“It’s not so difficult to hire talented staff. Generally if you create a position which is amenable to work they wish to do, those with motivation and capability will find you. Occasionally they will even be aware of what they are doing and it can be helpful for your long term planning to see how long it takes each candidate to discern that they are now employed.”– Her Eternal Majesty, Empress Mysella, Dread Tyrant and Undying Foundation of the Realm talking to a sunbeam while tidying up her room for impending visitors.
I wasn’t sure when Empress Eternal had started playing me. Probably well before I entered the room. I also don’t know why I thought I any insights that occurred to me would be ones which someone who’d been stuck in their room for centuries with nothing to do but think about their limitations and how to escape them would have missed.
I glanced over to Doxle to see whose side he was on but, from how he was smiling and glancing back and forth between the Empress and I, the answer was obviously ‘his own’.
Which left me with the most powerful person in the Empire, and possibly the world, having expectations for me.
I stared at her.
Not the best response, admittedly, but dead silence had served me well in many other situations before.
Of course this time ‘subvocal growling and growing subtly larger’ wasn’t exactly a viable option.
Also, the Empress had waited two years for Doxle to come back over what sounded like a minor tiff. I was not going to win a contest of ‘who could be silently patient the longest’.
“Do we even need the Riverbond escrow funds?” I asked, turning to Doxle. He hadn’t exactly betrayed me, but I was curious how much he’d deceived me so far.
“Access to them? Yes, most certainly,” he said. “You need a sufficient war chest to draw on for the other houses to take you seriously.”
“I could provide her with one for a most comprehensive war if your thoughts are tending in that direction Doxxy,” the Empress said. She was still slumped over the edge of the chair she was sitting in, but there were more gears turning in her head than the whole of the Clockwork Cosmos.
“Ah, no,” Doxle said, raising a hand to put a stop to that idea. “The purpose of a good war chest is to preclude the need to go to war. As our good Lady Riverbond stands today, the Great Houses will see only weakness to be exploited. Or they’ll destroy her in order to head off any future headaches she might cause them.”
“They would certainly try, but I believe they would encounter certain difficulties in doing so,” the Empress said, giving me a look that said she was all too aware of the sorts of things I’d been up to lately.
That probably wasn’t a good thing.
I hadn’t exactly been behaving as a model citizen of the Empire.
If she intended to hold some of that over my head…
I relaxed. She didn’t need to hold anything over my head. I was at the heart of her power. She could do anything she wanted and there was literally no one who would or even could object to it.
And if she let me go? As far as I could tell, she was in the process of recruiting me to an army of operatives she had working throughout the Empire. To imagine that her influence ended at the door to her room was mistake even I wasn’t foolish enough to make.
“I would prefer Lady Riverbond be able to enjoy the occasional moments and peace and happiness,” Doxle said. “Constantly dodging social pitfalls and magically gifted assassins does get ever so tiresome.”
“So you say, but I’m afraid I’ve quite forgotten,” the Empress said.
“Being believed to be dead does have its advantages,” Doxle said.
“They think you’re dead? Like actually dead? Not just stuck in the ice over there?” I asked.
“Most of them. My subjects are among the most gifted schemers and connivers in the world. Many have stooped as low as it is possible to go and then setup mining operations so as outdo all who came before them. Sadly, that does not always translate into even a modicum of basic intelligence or honest curiosity.”
“I thought it was your great grandfather who eradicated the last strains of honesty from his court,” Doxle said. “Don’t tell me new mutations of it have popped up?”
“He thinks he’s adorable,” the Empress said to me. “I trust you know better already?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Am I meant to actually be listening to him most of the time?”
Doxle looked stricken, which drew a giggle from the Empress.
“You’re right,” she said, addressing the comment to Doxle, “I do like her.”
“I’m guessing that means I got the job?” I said. My real guess was that if I didn’t start making clear and definite statements the two of them would be dancing around from topic to topic and needling each other for the rest of the night and well into tomorrow.
“Job?” the Empress asked, her amusement undiminished.
“That’s what this is, isn’t it? I work for you, and you give me enough of the Riverbond treasury that the other Great House stay reasonably wary of coming after me.”
The Empress laughed and I returned to my state of continuing confusion.
“That’s not at all what we are doing Lady Riverbond,” she said and produced a feather quill from thin air along with a stone disk the size of my palm.
Quills from regular birds don’t tend to leave much a gouge in solid stone. The Empress did not seem bothered by that however as she scrapped a glyph so deeply into the disk that it broke through the other side. In the empty spaces the glyph had made in the stone, gold flowed, gleaming bright as though it was being poured from a forge.
It was the worked of a moment to finish the glyph, another to inspect it, and a third for her to blow on it and toss it to me.
