“Armand, be reasonable,” Balthus cajoled as he walked through the gardens with his bodyguard, trying his hardest to enjoy the greenery despite a clenched jaw and locked up neck. In the day and a half since Al’Shazan had given him the edict regarding the lizard people, he hadn’t been able to sleep properly even once. Instead, he had only been subjected to bad news. The noble houses refused to talk to him and the elders of the inquisition were refusing to even formally convene a conclave to begin the process of replacing Matthias as Knight-Commander.
“Ser,” Armand replied, his voice neutral as he kept pace with the older priest. “Although I did serve with the crusaders for a period, I hardly think that I’m a good fit for the head of the order. Hardly anyone remaining in the order knows who I am. I did receive a medal for my service at the battle of Tal-Masr, but that was long ago. There are likely hundreds more deserving than me in the service right now.”
“Matthias had everyone more qualified killed,” Balthus snorted. “All that’s left are his handpicked goons and some scared and self-serving old men. After Knight-Commander Samuels destroyed the inquisition’s reputation and gutted its ranks, it’s going to need a complete rework, and we don’t have the time for a slow rebuild. We need action now or there will be an ocean’s worth of blood on all of our hands. Everyone being recommended by an elder at the moment is a weak willed sycophant. None of them can make the decision to wipe their own asses without looking to their sponsors. The God has given us an incredibly short deadline, and I simply don’t have the time to waste on backroom deals and politics.”
“Democracy,” he spat out. “If we let the process play out it will take months, and the person elected will owe a thousand and one favors. If we’re going to elect a puppet, we might as well make it you Armand. You’ll have one string, held by me, and I will hold it loosely. My interest is just that the inquisition and the crusaders are well run. Hopefully you wouldn’t object to that.”
“Ser, to be honest I don’t particularly want the job,” Armand’s was a bit hesitant, disagreements with Balthus not coming naturally to him after years of serving the priest. “It’s not like being minister of the treasury or high priest, the elections leave you beholden to special interests and even if I have your help I’m going to be beset by politicians trying to influence me. I’m more of a man of action. I find problems that I can’t stab annoying”
“Have you considered stabbing the politicians?” Balthus retorted. “It seems like a straightforward solution.”
“Ser, be serious,” Armand crossed his arms and glared at Balthus. “The power brokers and special interests intertwined with the inquisition are simply too entrenched for me to be able to remove them with some harsh words and political clout.
“What led you to think I wasn’t being serious?” Balthus asked incredulously, “take a page from Matthias’ book and ask them if they’re especially interested in keeping their heads on their shoulders. Frankly, I have always found it ironic that the inquisition, our bulwark against corruption in the Church, is by far the most corrupt public institution in the Empire. Every merchant with a gold to their name bribes them, they just call the bribes ‘donations’ or ‘campaign contributions.’ I’m not sure what the inquisition of the future should look like, but that practice definitely needs to end”
Balthus stopped and put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. He had always liked Armand. A good lad, a little too likely to follow Balthus’ lead without question, but other than that he had a good heart and good instincts. Holding the line at Tal-Masr while his superiors fled was just the first and most visible signifier of the man’s character. His reluctance to take the position of Knight-Commander just solidified Balthus’ resolve. Only politicians or lunatics like Matthias actually wanted power, anyone with a lick of sense wanted a comfortable, well-defined job and money. There were a couple of souls in the Church that sought power for the sake of benefiting others, and really they were the only ones that could be trusted. Half of the reason Balthus pushed Armand was because the younger man was an idealist.
Really, Armand was perfect. He was Gareth if the portly accountant had ever bothered to go for a jog. Even better, he didn’t speak just to hear himself talk. Gareth was a good man, an ally, and what passed for a close friend given Balthus’ position, but blazes could the man ramble about nothing for hours on end. Unfortunately, the corruption that had seeped into the Church wouldn’t take kindly to Armand’s appointment. Armand wouldn’t take their money, and if Armand didn’t take their money they wouldn’t have a hold over him. The situation with Matthias had convinced Balthus that ignoring the elements of the Church that were overly concerned with worldly wealth and power was a mistake. He had originally thought that they would pursue their own interests but side with the Empire when threatened existentially, but unfortunately he had been overly optimistic. Even now, with everyone’s life at risk, they were scrambling about and trying to turn the crisis to their advantage.
