The Empress sat, fanning herself, on the lower throne by the side of the Emperor in the audience hall. Various nobles sat in attendance in designated chairs within the chamber. Those nobles of higher rank were, naturally, seated closer to the base of the throne. The personal servants of the nobles stood by the walls, some distance behind their respective employers. Glint and I, as the designated personal attendants to the Empress, stood at the foot of the throne, on her side, waiting for her to call on us if necessary. Master sat on the other side of the throne in another chair, one that was grander than those of the other ministers. During a lull in the seemingly endless wave of entreaters, the Emperor turned to his wife.
“Are you alright, my love? You must be bored.”
“On the contrary, my lord. I find these processes fascinating.”
“Is that so…? Well, if you have no complaints, I suppose nothing more needs to be said.”
This occasion was the Empress’ first time attending the court. Traditionally, the attendance of the Empress had been optional, given that the Empress’ sole duty was to be comforter to her husband and mother of his heir. In the past, many of the Empresses had chosen to forgo their privilege of participating in court, choosing instead to focus on their duties as homemakers. Empress Rosalind was the first Empress in over a century to willingly attend sessions in court. I had spent the past week educating her about the prerequisite etiquette and manners which would be expected of her by the older noble houses. If it were possible for me to feel impressed, she would certainly have impressed me. She picked up the skills and lessons I taught her seemingly effortlessly. By the end of a single week, she was carrying herself with perfect grace and poise, indistinguishable from a born and bred noblewoman of the highest peerage.
“The next order of business is the proposed tax change for weapons.”
Master read off a list in his hand, announcing the next topic of discussion. All items on the list had been submitted beforehand by nobles, either of their own volition, or at the behest of their advisors. The Emperor grunted noncomittally and asked the regular question.
“Whose proposal is this?”
Knowing the origin of the proposal was crucial to the political process – it let the nobles know whether the suggestion was put in by someone their house was allied with. This would then inform the stand they took on the issue. It also provided an opportunity for neutral or unaligned nobles to declare alliance or antagonism with another house.
“Your Majesty, I was the one who submitted this bill.”
“You did, Julio? I’m surprised. It’s been a while since you’ve submitted a proposal. Well, if it’s you, I’m sure that you have thought this proposal through thoroughly. Consider it do-”
“Please wait a moment, my lord.”
A woman’s voice echoed through the stunned chamber, interrupting her husband. The representatives of the older noble houses, those that did not support Julio, froze with their mouths open in the position of protest. Empress Rosalind closed the fan that she had been using and set it aside. The Emperor turned to her, a questioning look on his face.
“My love, is something the matter?”
“My lord, while it may be presumptuous for me, a mere woman, to involve myself in these proceedings, I believe that before approving the Chancellor’s proposal, it should be pertinent to first examine its contents. I have full faith in the Chancellor’s abilities, and I have no doubt that the proposal is well-intentioned and free of errors. However, would it not be a disservice to your retainers if a law were to be passed without first giving them the chance to know what it entailed? I apologise if I am forgetting my place.”
While saying her last sentence, she bowed her head in a plea for forgiveness.
The Emperor smiled and took her by the chin, raising her face up and kissing her lightly on her lips. The Empress blushed deeply and retreated quickly. The Emperor let loose a bellowing laugh.
“My love, you show wisdom beyond your sex. Certainly, you are right. Very well! Julio. Read to us the contents of your proposal.”
“…As you desire, your Majesty.”
Master’s tone of voice was noticeably strained, and his hands, closed into fists, were shaking in a manner that was barely perceptible. Around the hall, the nobles who had been frozen started to move again, whispering to each other. In particular, the faction opposed to Master kept glancing in the Empress’ direction with smiles on their faces.
In speaking up at this time, Empress Rosalind had made three things clear. The first was that she had no intention of simply being a decoration, and intended to fully participate in these discussions. The second was that she had the Emperor’s trust, and his support. The third was that she was not an ally of Master. Whether she was opposed or a neutral party was still unclear, but it was evident to all that she was not a part of his faction. Already I could hear the older nobles discussing plans to bring her into their faction. Seemingly oblivious to the implications of what she had done, the Empress sat upright, looking at Master with interest.
“The proposal under consideration is to reduce the tax on weapons to 10% from the current rate of 17%.”
“And the rationale for this?”
Any thoughts that the Empress would be content with merely declaring her non-allegiance to Master were rendered moot by her continued questioning. The old noble houses began excitedly talking among each other, debating whether they could take this question as grounds for assuming that she was opposed to Master. Glaring at her, Master answered her question.
“Two factors have informed this proposal. Firstly, the Blacksmiths’ Guild has formally submitted a petition to lower the tax amount, as many of its members are suffering from a lack of business. Considering that the last census revealed a startling number of blacksmiths living beneath the poverty line, I believed it pertinent to accede to this request. Secondly, the number of bandit attacks and violent robberies in the territory have risen in the last two years, and public order has resultantly worsened. As a result, one intention of the tax reduction is to make it cheaper to purchase weapons for self-defence.”
“And where would we find a means of making up for the loss of revenue from lowering the weapons tax?”
“The provincial armies. I propose to reduce the funding provided to the provincial armies. They will benefit from the lowered weapons tax as well, and given their size, they should be easily able to cope with the reduction in funding.”
Master’s proposal set the room abuzz with muttering. It was to be expected. The provincial armies of each noble house were their military force. All land-owning nobles possessed provincial armies in charge of protecting their territory. In exchange for additional funding and certain tax exemptions from the Crown, nobles were to send 10% of their armies to join the Royal army, to form a standing force that protected the country as a whole. The funding given was disproportionate to the number of troops contributed, with many nobles relying almost exclusively on these funds to maintain their provincial armies. Reducing the funding given to the nobles for their provincial armies was equivalent to reducing their effective military power, therefore reducing their political power as well. Master’s proposal, if allowed to pass, would greatly weaken the nobles, especially those of the more prestigious and storied lineages.
The Emperor leaned back in his chair, clearly amused at the proceedings. Undeterred by the commotion, Empress Rosalind tapped her fan against her chin several times, deep in thought. All eyes turned towards her. Whatever she said next would clearly establish her position – a measured response would indicate that she wished to retain neutrality, while a flat rejection would cement her position as someone hostile to Master. Then, moving quickly, she thrust out the closed fan and pointed it directly at Master.
“Chancellor, your logic is flawed.”