but you’re an absolute monster.”
She stood and walked out of the bar, her bodyguard and a sneer from Gareth following her out. He really never could understand why the nobles were so obsessed with this cloak and dagger drama. It was all terribly tiring and predictable. Threaten someone, push for advantage, play the part of the evil mastermind. All of that just to convince someone to do something that she probably would be doing anyway. At least now the nobles knew that there was a chance for the entire matter to be swept under the rug if it was done quickly and cleanly. There really wasn’t a chance for peace with Matthias running the inquisition, but so long as the nobles had reason to believe that they would continue to maintain their wealth and privilege, they wouldn’t cross the line and do something unforgivable. Hopefully.