He didn’t really have a problem with administrators or priests benefitting from their position so long as they got their jobs done, but rather than band together to impede Matthias or undermine his reign, they simply got out of his way. Together the elders of the inquisition could have easily called for Matthias to be deposed or at a minimum they could have collaborated with Balthus and Gareth to unseat the man. Although not a common outcome, they did have the power to jointly call for a vote of no confidence. Instead, they conspired and tried to frame each other, too concerned with their own petty empires to actually stop the damage Matthias was inflicting on the Church.
At this point, Balthus was sick of the situation. The elders of the inquisition had protected their independence from the priesthood to the point of disaster. Now, the inquisition needed to present a unified front as it approached the Dakhmar crisis and move past the damage that inflicted by Matthias on the Empire. The inquisition might have been independent in the past, but their selfish and wasteful actions had lost them that right. Now it was just a matter of figuring out how to fix the mess that they created. With any luck, Armand would be the solution.
“Matthias was a piece of work,” Armand replied, jolting Balthus out of his reverie. “I’m not really sure I have it in me to follow in his footsteps where brutality is concerned. I mean, I don’t really have any problem punishing the corrupt or expanding the borders of the Empire, that seems pretty straightforward. It’s the politics that worry me. I know that most of our government takes kickbacks or minor bribes in the course of their day to day duties. I just don’t know how to find which corrupt officials do more good than harm. If I tried to get rid of everyone who ever took a little extra money to expedite a permit request, we wouldn’t have a government left. Some distinctions are easy to make, an official taking money to expedite one request over another isn’t that big of a concern. That said, when it comes to the weightier questions such as officials taking bribes to distribute contracts or magistrates turning a blind eye to the children of a certain family rampaging about, I can’t say I feel confident. I know that I would be expected to act decisively, but I just don’t know how I’ll be able to differentiate between the minor rulebreakers and the parasites that are actually harming the Empire.”
“My friend,” Balthus put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder, “the fact that you are asking these questions makes you a better candidate than any of the ones already proposed. Invariably the candidates are either corrupt enough that they only want to insinuate themselves into the ranks of those taking bribes, so inept that they don’t realize what is going on, or they are mad dogs like Matthias and simply don’t care about the consequences. If you take the job, Gareth and I will be there to help. Gareth has his own way of knowing things and is an invaluable resource for determining who is corrupt enough to buy but honest enough to stay bought. I can help with strategic planning and political support. I’m not pretending that things will be perfect, Al’Shazan dumped us in a tough spot here, but you are the person in the best spot to salvage a bad situation.”
“Ser, I really don’t want to do it,” Armand’s face was written with distress as he tried to politely decline once again. “I haven’t had any training in politics or investigation. You need someone that can jump right in, and that isn’t me. I would need to have my hand held through this entire crisis.”
“And that’s what makes you ideal for the job,” Balthus replied. “Do you think Gareth and I want to do the things we do? Of course not, the Empire runs us ragged and barely turns enough of a profit for us to keep the entire thing going. Other than a good meal or glass of port here or there, what luxuries have we even had a chance to indulge in? No, this entire edifice is constantly on the brink of ruin and only through diligence and self-sacrifice can we avoid slipping over the edge. It isn’t a fun job. If you’re doing it right, everyone outside of the Church will resent you for it. Blazes, half of those inside the Church will resent you too, but the question isn’t whether you want to do it. The question is whether you can do what needs to be done, and does the Church need you. Armand, I am telling you that of the available candidates you are the only one who can lead the inquisition without it lapsing into ineffectual corruption. The Church needs you now more than it has needed anyone. You would be crazy to want to take on this burden, but it is your calling. If you turn it down today, you will go to bed every night knowing that your hands are covered in as much blood as any mass murderer in our history.”
