And if I do end up using this, the SPOILERS ARE MASSIVE.
Short Story, Willa Newscomb, Lady Green, shortly after book six.
“You did what?”
No, no, no. Wrong tone. Very wrong tone. Willa wasn’t at that place, where she could say what needed to be said exactly as it needed to be said. Not yet.
But, at times, it was difficult to cling on to her patience.
And, sometimes, she got a little careless. The Emperor wasn’t the most perceptive of people. Sometimes, she thought he really wasn’t listening to her, that he was agreeing with her while his mind was off walking somewhere else. She’d gotten a lot of good things accomplished that way.
But he’d caught her tone that time, and he glowered at her. It was inconvenient that his acuity came and went so unpredictably.
She curtseyed. “My apologies, Your Majesty.” Protocol dictated that she should, during discussions with the Emperor, refer to him as His Majesty only the first time she addressed him, and ‘sir’ every time after, but Gifford liked being reminded he was the Emperor on a constant basis. “I fear I don’t understand.”
“It’s obvious,” he snapped. “By merging Westsea with Centrefield and Kent, Westsea has only one seat on the Council instead of three, only one vote instead of three. It curtails her political power.”
While giving her the largest estate in the world. Apart from the Crown. And the greatest chunk of land with the longest history of casting and the greatest growth of it. Apart from nothing. Separate parts were more difficult to manage than a single unit, and running them would have kept Westsea too busy to interfere much in what anyone else was doing.
It had been difficult who to support, Westsea or Kent, watching their archaic clash. Neither had any talent for casting, which would hamper their ability to access the magic of the area directly. Westsea had been defiant but had, at the time, enjoyed only the weakest hold over her people. Kent had been compliant but his attack on Westsea had demonstrated political aspirations and a willingness to employ drastic methods in the pursuit of them. That sort of ambition had a tendency to grow, to never be satisfied. Westsea stayed at home to tend to the day-to-day matters of running a large estate, admirable but stupid. Kent had lived in the Imperial Council when he wasn’t attacking his neighbours, which had garnered for him some powerful allies.
If only the Dowager Duchess’ plan hadn’t failed. Having an ignorant and spineless Source as the Westsea titleholder would have been beautiful. He would have made a mess of the whole thing and no one in the Council, not even Gifford’s staunchest critics, would have denied the necessity of the Crown taking the estate back. That very wealthy estate with its history of casting power would have been theirs.
No one had given any thought to Karish’s Shield. She had turned out to be rather wayward and stubborn. From everything Willa had heard, it was the Source who ruled the Pair. But not that Pair. More evidence of Karish’s weakness.
Though, if that were truly the case, it was perhaps for the best that Karish hadn’t recovered the title. His Shield might have ruled Westsea through him. The Triple S weren’t supposed to get involved with politics, but the Triple S weren’t supposed to do a lot of things, and they did.
Damn the Triple S. The arrogance. Aloof from everyone else, refusing to submit to the laws everyone else had to follow. Just because they performed a particular task. What did that matter? So did healers. So did the members of the fire brigade. So did most others. But they had to face the consequences of their actions. Pairs, on the other hand, when they had violated the law, were either ignored or sent to another city, a whole new group of people to victimize. It was reprehensible.
Especially given that the Triple S was entirely reliant on Crown funds. Money collected from the people by the Crown, and then paid out by the Crown, should be overseen by the Crown. It was only logical and right. That the Triple S didn’t recognize this, that they failed to comply with the need for transparency, it was wrong on all levels. They needed to be put back into place.
Gifford would have let it all slide. He had his crown and his luxuries and he was surrounded by people who pretended to respect him. He would have happily lived and died that way. He had no understanding of the responsibilities of a monarch, of the requirements to maintain the order the people deserved.
He had never understood that, a significant flaw. She could see this lack in him, had seen it years before she had helped his mother die. She could see no one was prepared to address this lack. His own mother had been aware of this weakness, Willa was sure of it, but instead of addressing the failing when it would have been most beneficial, the Empress had gone looking for an heir.
