Balthus had never been a big fan of the opera. Really, anywhere with large crowds had never appealed to him. Something about the combination of noise, stupidity, and general lack of sanitation associated with large masses of people just pushed him away. Their only real upside was that it was easy to hide a clandestine meeting amidst the teeming crowds. Hence, here Balthus was at the opera, awaiting the debut of a ‘stunning new soprano’ in the box seat next to Evelyn Rosewood’s, the unofficial spokesperson for the collection of disaffected nobles that plagued Diyall.
The show was set to start in just over a half hour, and already the building was almost full. Armand sat behind Balthus, attempting to look attentive, but the priest could tell that his bodyguard could barely stay awake. The past couple of days had been a crash course in politics for the poor young man, and it had taken its toll. Bags hung under his eyes from long hours of quizzes on the complex and shifting power structure just under the surface of the Church and nobility. Even after all of these years, keeping track of who owed who a favor and whose grandparents had wronged each other was a challenge for Balthus. Trying to cram some facsimile of the same information into three days worth of lessons was a tall order for anyone, let alone a mostly disinterested swordsman.
Still, if Armand would wake up in time for the meeting with Evelyn he could stand to learn a thing or two. The Rosewood matriarch was about as wiley as they came, and she was probably still upset about the entire situation with Matthias ‘attempting to kill her family.’ She would almost certainly resist the lizard person resettlement even with the fairly hefty dossier provided by Gareth. It really just went to show how much of a detriment Matthias had been to the Empire that even in his death he managed to impede Balthus’ plans.
The magelights in the opera house dimmed, interrupting Balthus’ thoughts. He glanced to the Rosewood box and sighed. Evelyn still wasn’t there. It would be just like her to be fashionably late to rub his nose in the fact that he was here to ask her a favor. She knew how much he hated the opera, and with her arriving after the start of the show, they would be forced to wait for an intermission to talk business. Balthus sighed to himself and immediately began plotting her entire family’s destruction. Even if he needed a favor from her now, it didn’t mean that he couldn’t economically ruin her for forcing him to sit through an hour or two of this nonsense.
A woman stepped onto the stage and the spotlight shined down on her. The strings in orchestra swelled and she began with her opening notes. She was wretched. Every note was either as sharp as a knife or as flat as a still lake. It was like listening to a dog barking underwater. Possibly with someone beating the dog. Or maybe someone skinning a cat. Balthus wasn’t entirely sure what sort of animal was being abused, but there was definitely some sort of bloodshed that inspired the off-tune screeching. Balthus wished he were the one underwater, at least that way this affront to art would end quicker. He glanced around the opera hall to try and gauge the response from the rest of the crowd and instead saw clusters of men staring at her with open jawed wonder.
Ah. That explained it. It didn’t matter terribly much how good or bad she was at singing if you were only enjoying her performance with your eyes. Balthus just didn’t understand, there were plenty of pretty women wearing considerably less clothing at the nearby brothels. If you didn’t care about how they sang, you could simply go there and spend less money for more ‘entertainment.’ It just made seemed more efficient.
Perhaps brothels were just too low class for the clientele at the opera, a proposition that Balthus doubted based on his read of the reports on the opera house’s clientele. Clearly they weren’t shy about visiting the brothels, either alone or in groups. Maybe they simply wanted to be seen at the opera as a status symbol, and they just didn’t care about the quality of the product that they were consuming. That would make at least a little sense. Enough advertising could overcome most deficits in measurable merit and this new diva, St. John, certainly had been well advertised.
Finally, Balthus noticed Evelyn enter her box. He waved his hand briefly to her, only for the woman to put a finger to her lips. Of course she would make him sit through more of this travesty. Silently he cursed her and wished that Matthias had been able to finish off a couple more members of her family. With a sigh he tried to redirect his line of thinking to something less negative. Before Matthias started his final reign of terror, Balthus had hardly ever wished physical harm on his enemies. He had always considered violence to be the last resort of the clumsy or incompetent statesman, yet here he was. His homicidal ideation both said something about the stress he was under, and how out of control everything was.
