“What the fuck do you mean he’s dead!” Gareth winced as Balthus shouted at him. He had thought that the priest would be happy to finally be rid of the troublesome Knight-Commander, but apparently not.
“His assistant,” Gareth replied, slouching his chair sullenly, “unbeknownst to everyone, was secretly a scion of the Stallswarth family and murdered him in his own chambers with a crossbow. He gave a very nice speech in front of witnesses saying who he was and why he did it. Very convenient and tidy of him. He’ll be tried and burned by the end of the week.”
“I fucking KNOW Williard was a Stallswarth because I was the one who strongarmed him into taking the job as Matthias’ assistant.” Balthus was pacing back and forth, wisps of his hair sticking up in every direction. “The plan always was to trick Williard into killing Matthias, but just not now. What I want to know is how he got a crossbow and the stones to kill his boss JUST at the moment when we actually needed Matthias to do something useful for the first time in his forsaken life.”
“Balthus, I do not appreciate the tone or the cursing,” Gareth interjected frustrated with the older man. “I seem to recall you dropping multiple hints that you wanted the man eliminated. Perhaps someone took those hints and made sure that the right weapons and the right delusions of grandeur landed in the right disaffected subordinates hands. You practically made a written request that it happen, I don’t see why you’re being so cross now.”
“Wait,” Balthus squinted at Gareth while the minister shifted uncomfortably, “did you steal my agent? You did, didn’t you? You have your own entire department full of spies, informants, and mime assassins how is it fair that you took my agent to do it? There are rules about these things Gareth: I don’t poach your promising clerks, I don’t wear the same outfit as you, I don’t steal your chefs, and you don’t touch my plausibly deniable killers without at least talking to me first! It’s basic etiquette.”
“I thought you wanted him dead Balthus,” Gareth replied, a hint of a whine in his voice. “You kept dropping hints that the entire Empire would be better if only someone would handle the ‘inquisition problem.’”
“Of course I wanted the blasted fool dead Gareth,” Balthus made a visible effort to calm himself, slowing his pacing to a walk, “but the timing is terrible. I need to call the Triumvirate and I need to call them now. We simply don’t have time to dither around as the elders of the inquisition try to elect a new Knight-Commander.”
“So you’re yelling at me about killing him even though you told me to kill him,” Gareth asked slowly, trying to make sense of the manic priest.
“YES!” Balthus shouted, waving his right arm empathetically. “You weren’t supposed to kill him now because we need him alive. Why couldn’t you have just waited a week or something to leave a crossbow out where that psychopath could find it?”
“I suppose it is like the man to find a way to vex us even with his death,” Gareth mused aloud. “No matter what Matthias did, he always seemed to have a knack for making things worse for everyone. It really is only fair that it would extend to his untimely demise as well.”
“Do you have any idea what’s going on with the elders of the inquisition?” Balthus turned to Gareth and asked him, looking nervous for possibly the first time Gareth had ever seen. “Are there any frontrunners for the post of Knight-Commander or have they reverted to being bickering old men like usual? I would hope they’re at least acting with a little more caution after the fiasco with Matthias. He did have half of them tortured for imagined sins after all.”
“The last I checked, every elder has nominated a different preferred candidate and no one has even begun to budge,” Gareth shrugged. The elders of the inquisition were older knights that allegedly provided wisdom and counsel to the younger, more hot-blooded active members of the inquisition. Allegedly because they instead spent almost all of their time in meaningless power struggles amongst themselves. Most of the inquisition was divided up into the metaphorical fiefs of various elders. Officially, they only had real power when it came time to appoint a new Knight-Commander, but they were influential figures within the inquisition and many of the younger knights tried to curry favor with them. A large part of the reason why Matthias managed to get elected was that when the previous Knight-Commander died, the elders devolved into gridlock with each one putting forth their own candidate and refusing to compromise. Matthias wasn’t connected with any one elder, and eventually they appointed him as a stopgap when Balthus threatened to intervene after the election had stalled for a full six months. Apparently, it was more important to appoint an unvetted rural chief inquisitor with a startlingly high conviction rate than to let Balthus gain any more influence in the inquisition.
“Why, what’s the rush Balthus?” Gareth asked. “This isn’t like you. Usually every conversation with you is about the long game, how an action today will benefit you in three years. That sort of thing.”
“Because,” Balthus exhaled and stopped pacing with a visible effort. “Al’Shazan has ordered us to either purge or evacuate the Dakhmar Marshes in less than three months. Apparently anything living in the area will start to turn into soul eating abominations in about one to two months and there is a very real chance that they will overrun some or all of the Empire if we can’t depopulate the area.”
“By depopulate do you mean,” Gareth stared at the older priest with mounting horror.
“Yes,” Balthus sagged bonelessly into an open chair. “Al’Shazan didn’t quite order me to commit genocide. Technically I only have to get the lizards out of there, but Al’Shazan did seem awfully excited by the idea of a basilisk barbeque. Our only other real option is a mass evacuation of an unwilling populace complete with setting up a police state and refugee housing.”
