Balthus tried unsuccessfully to ignore the rain beating down on the canvas of his tent as he drank a cup of tea. The lizard people hadn’t been receptive to the attempts to relocate them so here he was, hundreds of miles from Diyall trying to administer to an army of crusaders as they tried to round up and remove the locals. The second worst part of the entire affair was that the lizard people were right. They hadn’t done anything wrong, and they were being punished. Uprooted and forced to leave their ancestral homelands simply due to a gob of toxic bile. The worst part was the weather. The rainy season in the Capital wasn’t ideal, but out on the Dakhmar Marshes, it was absolute torment. He hadn’t seen the sun in at least three days, and Balhus was pretty sure his clothing was beginning to grow mushrooms.
The officers and officials all had tents, but after the second day of rain in a row it was all a meaningless endeavor. There wasn’t dry ground to pitch a tent on, and every soldier that entered to make a report or try futilely to become warm tromped more mud and sludge in. Even opening the flap to the tent, soaked the interior as the wind drove the pelting rain all over Balthus’ ostensibly dry paperwork and clothing. Luckily, Balthus had a mana fueled space heater that at least made some effort to keep the interior of the tent dry, but the Empire simply couldn’t afford a heater for each and every tent of crusaders. Unsurprisingly, morale was low leading to the crusaders taking their frustration out on the locals which only deepened the distrust of the Imperial troops on the part of the lizard people. In short, the entire scenario was a convoluted mess that could spill over into open violence on at a moments notice.
The only good news over the last couple days was that both the nobles and the elders of the inquisition had finally fallen in line. After the entire debacle with Evelyn Rosewood, no one was inclined to call his bluff. A shame really, he had a list of people that needed to be divinely smited. Balthus paused, and lifted the teacup to his mouth. Or was it smote? Either way, the Empire was a corrupt and inefficient mess, long due for a spring cleaning. He had just never had the time or political energy to do what needed to be done. Maybe once the refugee crisis was handled, if Al’Shazan gave him a moment to rest, he could actually dig into the issue. Of course, he had been ‘next year’ away from shaking the corrupt forces out of the Empire’s government for almost the entirety of his term as High Priest.
The flap to his tent opened, causing Balthus to look up and wince at the spray of moisture entering the warm enclosure. Armand quickly stepped in and closed the flap behind him, looking miserable in his soaking armor. Unluckily for him, he had been stuck wearing the armor at all times since his appointment by the elders of the inquisition last week. The Knight-Commander’s official uniform consisted of plate and chain armor covered in gilding and intricately crafted designs, none of which helped keep the man dry, warm, or comfortable. Frankly, Balthus didn’t really see much of the point. The Knight-Commander never actually served in combat, so they might as well make his uniform something serviceable and comfortable, but alas, the symbolism of having your leader shiver his ass off while covered in wet metal apparently overrode common sense.
Armand immediately strode over to the mana heater and put his hand over it, feeding a small amount of magic into the device in order to double its output. Balthus put down his work with a sigh. The entire tent was about to become miserably hot, but it was the least he could endure given the absolute icewater tsunami that Armand had just come in from. The younger man stood there silently for a couple seconds as the small metal box of the heater changed colors from a dull yellow to an angry cherry red. Heat began pouring off of it, prompting a satisfied sigh from Armand.
“Balthus, I think I hate you,” he finally said, the tight smile on his face belying his words. “Every map we have of the swamp is absolutely worthless given the flooding from the rainy season raising water levels. Half of the supposed ‘dry land’ around here is just another sucking waist deep quagmire. I’ve already had 15 patrols return in the last two days to tell me that they were unable to set up outposts or communication hubs because the land they were supposed to build on simply didn’t exist. Even worse, no one bothered to let us know that the mud snappers can grow to be ten feet long. All we knew coming in was that they were ‘big turtles’ and that nobles loved to eat their eggs. Of course, there are also marshrays and poisonous frogs hiding under every leaf and in every sinkhole. This entire region is basically one giant violent enigma. I just don’t understand how we can be involved in a military campaign and know so little about the area we are for all intents and purposes invading. We already have two confirmed fatalities and five crusaders maimed from running into them, and that doesn’t even take into account the two patrols that are currently missing.”
