Throne Room <Fastheld Keep>
"They always seem to be draining," Duhnen offers, stepping away after Oren is seated and moving to find his own. "But we all know our duty. So we'll manage."
Sahna hurries in, unusually late, with bundles of scrolls under one arm and a tome under another. She looks rather frantic, and strands of hair have escaped her usually-tidy braid. "My apologies, your graces.. I had to finish up the treasury report, but then I remembered that there was the Light's Reach report too." The woman murmurs, scuttling towards her seat. "This is all of us, isn't it, unless Aiden Zahir's been re-instated yet?"
The Blademaster grunts, but nods to Oren as he takes his own seat at the table. Talus Kahar taps his fingers on the ends of the armrests of his throne, nodding slowly before saying, "I will content myself with observing and listening, Chancellor, so that the Council may deliberate as needed. I will only step in should circumstances dictate the need."
"He has not," the chancellor tells the Trademistress, nodding to Talus. "We shall start with the least important issues in the agenda and then move up from there." He pauses. "One of the advantages of having a small Council is, among other things, the luxury to dispense with formalities. I will do so, unless someone here disagrees? I believe at this point we all know our titles, so names should suffice. Are we agreed?"
"We all know each other," Duhnen agrees, settling into the seat. He tugs the helmet off his head and sets it on the table in front of him.
Hartnek nods to the Chancellor. "As you wish, Oren. And, just want to say, good to have you back and healthy."
"Understood, your majesty." Sahna replies crisply, unrolling a scroll from her pile. "If we're looking at least important, I'd like to start with my periodic reports for the Resources office." She raises her chin to regard Oren, questioningly. "Generally speaking, I think we can cover it pretty quickly for most of the departments."
Oren Nillu nods at Sahna. "Go ahead. Be sure to include updates regarding Light's Reach, if any." Oren Nillu also offers Hartnek a grateful nod.
Duhnen leans back into the seat a bit, waiting quietly.
Installed in her usual position as court scribe, Ashlynn is a quiet presence except for the occasional scritch of an enthusiastic pen stroke or the whisper of shifting parchment.
The small Nillu shuffles her papers around for a moment, then begins speaking. "I'll just start with the treasury and babble on a bit.. Please save questions or comments until I've gone through it." She smiles wryly up at the table and adds, "Boring as it may be. Now, to begin with the treasury.. As of my last progress report, 700,000 imperials were transferred over to the main treasury from the tax bureau, which is still showing a healthy balance. However, we did take a bit of a net loss this quarter. The expedition to bring his majesty back ended up costing around 280,000 imperials, whereas the taxes collected are down to 77,600. The lists are looking pretty good, as most people have chosen to pay ahead rather than face my stunning beauty when they've incurred a late payment. Adding the policy of doubling amounts upon reaching a lien status seems to have had a good effect as well."
And the droning continues. "Moving on to the river department, I released the Darkwater Deepers as the authority on the water again after Arturo's performance. I realize that his grace the chancellor doesn't approve of Thayndor Zahir, but a group of seamen that are essentially mercenaries that have been cooped up for months.. Well, I shall suffice to say for my report that they are doing a most rigorous job at the moment."
She pauses, more for breath than anything, then continues. "The Light's Reach project has a projected budget of four million, three million of it under contract to Master Criss Ivorywood and his confederation of miners for the basic material. I've requisitioned space at Windrise, Shadowcull, and Shadowwatch for the moment. The sewage has been taken care of, but we're experiencing a slowdown for a lack of skilled laborers." Finally, the small Nillu has to stop, searching for another scroll.
Duhnen listens to the reports, though his eyes wander during it, floating about the Throne room to the walls.
"Lack of skilled workers?" Oren frowns. "I would have expected people to leap at the chance to work under an Imperial contract." He shakes his head. "Delays will end up costing us even more. Perhaps you can look into the possibility of offering those who work for Ivorywood an added payment against the extended losses we'll be suffering if the project continues at its present speed."
Hartnek listens as the Tradesmaster runs down the important fiscal matters of the realm while occasionally reviewing his own parchment scroll.
"That's the problem, they haven't. Which is the reason I established the Skilled Crafter List.. A nice free way to advertise for crafters, yes, but next time when we need them, we know who they are and /where/ they are." Sahna answers, standing to gesture emphatically. "The initial signups have been slow, but I think that's changing.. Which leads me to the Wood and Quarry departments. Finding materials is the second problem.. Part of the problem is Light's Reach is taking a great deal of marble, but it'd be gauche to rebuild it as nothing more than a pathetic, flat shadow of it's former glory. I propose the establishment of Imperial reserves of both Forest and Stone, so that we won't have to scramble around begging for materials next time. Part of that solution might involve opening up the Imperial Huntswoods, or if that's undesirable, we can ask each noble family to contribute a parcel of woodland with the understanding that the resources will only be used if something like Light's Reach happens again. I think every house knows it could've been their towns and not Light's Reach. Varal is proving to be absolutely competent when it comes to managing the on-site work at the project, by the way."