It was only accidental good fortune that the child had been so thoroughly unsuitable. No one would be prepared to put such a foreign and uncivilized person on the throne, and she’d been shipped off to the Triple S, which was even better. They would indoctrinate her. They would teach her she was better than any mere regular, no matter what the rank.
So perhaps the Triple S had its uses after all.
For years, she had watched, and she had learned Gifford’s preferences. In everything. When it came to companions, Gifford was, of course, more receptive to those he found unthreatening, but not so low in rank that he considered them worthless. Engaging, but not so charismatic they could sway attention from him. Not challenging, but not boring. Simply down the middle in every aspect.
Willa could work with that. And she had. For years.
Most of the time, Gifford was compliant. It took only the right suggestions presented in the right way. Pointing out who might be undermining him and what might be best done to address that. She reminded him of the power the monarchy had once had, before much of it had been siphoned from weaker monarchs by the merchants, the Triple S, and the entirety of the High Landed class. She could show him the historical texts that described the monarchy at its most powerful, and the stability that had been the result.
There were also texts claiming such times had been rife with chaos and violence, but Gifford didn’t need to see those. They had been written by a very small but unfortunately vocal minority. Really, such texts should be destroyed, and she would do so, but while Gifford couldn’t be bothered to read much himself, especially historical texts, he did feel pride in the size of his library, believing it an indication of his intelligence and sophistication. She couldn’t destroy the subversive treatises.
Not yet, anyway.
Things were largely going to plan. She helped him make decisions without allowing it to appear as though this was what she was doing. She flattered him less blatantly than the other courtiers. She never, ever asked favours of him, which she would subtly remind him of from time to time. She quietly, unobtrusively assumed more and more duties. This made her appear to everyone else as the only route to the Emperor’s ear. It gave her access to information concerning almost everyone in Erstwhile. And it caused the Emperor to grow so dependent on her that she doubted he had the information to make any decision of any significance at all.
Except that once in a while, he would strike out and just make a declaration with no input from her. Not only did this inevitably make a mess of things, but it reminded her that she wasn’t yet where she needed to be, even after all of these years.
So she said, “Of course, Your Majesty. I didn’t understand your reasoning. It is sound.” She could probably find a way to fix it. She usually did, given a little time.
“Of course, it is.” He helped himself to a goblet of wine.
She never served him wine. Or anything else he consumed. This was very important.
“Especially as Illia is dead.”
News of the Dowager Duchess’ death had been so unexpected. And that her death was so gruesome, it had caused Willa some discomfort.
“She had become inconvenient,” Gifford continued. “Imagine the problems she would have caused had she actually become Premier of the Council. She would have been a nightmare to work with. I never should have allowed myself to become entangled with her.”
No, he shouldn’t have. That had taken place before Willa had begun to build her influence over him. He had been married, then, and his wife had been fiercely jealous of any attention he had shown anyone else. For all the good that had done her.
At first, the Dowager had appeared potentially useful. She had ruled Westsea through her husband, and then through her first son. Once the latter had died, she had tired of possessing authority only by manipulating others. She’d pressed for the title herself, and she had known the code necessary for inheriting the estate. She hadn’t been named heir by either of the dukes, but that didn’t provide a thorough barrier to ascension, especially when no other heir had been named. If she had pushed harder – and if she had had more friends – she might have been able to achieve a minor coup.
In a sole decision that had carried both assets and liabilities, Gifford had promised the Dowager the position of Premier of the Council, to be delivered upon her once she managed to place the title on her half-wit son. It would have been a post of enormous power, but at least she wouldn’t have had direct control over one of the most powerful estates in the world.
But yes, it had been fortunate that she’d been killed. She would have been disruptive, and not at all the kind of Premier Willa needed. She would have insisted on taking the Council in the wrong direction.
“It makes the other titleholders suspicious of her,” said Gifford, stepping back into the subject of Westsea. “All they’re thinking about is that she started with Centrefield and over only a few years achieved two more estates. What if she goes after their estates, as well? They’re already forgetting that it was Kent who attacked her, not the reverse. They won’t trust her, and she’ll be powerless.”