“How in the blaze of the true flame am I supposed to pay for that,” Gareth asked incredulously. The Empire’s economy was already stretched to the breaking point and at the moment only creative accounting was keeping it afloat. Without the forfeitures from Matthias’ ventures into robbing the nobles, there was no way the books were going to balance at the end of the year as is. A massive swarm of refugees would utterly obliterate that budget. No amount of tricks could fix that.
“I don’t think we can without major cuts,” Balthus shook his head in defeat. “We just aren’t going to be able to do Edra and this at the same time, and even then we’re going to have to cut deep into every reserve we have. You’ll have to run the math, but we might have to cut corners or borrow. Still, I don’t want to purge the marsh. The lizard people may not be rich or a popular part of the Empire, but they’ve proudly done their part for hundreds of years. If there is any other possibility, I don’t want to be the one to reward that loyalty with death.”
“Balthus,” Gareth said evenly, trying to draw the older man’s attention. “I mean it, I don’t think we have the money for this. We can borrow it, but it’s going to cripple the church for years. Worse, I don’t think the lizard people are going to be happy about this. Even if we manage to pull this off, you’re going to be vilified. This isn’t a game of Tinall. There isn’t a perfect ending available if we are just clever enough. I don’t see us ‘winning’ this no matter what we do.”
“I don’t fucking care!” Balthus shouted back, visibly losing his temper for perhaps the first time in a decade. “We’ve given up so much to work our jobs so that we can help people. Al’Shazan knows it isn’t for us to enjoy the wealth and privilege of our position when we get maybe one day off per month. No, Gareth. I have sacrificed too much and given of myself for too long to let some impossible problem stop me. We are going to save those fucking lizards if I have to catch and put every last one of them into a terrarium myself.”
“Now,” Balthus continued as he exited Gareth’s office, “I am going to get myself a drink. Then I am going to get myself another drink. Finally, once I am good and drunk, I am going to sleep. We can start dealing with the problems tomorrow, but there is no other option. We need to evacuate the marsh and we need to do it quickly.”
The priest paced quickly out of the room and Gareth sighed, finally alone with his thoughts. Balthus had always made a game of pushing Al’Shazan as far as he could, a dangerous and pointless exercise if you asked Gareth, but this time he might finally have gone too far. Gareth didn’t have any ill will towards the lizard people, they were a reclusive but industrious folk who paid their taxes on time and didn’t bother their neighbors. As far as he was concerned, they were one of the Empire’s better vassal polities. That said, Al’Shazan wanted them dead, and had left the Church almost no option but to kill them all. A crusade would pay for itself with looted cities and relics, but a massive resettlement project would be ruinously expensive even when the Church wasn’t being viewed with distrust after Matthias’ excesses.
Anti-lizardfolk racism was common in Diyall and across the Empire as a whole. The general population would not take kindly to the Church spending most of the treasury to help them out, especially if it seemed to be at the expense of suffering humans. It would be too. The only place to get enough money to fund the project was to spend almost all of the unallocated money directed towards the Edra reconstruction. If the lizards didn’t revolt over their forced relocation, the nobles would probably agitate and start their own rebellion anyway. If it were to survive this storm, the Church would need money and strong, loyal, sword arms, two things that it was sorely lacking at the moment. Unfortunately, it was a self perpetuating problem. If the Church had money it could hire and train the soldiers it needed to cow the nobles. If it had enough soldiers to cow the nobles, it could raise the taxes on the nobles higher without fear of repercussion.
Instead, Balthus’ pity and Matthias’ indulgences had made the Empire weak. Balthus wouldn’t tax anymore than necessary despite Gareth’s frequent assurances that ‘having too much money was always better than too little.’ He was right that the peasants had hard enough lives without the Church taking their share, but without a reserve the Empire was rocked to and fro by the Godking’s whims, unable to sate Al”Shazan without cutting deep into their own projects and spending. Matthias was almost worse, spending his money on vanity projects that offered little chance of actually helping the Empire. Worse, he stamped out any new industry with the zeal of a child pulling the wings from a fly. Every possible innovation that could have benefitted the Empire’s economy was sinful in some way. Matthias didn’t understand the printing press? Sin. Matthias didn’t understand the crude steam engines produced by the artificers? Sin. Matthias didn’t understand selective breeding, crop rotation, and using fertilizer to enrich the soil? Sin, sin, sin. The man’s madness had caused one of the most prolonged periods of stagnation that the Empire had ever seen.
Gareth sighed and rang the bell on his desk. He would have to talk to Anne to see what he could do about the situation. Maybe they could strong arm some of the nobles or find a way to quell public anger. He just didn’t know anymore. All of his energy had been devoted to ‘solving’ the Matthias problem. Providing Williard with a crossbow and a motive through Evelyn Rosewood had been a masterstroke until suddenly it wasn’t.