“You’re really good at this guilt thing aren’t you?” Armand asked, smiling weakly.
“I’m a priest,” Balthus responded evenly. “Finding new and inventive ways to make people feel guilty is firmly at the core of my job description.”
“I don’t really have a choice do I?” Armand asked, resignation creeping into his voice. “You’re just going to keep hounding me until I agree to take on the role.”
“There’s always a choice Armand,” Balthus walked over to a rythus vine, admiring its pale blue flowers as they snaked up an ornamental trellis. “It’s just that your choice on this matter is between making a best effort to save the Empire or giving in to watching our southern border be consumed by flesh eating monstrosities. If you are content going to bed each night with the smell of their burning flesh stinging your nose and the chorus of their screams clawing at your ears, be my guest. It is your right to live your life as an unfeeling monster responsible for one of the greatest instances of butchery in the Empire’s history. Of course, that implies we are able to stop the abominations in time and that they don’t wipe out all life. Al’Shazan wasn’t clear on that, but it certainly seemed to be a possibility.”
“Fine,” Armand let his shoulders slump slightly, defeated. “What do I need to do? I just want to be clear, if this all doesn’t work out it’s on your head. I’ve never commanded a unit larger than 200 people. I wouldn’t have the first idea what to do with the entirety of the inquisition and the crusaders at my command.”
Balthus nodded idley, mind already spinning ahead to his next step. As confident as he had acted to sell the situation to Armand, he had little faith that the elders of the inquisition would be as reasonable as the young man. Just like during Matthias’ election, they would kick and scream about how the inquisition was an independent institution with time honored traditions and rules regarding non-interference with the rest of the Church. Somehow, those traditions led to them electing emotionally unstable or politically weak simpletons more often than not. He’d have to talk to Gareth to see if they had any leverage on the elders. He could give speeches laying out the necessity of everyone coming together to face the oncoming crisis until he was blue in the face, but they would likely just turn to infighting once again.
He was tempted to just let Gareth and Armand loose on them. The elders might have served a purpose in the past, ostensibly their wisdom was supposed to prevent a charismatic tyrant from taking over the inquisition. Matthias had just proved how useless they were. The man hadn’t even actually served on the front, he simply looked the part and made contradictory promises to everyone.
Somehow, though Balthus could never make sense of it, despite various elders knowing that he was promising the same position to multiple people, they all thought that he would only honor his promises to him. Even publicly making campaign promises to arrest and depose elders from a certain faction didn’t stop that faction from voting for him just to stymie their opponents.
Finally, a unanimous vote could have removed Matthias from power at any point in time. Instead, they delighted in manufacturing farcical ‘sins’ and directing him at their rivals. Whatever role the elders had played historically, the current breed had wasted entirely. They were a relic, and one that Balthus would throw into the compost heap of history if given half a chance. Of course, at least a couple of them knew of his opinions, and it just spurred them to resist any reform efforts he initiated all that much harder. The entire conclave of elders was a snake’s nest of backbiting and idiocy.
Armand walked away, leaving Balthus alone in the gardens. He did value the stillness here. Outside it was some petty power or another trying to struggle for an advantage with the ever-present threat of Al-Shazan dropping an impossible edict or request in his lap. Here, he could actually plan without interference. A rose bush would stay planted and could be pruned to his specifications until it perfectly mirrored a nearby elm tree. When he ordered the soil composition changed to improve the coloration of the rythus vines, it would be done without whispers, backstabbing or complaint. The garden had been initially planted only a year after Balthus’ ascension, and he had been responsible for guiding it since then. Now, it was a beautiful symphony of colors and graceful shapes. A perfect metaphor for what he could have turned the Empire into if he were left alone. He shook his head pondering the troubles ahead and the changes that would need to come. Just a little more pruning to clear out the withered branches before they could infect the entire bush. Nothing more and nothing less.