No, it wasn’t a terrible idea. Not completely. But that the results of his decision were so unpredictable was not the only problem. Much more significant was that he hadn’t sought her advice first. She couldn’t allow that to become a habit. “Has there been any negative reaction from the other titleholders?”
He shrugged. “I don’t think it matters, does it? If they don’t like it, they can be replaced.”
She still hadn’t been able to impress upon him that he couldn’t kill just anyone. It took careful planning. If the other titleholders felt the punishments were too random, they would become resentful and terrified, and they could come to feel that they had no choice but to revolt. There were many of them, and they could buy people, too.
Sometimes it was so tiring, riding the Emperor so closely every moment of every day, and much of the nights.
The man rarely slept more than four hours a night. That was inconvenient, too. She just couldn’t maintain the same schedule. She had tried. She couldn’t think when she didn’t have enough sleep, and she couldn’t afford to be careless.
There would be a time, though, when such close supervision wouldn’t be necessary.
“Ah. I have something for you.” The Emperor opened a drawer in the huge desk that was pretty much wasted on him. He pulled out a small box of pretty red nut wood, handing it over with a grin of pride.
He was becoming childlike at times, a useful but annoying side effect.
Within the box was a heavy gold necklace, the pendant a circle almost the size of her hand, encrusted with emeralds of a variety of sizes. It had no doubt cost a pile of coins. It was heavy and hideous and not at all of the current fashion. It would be embarrassing to wear it.
She would, of course. She smiled. “It’s lovely.” She slipped the chain over her head. Yes, heavy. The chain would bite into the back of her neck. “Truly, Your Majesty, you are too good to me.”
“You are worthy. You are of great importance to me.”
There was a knock on the door. At Gifford’s command, a stocky middle-aged woman, one of the Emperor’s many solicitors, entered and bowed. “Your Majesty.” She was gasping. Had she run from somewhere? “Lady Dasan has been found. She was in Micostein. She was hiding with family.”
“I trust the family was brought as well,” said Gifford.
“Of course, Your Majesty. As you ordered.”
“When will she be in Erstwhile?”
“I was told it would be within two days.”
“And you’re certain that all of her letters have been collected?”
“I believe so, Your Majesty.”
They had been. Willa would know. She had written all of them. Convincing Gifford Dasan had been committing treason had been ridiculously easy. Dasan was sarcastic, a characteristic Gifford despised. She held small coffee parties that people weren’t supposed to know about and were rumoured to swirl with political intrigue. And she had been trying to organize titleholders to create a document meant to curtail the monarch’s power even further.
“Excellent. Have the Justice Committee prepare for her trial.”
The solicitor, her face void of expression, bowed and left. Willa didn’t need to see a scowl to know the solicitor disapproved of their new customs. She wasn’t stupid. As far as Willa knew, the solicitor had never expressed a single word of censure to anyone, and she performed the demands of her position thoroughly and openly.
But Willa could see it, the reproach was in her eyes.
Solicitors wrote the laws. They could subtly change the wording to language that, at first glance, appeared identical in meaning to the original, only to be revealed in practice to be completely different.
Willa couldn’t address that issue right then. One couldn’t reconstruct the government all at once. But the time would come. Proving to the world that titleholders would be harshly punished for treason would cause the merchants to behave more prudently. Those that didn’t, well, they would be routed out, too. And so on down the classes, until everyone knew their place.
Many would be furious at first, but in time they would see the benefit of the stability Willa was creating. Everything would be so much better organized. The Crown would control where the essentials were sent and placed, food and supplies, for more efficiently than the hopelessly entangled system created by thousands of individuals, all of them pulling in different directions. Land would be entrusted to those who had proven best able to use it properly. Healers wouldn’t be able to all gather in large cities while neglecting the smaller settlements.
Everyone would be properly taken care of, and when they realized that, they would be grateful and happy.
It would take a while, but they would see.