He stood and poured himself a mug of tea in an attempt to soothe his stomach. He was nowhere near as old as Balthus, but in this moment, retirement called to him. He hadn’t slept well in months. Trying to simultaneously balance the budget and protect his office from Matthias’ blind flailings was much more than should be asked of any men. Then, once he should have been free from Matthias’ inanity, Al’Shazan dropped an even larger problem in his lap.
A half hour later, Anne arrived just as Gareth’s half drank tea finally grew cold. He glanced up at her through half lidded eyes as she wandered into the room and haphazardly slumped into an open chair. One of these days he was going to find a way to convince her that she should show at least some level of decorum and respect to her boss. Hopefully. It was rather hard to convince a superbly trained assassin to do anything that they didn’t already want to do. A bit like cats, assassins.
“Anne, we have a pretty major problem,” he said, drumming his fingers on the hand rest of his chair.
“I figured,” she answered easily, “you only really bother me when something major is happening. Never any social calls to go and hit the town, never more than a yule card. It’s always business with you. So, whose secrets do you need exposed? Who do you need killed as a warning to keep others from stepping out of line? Maybe you need me to burn down an orphanage? That would be something new, I haven’t burned down an orphanage before.”
“Honestly Anne?” he replied, “for the first time in a long time, I don’t have a clue as to how I should proceed. Al’Shazan has issued an order to Balthus that we need to clear out the Dakhmar Swamp within 30 to 90 days or the Empire will be overrun by horrifying monstrosities. The Lord heavily implied that it would be easiest to just kill everyone, but Balthus isn’t having it. He wants to evacuate the lizard people. Despite all of his cold political calculation, he has a bit of a soft heart.”
Gareth paused for a second, eyes clouding for just a second. “Honestly,” he continued, “that’s probably why I’ve backed him for so long. Over the last couple centuries, the members of the triumvirate have fought each other at every turn, more often than not crippling the Empire with their infighting. Balthus always seemed to have a vision to improve things, and not just for the rich and powerful, but for everyone in the Empire. Pretty much everyone else with a sniff of power has tried to exploit it, but Balthus has managed to have the Church dance to his tune for a long time and everyone has benefitted. They might not have known it, the people do love to whine after all, but things have been better.”
“But now that soft heart is creating problems,” he sighed. “I just can’t think of a way to gain the money needed to evacuate, and even if we did have the money, the noble houses would probably kick up a racist fit over nothing. Of course, we can’t dispatch troops to the swamp without the orders of the Knight-Commander, and unless you have a necromancer on staff, and please do not tell me if you do, there is no way we are going to be able to get that without a minor miracle forcing the elders of the inquisition to appoint a new one in a timely fashion. I just don’t see a way to fix this in the time allotted to us, and you my dear are my desperate last second ploy to try and wriggle us out of this mess.”
“Desperate Ploy?” she asked, a brilliant smile igniting her face, “I like that! I’ve been called a lot of different things by a lot of different people, but I think that’s the best one. I’m definitely stealing that as my stage name going forward and considering the favor I’m about to do you, it seems more than a fair trade.”
“Favor?” exasperation oozed from Gareth’s voice. “Anne, you do realize that you work for me right? That I’m the one that pays your salary? Usually when employees do their jobs it is just that, a job, what they are supposed to do.”
“Gareth, I thought you knew better than this,” Anne tutted theatrically, an over exaggerated look of faux concern on her face. “When I retired from the Opera, I did so with a skillset that could have landed me a job anywhere. Even easier, I could have just become a free agent and become fantastically wealthy. You just seemed like the most amusing option available and it certainly helped that I knew you didn’t have the capability to back up your sexual harassment. Even that was more gentlemanly than most of the nobles that sought to hire me. Seriously, who tries to grope the person you’re hiring to kill a rival? It just doesn’t seem like a smart idea.”
“Fine, you’re doing me a favor,” Gareth replied waving his hand idley. “I’ll avoid groping you too. I’ve seen your knife-work and I would prefer to keep all ten fingers, I’ve grown rather attached to them over the years.”
“See Gareth, I knew that signing on with you was the right choice, you’re MUCH more reasonable than the nobles,” she responded brightly. “The good news for you is that I really don’t care for the nobles that much and I’ve made a habit of putting together fairly significant blackmail on all of the major houses. A girl has to have a hobby after all. I can send out my agents and make sure that the houses know the score. I might not be able to get them to ‘donate’ much money, but I think I can secure you interest free loans for your ‘humanitarian’ enterprise. The best part is that if they publicly commit to the enterprise, you bind them to you politically. They can’t just turn around and raise the masses against the lizard people after they spend all of that money to save them after all. Oh, they’ll want to crow about their empty morality and their achievements to be sure, but I think that is a small price to pay for their forced compliance.”
Gareth finally let himself relax. They were hardly to the finish line. The inquisition and the crusaders still needed to be organized, and the promises of nobles were nothing but smoke until backed by gold on the table, but at least there was actually a plan to move forward. Admittedly, a plan based heavily upon blackmail, deceit, and possibly killing a couple reluctant nobles, but a plan was still a plan.