“You need do nothing for me to claim the fortune which is rightfully yours,” the Empress said. “Present that to any Imperial Exchequer and you will be able to draw on the funds accrued from the Riverbond’s first estate. Your wider holdings will remain sealed until you or your duly authorized representative,” she glanced over to Doxle for that, “request that they be released.”
I looked at the stone disk in my hand. The gold was still glowing like it was molten hot but it felt cool to the touch. Also it smelled like me. Which was weird and disconcerting. Especially since I didn’t really have any claim over the Riverbond fortune.
“There is something I should explain.” It was possible that the disk was a test, but that wasn’t why I felt compelled to tell the truth. Surprisingly the compulsion wasn’t mystically driven either. The Empress was certainly capable of enthralling me with her arcane might, but she’d chosen to use the far more powerful magic of ‘basic decency’ which I apparently had next to no resistance to.
“Yes, yes, you’re adopted,” the Empress said. “You might be surprised how often the heir to a Great House arrives at their position through adoption. In some rare cases like yours, the family even has a choice in the matter.”
“I’m…” Wait, was I adopted?
Grammy didn’t know who, or what, I really was. She’d always seen me as nothing more than her grand daughter, who I’d done an excellent job of copying.
An excellent job right from the first day.
As little more than a small child myself.
But Grammy had named me as Katrina Riverbond. “This girl is the only heir the Riverbond’s have left.” But that hadn’t really been me had it? She’d been naming Katrina. It was my sister who was the heir to House Riverbond. Or had been before she’d been killed in a Reaving Storm. That nobody was aware of that last bit didn’t mean I was actually the heir.
A liar couldn’t be heir.
“I assure you, nothing you have done disqualifies you as the rightful heir of your House,” the Empress said, probably reading my mind. Or just familiar enough with the sort of facial expressions I was making that she didn’t need to waste magic on figuring them out.
“But I’m not…”
Human. I wasn’t human. I’d spent my entire lifetime here pretending that wasn’t true. Because people would kill me for it. Because it would leave Grammy all alone. Because I didn’t want it to be true.
“You’re not quite what you appear to be?” the Empress asked, both unconcerned and unimpressed. “My that is a shocking secret for a True Protean to be harboring.”
I was too busy processing the idea that on some level I really wanted to be a part of this world to catch the significance of what the Empress had said. Fortunately Doxle didn’t miss it.
“I was wondering if you were going to notice that.” His smile was just as typically self satisfied as always but there seemed to be some hidden delight behind it.
“You do recall that I was the third best caster of our Age don’t you?” the Empress asked with a raised eyebrow.
“It’s only been three hundred years, are you ready to admit that so soon?” Doxle asked, placing a hand over his heart in mock surprise.
“Shut up,” she said. “If you start gloating now, I’ll have her spread the first volume of your poetry to all corners of the Empire.”
“You wouldn’t,” Doxle said. “You couldn’t. That was all destroyed two hundred years ago. I spent a decade making sure of that.”
“Did you now?” the Empress asked and with a wave of her hand she was holding a messy folio with assorted papers sticking out it.
“Of course I did. They’re so adorable. I couldn’t bear that they be lost to the ravages of time.”
“May I have them back?”
“Absolutely not,” the Empress said and with another wave the folio was gone. Doxle looked pained or possibly mortified by this turn of events but he bravely closed his mouth and withheld any further speech which might degrade his cause further.
I was pretty sure Doxle’s silence proved I had the single wisest mentor in the entire Empire, and, learning from his example, I followed suit and kept my mouth shut too.
“So, as I was saying, as you are the Heir to House Riverbond,” again, no magic was involved, but I very clearly heard the Imperial Proclamation hiding in the Empress’s words this time, “you need do nothing for me to earn what it already rightfully yours. That said, you are not mistaken that I wish to enter into a employment relationship with you.”
“What do you want to employ me to do?” I asked, thinking of the many, many horrible things she could probably talk me into doing without much trouble.
“Nothing,” she said. “I do not wish to employ you at all. I am but a ghost you see and ghosts cannot interfere with the living.” She was absolutely not a ghost. Her projection wasn’t solid, but any one of my sense could have told me that she was as alive as I was. Possibly more so.
“So I’d be employed by no one then?” I asked.
“You will be employed towards whatever ends you choose,” the Empress said. “You will in turn employ me for aid in accomplishing those tasks which you believe will make my Empire a better place for all of those who live within it.”
“So I can just do anything and you’ll help me out?” I asked, knowing that no relationship with someone as power as her could be that simple.
“You can do anything,” the Empress said. “I will help, with what limited means I can, any endeavors which you can convince me will make my people’s lives better.”
“We could probably start by getting rid of the Great Houses,” I said, intending the comment to be a flippant joke to lighten the mood.
“Yes, that seems like an excellent task to begin with,” the Empress said. “When will you be ready to get started on it?”