Armand caught a hand towel tossed to him by Balthus and grimaced slightly as the rag was almost immediately soaked. He turned and looked at his former boss. Balthus was still sitting at the collapsible travel desk, and he looked like a corpse. He had always been old and skinny, but now he looked like he had lost almost twenty pounds his hair and beard were unkempt. His eyes were alert and fastened on Armand despite the heavy bags hanging under them.
“Hopefully the patrols have just gotten turned around,” Armand continued with a sigh, “but I’d give equal odds that some of the lizard people or the local fauna have already finished them off. It seems like any problem not caused by the weather or the local wildlife is being caused by them. The troops are getting ambushed on a daily basis, and they are running into traps far more frequently than that. If we didn’t have access to healing magic from the Church, this entire expedition would already be back on its way to Diyall covered in minor infected wounds.”
“We aren’t the ones in the right Armand,” Balthus replied softly, eyes still fixed on the soldier. “In the long run, we are saving them but the past years have burned through our credibility. As far as they are concerned, we are just continuing down the path of Matthias’ madness and punishing them for no good reason. I can’t come out and say that we are forcing them to abandon their homes to avoid divine vomit contamination even if it is true.”
“They don’t believe us,” Balthus shrugged. “This has been their home since the moment humanity encountered them. Of course they’re going to fight us with everything they have. If they can’t beat us in a stand up battle, they’re going to try to change things to hit and run raids. Try to tire us out until we give up and go home.”
“I know,” Armand grumbled as he let his body fall into a small couch with a clank from his armor. “Everything was just easier as your assistant. Other than looking menacing and occasionally killing some idiot, I just had to stay in shape. No one was counting on me and there was no real responsibility. Now I’m spending a bloody hour a night writing letters to widows and approving pension payments for crusaders who will never be able to work again. I’m trying to be empathetic to the lizard people, but they’re really making it hard.”
“Oh I agree,” Balthus chuckled. “To think that only a month or so ago my most pressing concern was serving as the divine pimp, scouring the brothels of Diyall for the One True God’s entertainment. Everything was under control and if not logical, at least operating within the expected variances of the bizarre that come with serving Al’Shazan. It really was a simpler time.”
“So Balthus,” Armand replied, “can you at least give me an update on how things are going in the rest of the Empire while I wait in vain for the feeling to return to my fingers?”
“Gareth is as cheerful as ever,” Balthus sighed. “He could have nothing but sunny skies, gourmet food, and full coffers and he would find something to complain about. I think I’ve managed to read between the lines on his whining enough to actually figure out what’s going on. The lizard people we have resettled are scared and reluctant, but there haven’t been any uprisings. The locals aren’t exactly thrilled to have them as neighbors, but word of recent events has leaked out and they aren’t willing to aggravate the Church at this time. The nobles are quiet, and Gareth has been able to squeeze some extra tithing out of them, but this operation is going to put a dent in the Edra reconstruction. There really isn’t any way for us to get around that.”
Edra in particular felt like a failure to Balthus. The Church had scrimped and redirected the entirety of its resources to disaster relief after hundreds died and tens of thousands were displaced in the flooding. The entire region was set to be modernized with new farming techniques, planned villages, and a well designed dyke and lock system. It was going to be one of the greatest construction projects shy of the construction of the Ember Palace itself. Both Gareth and him had hoped to use the reconstruction and subsequent planned community as a legacy statement. A tangible accomplishment that would provide benefit to the Empire for years to come. Instead, expediency once again saw them sacrificing for little to no reason.
“I suppose quiet on the home front is all we can hope for,” Armand stated lightly. “I am sorry about Edra, I know how much it meant to you and Gareth, but for what it’s worth, despite the headache, you are doing the right thing here. I’m fairly sure the census numbers to the Empire from the lizard person chiefdoms were off by at least twenty five percent, but there are between fifteen and twenty thousand souls that you are saving by doing things this way. It might have been easier and cheaper to just wipe them out, but it would have been wrong.”
“I have done a lot of things that have been wrong Armand,” Balthus replied tiredly. “I’ve compromised my morals time and time again for the greater good. The Church has laid in a nest of vipers for almost five hundred years, allowing corruption and petty greed to worm into its very core. Of course, that’s if you don’t consider the greatest moral abrogation.”