Balthus wasn’t used to being in situations where he didn’t have his next five steps planned out. He prided himself on being able to bamboozle or outmaneuver anyone in the Empire. After all, his wiles were the primary trait that led to his ascension to high priest. Instead, here he sat, at the mercy of some two bit power broker that in ordinary times he would have been leading around by her nose for at least a month before he deigned to meet her in person. Even then, the outcome of that meeting would have been pre-ordained by the dozens of small actions, whispers and insinuations that preceded it. It wasn’t a place he liked to be, uncertain of her motives or what she was capable of and instead hoping he could sway her to his way of thinking.
Probably, hopefully. The words were sour in his mouth. He didn’t like doing anything he wasn’t sure of, and the uncertainty ate at him. It made him uneasy, and Al’Shazan forbid it might lead to him making a mistake. Really, it was the unnatural time limit. Nothing in government happened in just a month. Blazes, most forms couldn’t be filled out and submitted to the correct administrative body in that amount of time. Instead, he was forced to reform the entire inquisition via brute force while simultaneously forcing the nobles into line in a span of just ten days. Luckily, Gareth had really stepped up to the plate with the inquisition. He must really hate the elders. Gareth didn’t usually volunteer for anything but another glass or plate at a banquet. Balthus shrugged, well there had been a luncheon at Matthias’ funeral. Maybe that had been it.
Behind him, Armand shifted fitfully as the opera singer warbled off key. Her companions were sublimely talented, but alas not nearly as fetching so the awful Soprano continued in her lead role. At least the younger man was suffering with him. Really, the singers had to be admired. Each and every one of them dove into the awful performance with gusto, selling the missed verses and butchering of key signatures. If you were just watching the performance, like most of the men and some of the women in the audience, it could be mistaken for actual art. Admittedly, if what was happening on the stage was art, it was some sort of performance art where the tone-deaf spectators were part of the installation. It probably had some sort of made up pseudo deep meaning about music being a subjective and experiential medium. Balthus almost wished that Matthias were still alive. He would have banned the entire thing as sinful and Balthus would have agreed with him.
After an eternity, the curtain dropped and the mage lights came back up signalling the start of the intermission. Balthus leapt to his feet with a spryness that defied his age, darting into the Rosewood box seats before Evelyn could slip out and force him to sit through another hour of torture. Briefly, her house guard tried to stop him, but Armand quickly put a stop to that nonsense with a menacing glance.
“Evelyn, it’s good to see you,” Balthus said, a hint of aggravation coloring his voice. “I grew worried when you didn’t arrive before the show began. I do believe that we had agreed to meet before the curtains raised. I couldn’t help but worry that something awful had happened to you to make you so tardy.”
“Oh Balthus,” she replied, smiling back at him, “my carriage was simply running a little slow. After all, we had to get entirely new help after Matthias declared that private slavery on the part of nobles was illegal. I can’t even whip the man for causing the delay. Truly, without discipline, it’s only a matter of time before the serving classes sink completely into degeneracy.”
“An edict is an edict Evelyn,” Balthus shrugged. “I have a significant amount of power in administering Al’Shazan’s Empire, but when it gives me an order, everyone must follow it. I can try to interpret or change the implementation of the edict, but its words are the most fundamental law of the Empire, and anyone who tries to go against them invites a rather messy fate upon themselves. Matthias, before his untimely demise, simply relayed the orders of the God of All. It is up to each loyal citizen of the Empire to decide what to do with those orders. If you want to disobey them and risk the divine flame, I’m sure it would be a small price to pay to avoid degeneracy.”
“I’m sure the Church puts great importance on the edicts that fill its coffers,” she answered with a noncommittal shrug. “Now, Balthus, you said you had to speak to me on a vital and time sensitive matter, so here I am. I would love to hear what the Church finds so urgent. I would hope that it has something to do with righting the wrongs created by that mad dog that used to run the inquisition. He has created quite a mess, and most of the noble houses aren’t content with just his head.”
Balthus sighed openly. This is why he hated working under time constraints. Old sharks like the Rosewood Matriarch could smell the blood in the water. They might not know what he actually wanted or when he needed it, but as soon as they had an inch of leverage, they would try to wring every drop of value out of it. Evelyn was never a fun or easy person to talk to, a nasty combination of self-righteous, greedy, and base cunning, but under the current circumstances, Balthus would almost prefer to go back under the knife and be castrated again than make a single concession to her gloating smile.
