The Games We Play

My eyes scanned over the proposal laid out before me, my mind working quickly to identify the benefits and detriments of the proposed rebudgeting. This particular proposal moved to allocate a larger amount of funding to the research and development of new agricultural techniques. A proposal that was well-intentioned, certainly, but the problem lay with where the money would come from. The budget was stretched rather thinly already, and it was difficult to cut parts of it without serious consideration. The proposal suggested taking the funds from the famine relief funds, claiming that the advancements in agricultural technology would lead to greater crop yields which would in turn reduce the need for famine relief. Not a bad idea, in truth, but the obvious detriment of that was that it would make it would cause great suffering to farmers who were presently facing the threat of starvation due to famine. If this proposal had come in a time of abundance, I would certainly have signed off on it without hesitation, but a drought in the South of the country had caused the farmers in that part of the Empire to suffer that year, so it was the wrong time to implement the idea.

That said, while stamping it with the seal of veto, I took note of the proposer’s name and added it to my mental list of competent officials. This was one of the few proposals which had value – a vast majority of the other proposals were thinly-veiled attempts to further line the proposer’s pockets. In reading document after document of such a nature, the corruption in the Empire very clearly revealed itself to me.

It left a bad taste in my mouth.

That the Empire was plagued by corruption was a fact I had known, even as a humble barmaid, but I had never had the opportunity to see the depth of that corruption – and I was finding it deep indeed. I turned my head and looked at the remaining pile of documents, a pile which seemed to increase every time I looked at it. I sighed, and Advent immediately stepped forward, filling my cup with more tea.

“You know, it seems like a waste that the greatest mind in the country is serving as my maid. Maybe I should have you take on more of an advisory role, instead.”

“That’s not true. I might be a genius when it comes to magic, but I know nothing about politics or policy. I can serve you much more effectively in the capacity of a maid.”

“Aren’t you bored, though?”

“You seem to underestimate the patience of a maid.”

“…Fair enough.”

“Besides, don’t you already have an advisor?”

“You mean Glint.”

“…Yes, I mean Glint.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her shift subtly when I brought Glint into the conversation. I grinned and set down my pen, then turned my torso to look at her, resting my cheek on my hand.

“So? How’s it going? With Glint, I mean.”

A tinge of red entered Advent’s usually stoic expression. I held back a gleeful laugh and presented her an expression carefully constructed to appear mildly curious. I knew about their budding romance, of course. They made every attempt to hide it, but there was a barely perceptible shift in the way they had been talking to each other in the last few months. It was only my extraordinary attention to detail and my knowledge of Glint’s personality and speech patterns that clued me in on it. Most likely, nobody else would be able to see those indicators.

No, Ely would have been able to tell.

I felt my chest tighten somewhat, as it did whenever my thoughts turned to the love of my life. Was she safe? What was she doing? Where was she? If I called, would she answer? Would she recognise me, changed as I was? Not physically, of course. I looked exactly the same as I had when she had last seen me. Exactly the same as when she had first met me, actually. No, my appearance was exactly the same – but I was no longer the same. Nobody can be touched by the taint of aristocracy and remain unchanged. The young, carefree barmaid who kept her parents’ tavern going was a distant memory, another person. I had not been that barmaid for a very long time.

“Still, I was surprised when Julio lent his authority to you. What’s he trying to do?”

Advent made a blunt attempt to change the topic, moving the conversation away from Glint and from love. Tearing away from my doubts, I gratefully acknowleddged the attempt and jokingly replied.

“Clearly, he’s hoping that I’ll work myself to death.”

I gestured dramatically to the tall mountain of documents. In fact, matters of budgeting and the country’s internal policy were the domain of the Prime Minister – Julio. It was irregular indeed for the Emperor to handle such matters – much less the Empress, who was meant to be merely a pretty accessory to the Emperor. Shortly after my husband had collapsed, Julio had devoted all his time to staying by the Emperor’s sickbed and looking after him. As a result, his workload began piling up, leaving numerous issues unresolved. When I confronted him about it, he curtly passed me the seal of the Prime Minister – unfortunately, not his personal seal but his seal of office – and politely told me that if it bothered me so much, I could handle the paperwork myself.

I took his offer, of course, because this was too good an opportunity to pass up – seeing for myself the kinds of proposals that the Prime Minister dealt with let me attain a better idea of the overall state of the Empire, and also gave me insight over the amount of influence and power that Julio held by virtue of his position. Of course, Julio knew how useful this would be to me. So why did he give me this opportunity? Thinking about it, the reason was obvious. I stood up, moved over to the bookshelf on the right side of my office, then selected one thick tome that contained the laws relating to succession. I pulled it out and opened it on the desk, gesturing at Advent to come over as I turned to one specific page and summarised it.

“The Privilege of the Final Light. The Emperor is the subject of a powerful enchantment that spans generations. When an Emperor dies, the enchantment will trigger, causing a bright light to emerge from the chest of the late Emperor. The light will fly to and circle around the individual that the Emperor intends to name as successor, and it will circle them for three days before disappearing. Under this law, this light takes precedence over all other considerations, and none may question the appointment of the new Emperor.”

In other words, when the Emperor died, whoever he selected would be the next Emperor, avoiding the danger of violent succession wars. No doubt, Julio’s intent in inundating me with work was so that I would have no time to speak to the Emperor, allowing him to ingratiate himself to my husband and poison the Emperor’s thoughts against me. Perhaps he assumed that I – commoner-born as I was – would be unaware of this particular Law. Most commoners were, after all, oblivious to what happened within the walls of the Palace. Undoubtedly, he thought that I was playing into his hand.

In truth, he was playing into mine. He had underestimated me. He had underestimated my husband. He thought that his brother was a shallow man who only cared for pleasures and flattery – precisely the image that my husband had spent years creating. I grinned as I anticipated the face Julio would make once he realised that he had given me exactly the kind of information I needed, while gaining nothing in return.