Balthus stopped talking for a second and pondered. He had never studied at Lyles Hall, but in his scant spare time he had read a good selection of their books that had made it past the inquisition’s censors, and a few that had not. Morality was a tricky thing, largely because the Church intentionally muddied things by ascribing absolute benevolence and purity to Al’Shazan. That said, it had always been a close study of his. He did pride himself on being a moral man in an immoral world, and his goal had always been to leave the Empire a little more structured and beneficial to the common man than when he found it.
“Armand, I have a silly question,” he stated, continuing only when the younger man motioned for him to keep speaking. “Morality requires us to stand up for injustices, right? If we see a magistrate abusing his position to harm the Empire for his own personal gain, we are supposed to stop him. We are supposed to report him to a superior, or if his superior was also corrupt, we are supposed to use force to stop both of them. I believe that was part of a sermon from Pontheel the Wise.”
“That makes sense to me,” Armand replied slowly, his brow furrowing. “I don’t really think too much about it, but right is right and wrong is wrong no matter how much money you have or what the political cost to stop the wrong. Not everyone has the power to stop every act of malice or corruption, but that doesn’t make them right.”
“Now, what happens if the most powerful person you can think of acts immorally?” Balthus asked. “I don’t really put a whole lot of weight in the words my predecessors, but I feel like old Pontheel was onto something there.”
“What,” Armand answered, “like you? I suppose if you went mad with power I’d try to reach out to Gareth to see about stopping you or limiting your power. I have no idea how we’d manage that though, you’d probably have us both killed before we could even wrap our heads around it. Please don’t go mad with power by the way.”
“No, more powerful than me,” Balthus kept his voice as calm as possible, but he noticed a slight tremor in his hands as he began to venture into forbidden ground.
“Who in the Empire is more powerful than,” Armand stopped speaking, only for his eyes to widen as he realized what Balthus was saying. “No, no, no. That is not a question we can ask. You know where this goes. Al’Shazan is almost certainly immoral by any objective measure, but standing up to it or opposing it is not an option. Whatever satisfaction you would get from being right would easily be outweighed by the suffering caused by the heavenly host as it scourged the Empire. I thought I had already asked you to not go mad with power.”
“I’m tired Armand,” Balthus ran a shaking hand through is thin grey hair. “I’ve worked so long and so hard to try to make the world a better place, but at every turn Al’Shazan twists my efforts or makes a demand that causes it to all come to naught. I’ve killed, I’ve cheated, I’ve stole, I’ve blackmailed people, and it was all because I convinced myself that it was for the greater good, but I can’t silence this voice in the back of my mind. That voice keeps telling me that everything I’m doing is futile. Every life I save, Al’Shazan makes me take two more. Every reform that helps a tradesperson guild or frees a serf, Al’Shazan finds a way to tithe them more. As long as Al’Shazan is there, hanging above all of us, there isn’t an end in sight Armand.”
“Balthus,” Armand interjected, “you sound like a soldier that’s given up. Do you know what happens to those soldiers? They don’t make it through their next battle. They just stop caring and they fight sluggishly. Blazes, I’ve seen a few of them actively welcome a barbarian’s blade. You need to stop talking like this. The Empire can’t afford to lose you right now. More importantly, I just got this job after you twisted until breaking the arms of a bunch of powerful and important men. I would prefer to not have my sponsor go stark raving mad and get both of us killed before I’ve even worked the kinks out of his blasted armor they’re making me wear.
“Oh, don’t worry about it too much,” Balthus replied, a weak smile on his face. “I was just thinking out loud. You shouldn’t read too much into the words of an old man. I’m sure that if we just focus on the upcoming operation it will all work out somehow. Gareth will raise the coin from somewhere and we will keep the lizard people and the superstitious peasants in Edra from each other’s throats long enough to get everything settled. This is far from the first crisis that the Church has weathered, and it will be far from the last.”
Balthus returned to his writing, ignoring Armand’s gaze upon him. Perhaps he had let slip too much. The events of the last month would be enough to weigh on anyone, and Balthus had tried to bear most of their weight on his own. Still, he liked Armand. The young man was as much his son as anyone could be given the state of things between his thighs.
It wasn’t right to worry him so.