“Evelyn,” Balthus stated, trying his hardest to keep his face and voice unruffled, “the God of All has issued another edict to me, one that I wanted to discuss with you before I made it public. Specifically, it wanted the lizard people of the Dakhmar Marsh removed within thirty to sixty days. We will be transporting them en masse to the refugee camps that have been constructed just off of the Edra floodplains. The goal is to reintegrate them into the region as it is being rebuilt. Unfortunately, Al’Shazan hasn’t given us enough time to put together a more coherent plan on the issue, but I am hopeful that with the nobles’ support that we can make the entire process as smooth as possible.
“The scaleskins?” She dropped the slur that would trigger a deathfeud from any lizard person that heard it with practiced ease. “No. I don’t think that you will get our support. Has Al’Shazan just considered killing all of them instead? It would be one less blight on the Empire if the Church just eliminated the filthy things.”
Balthus coughed uncomfortably, shifting from foot to foot before replying.
“We can’t just kill them Evelyn, the lizard people are valued citizens of the Empire. They may not look like you or I, and they may have a penchant for ritualistic child cannibalism, but they worship Al’Shazan just as devoutly as any human. More importantly, they pay their taxes on time. Actually, to be honest, they’re a lot better about accurately reporting and paying their taxes than any human province I can think of.”
“No,” she said, crossing her arms as she shook her head. “The nobles won’t allow scaled baby eaters anywhere near civilized lands. It has been bad enough letting them exist in their swamp, out of sight but still performing fell rituals, but Edra is near several population centers. If the Church won’t act against them, the nobles will.”
“Be reasonable Evelyn,” Balthus pleaded, trying to placate the grumpy woman. “I’m sure they don’t want to come out of their marsh either, but Al’Shazan issued an edict and there’s little I can do to change that. A divine order is a divine order after all.”
“Come Balthus,” she smiled conspiratorially, “we both know that Al’Shazan cannot act in Diyall. You issue the orders, and you can retract the orders. The magic the priests attribute to your God is just another field of magic like soothsaying, alchemy, or theurgy. The Church just holds a monopoly on the magic and tries to use your exclusivity to crown yourself as our rulers. The entire arrangement is hardly fair, but then again, what government is? You and the Church can have yours, but the nobles need more autonomy if we are going to continue taking part in this farce.”
“Wait,” Balthus tried unsuccessfully to stifle a laugh, “are you an atheist? Do you honestly believe that Al’Shazan doesn’t exist? Despite its frequent interventions over the years, you honestly have the truth laying before you and you simply deny it? I can assure you that Al’Shazan is real. I talked to it last week.”
“Of course you did,” she winked at him. “The Church teaches us that Al’Shazan knows all and that every action it takes is a benevolent exercise of power meant to bring about a more perfect world. I’ve looked around me. I see the suffering on the streets. I see the corruption in your Church. This world is the opposite of perfect. It is populated with banal, petty people seeking power and self-benefit above all else. Your just God wouldn’t have allowed Matthias to exist let alone hold a position of power. You’ve lied to us for long enough. The nobles demand increased independence under Church rule and we won’t be denied.”
“Evelyn, you’re partially right,” Balthus replied, still chuckling. “The Church hasn’t been the most truthful. Al’Shazan does exist and it is powerful beyond imagination. It’s a being older than the world itself and it demands our fear and subservience. The Church has lied to the public by convincing everyone that it gives half a shit about any of us. All it cares is that we follow its orders and pay proper homage to it. It simply could care less if the rest of our time was nothing but a constant parade of rape, torture and murder. Al’Shazan doesn’t bother itself one way or another if our world is perfect. That is a convenient lie that the Church keeps repeating to keep the peasants from revolting over the bleakness of the true situation.”
“But where is the proof,” Evelyn hissed back, a zealous gleam lighting her grey eyes. “We don’t have the perfect world your creed promises us, and your miracles look almost identical to magecraft to me. You’re standing before me speaking of faith, yet your beliefs rely upon a pile of assumptions and circular reasoning. Even if you believe what you’re saying to me, you should consider the possibility that you’ve been lied to as well. Embrace the truth and we can work together to turn the Empire into a playground for those with the power and right to rule.”
“I’m not speaking in metaphors,” Balthus spoke more slowly, beginning to doubt the sanity of his conversation partner. “I do not speak to Al’Shazan through prayer like the rest of the Empire. I was in its realm shooing away prostitutes almost a month ago. It has the power to shape reality to its whim like a potter shapes clay. I have seen it use this power without any chants, formulas, foci or the other trappings of magic. Even if it is simply using the same arcane forces available to all mages, it can use them at such a level that it just doesn’t matter. We can speak like philosophers all night if we want, but I for one will call a being that can erase reality with a snap of its fingers a god if that is what it tells me to do. I just don’t see the difference between an omnipotent mage and a ‘god’ that uses some other source for power.”
“Balthus, I’m disappointed in you,” she shook her head. “These speeches might work on the masses, but I know better. We’ve played tinall together more than once and I know how prone you are to bluffing. If you won’t cooperate with me, I will have no choice but to give a speech tomorrow in Diyall square. We will let the people know that Al’Shazan is a lie used to control them. After Matthias’ reign of terror, they will flock to us. If you won’t rule with us, you leave me no choice but to cast down the Church and have it trampled under the feet of a popular uprising.”
She leaned back, a smug look on her face. Clearly she thought that her threat was a masterstroke that would force him into submission. To her, the argument was over. She believed she had found Balthus’ weakness and she was going to use it to seize power once and for all. Unfortunately for her, she was completely wrong. Al’Shazan didn’t care about much, but publicly denying him was a very good way to inspire a visit from a Seraphim of the host. With a mental shrug, Balthus realized that a sudden, public and divine end for Evelyn Rosewood would be exactly what he needed to cow the nobility into line with the lizard person resettlement. Hardly anyone would dare quibble with him in the wake of such a bloody show of power and dominance on the part of the One True Flame. Plus, she had made him sit through the awful opera. Fair was fair.
“Do what you will Evelyn,” he replied with a shrug. “If you want to stage a power play, let us do this in the open. I’ll be at Diyall Square around 9:00 a.m. tomorrow to respond to your accusations. You can make your claims in front of the entire Capital and I can respond. A fair playing field for both. I will even let you speak first. I do have to ask though, whatever gave you the courage to lash out like this? Usually you’re much more cautious.”
“Easy,” a predatory grin erupted on her face, “I consulted a renowned soothsayer. Madame Ocestra gave me her final reading. Each and every other reading had come true before that. She found my sons their wives and revealed that my snake of a husband was stepping out on me with a tavern wench. Then, I come to her asking for advice on how to navigate the treacherous waters of the late and unlamented Knight-Commander’s madness. The next day, she was found in offices, dead. Her last and most powerful portents reserved for me.”
“When I asked her about Al’Shazan, she made it clear that she couldn’t see it or any of its actions,” Evelyn continued wistfully. “Madame Ocestra could see the fate of every being. If she couldn’t see this ‘God’ of yours, it was because it didn’t exist. When I questioned her on what to do, she told me that an aura of the other world surrounded both you and your man Armand. She said that the moment both of you left the Ember Palace together, it would spell immediate death. That’s why I demanded that this meeting occur here today, to finally and completely secure my victory.”
“I even asked her about delivering a speech in Diyall Square,” Evelyn snorted. “Madame Coestra confirmed that she was unable to see any harm coming from me speaking out against Al’Shazan. If it truly existed, it would strike me down the second I spoke publicly against it. Her dying prediction is all I need to know that your power and time have run out. I’m afraid that your reluctance will cost you old friend. Madame Ocestra’s final prediction clearly spells your end at the hands of an angry mob.”
Behind Balthus, Armand choked slightly. Balthus almost joined him as he tried to keep a straight face. Maybe the seer hadn’t been a complete hack after all. Of course, being unable to see Al’Shazan’s actions would be a major concern if the God or its servants were to inervene directly, a concern that Evelyn had apparently glossed over. It was only unfortunate for Madame Ocestra that her predictions were too unclear to help her. After all, leaving the Ember Palace did lead almost immediately to her death.
“A shame,” he stated evenly. “I will make sure to wear something nice to celebrate such a momentous occasion.”