Sahna considers things, shuffling to one more piece of paper. "And finally, the trade-office itself. Sparing you all most of the tawdry crafter squabbling, the establishment of a new section for shops near the emporium will probably stimulate some growth. The emporium sellers naturally aren't the happiest about it whereas the guilds are delighted, but Mistress Luna Grey's association is taking the problem in hand... Which is just as well. As usual, Orell's doing nothing useful." The tiny woman inhales, and raises her brows. "I think that covers the most important part of my reports. I now hand the discussion back to his grace the chancellor." With that, she sits, looking relieved.
Duhnen looks down from the wall and over to Oren once he notices Sahna has stopped talking.
"Excellent ideas. Unless someone has a reason to disagree, go ahead and get to work on it. I am rather sure the Houses will be more than happy to contribute," the chancellor says. "On to more important matters. During the expedition to recover His Majesty, a man who claimed to be a mage and displayed what I am told is a great deal of... power made himself known. I do not know the details and would like to know them now. This man, whoever he is, poses a silent threat to the realm if he can come and go at will. Specially if he does indeed serve the Instrumentalist. Perhaps if I know a bit more, it will put my concerns to rest."
Talus Kahar raises his eyebrows. He smiles faintly and says, "Perhaps I should take this opportunity to provide a report on what I know of this individual and the situation beyond the Aegis."
"The archmage? Yes, he can transport the distance the first expedition went rather easily, and She, the Lady, or whatnot owns a massive fortress that seems to pre-date the cataclysm itself, if you ask me... Well, it's certainly older than the wall. Fascinating architecture, I could've spent days exploring. Shame who lives in it." Sahna muses, turning to watch Talus politely. She folds both lace gloved hands, sage-green eyes holding a polite, absent expression.
Duhnen lifts an eyebrow slightly towards Sahna, before turning his attention back to Talus.
"A fortress," Oren echoes sourly, "worthy of an army." He turns to the Emperor and waits.
Ashlynn's head lifts slightly at the mention of the mage, her eyes flicking between Sahna and the emperor before falling back down upon the paper before her, pen poised.
"I'll start with what I believe we know about Zanorin," Talus begins, standing from his throne and stepping down onto the dais so that he's next to the scribe's table, facing the Council. "Yes, he is a powerful archmage. Yes, he does dwell in a rather impressive fortress in the Wildlands. If he speaks truth, then he is older than the Aegis itself, for he claims to have had a hand in raising that wall in the age of the first Kahar Emperor. I know he bears some animosity toward our ancestors for the expulsion of mages from the realm. But I do not know whether that weighs in his actions today. He helped the expedition find me sooner rather than later, so whatever his motives, they appeared to coincide with ours at the time. However, it may well be that his motives shift like the wind."
"He doesn't hesitate in killing Wildlings either, apparently," Duhnen adds, grimacing slightly. "Lightning? Or something like that?" The Surrector glances to Hartnek.
Hartnek Lomasa nods, grunting. "He smote one of the black devils when it was on His Majesty's balcony, day he came home. Zanorin popped in for a visit and a few parting words. Then...ZAP! Wildling woulda gutted the Emperor otherwise. We got the corpse in a salt pork shed behind the horse barn."
"The animosity isn't surprising, but if he was there, why isn't he recorded in our history? Removed from later copies by the church perhaps?" Sahna questions, leaning back in her chair. "Actually, if it weren't for his assistance, we would never have caught up with the boat at all. So clearly he, or rather the mistress he serves, had some stake in seeing you return. The Lady mentioned her prophecy about Fastheld falling had come to pass, when we were departing Crown's Refuge. Has he made any indication of staying around Fastheld, then? It could be very problematic." She glances to Hartnek and Oren as well, frowning slightly. "Considering condoning his presence is tantamount to heresy, wouldn't you say, Harty-Warty?" Amazingly enough, she manages this new nickname with a completely straight face and businesslike tone, deadpan.
"So what we truly know is that a powerful mage who serves the master of an entire Wildling tribe, who is displeased by the fact that he was banished, resides in a mighty fortress beyond our haven," the chancellor sums up, frowning. "That his motives happened to serve the expedition's purpose at one point means nothing. This man is Touched and the Shadow of his power has permitted him to become an abomination that defies time. An enemy we can do nothing about? Are we then left at the mercy of the Church's knowledge and what they might be able to tell us or even do against this... mage?" He turns to Sahna. "Fastheld has not fallen. Not yet."
Duhnen's eyes widen slightly at Hartnek's new nickname, and a quickly spreading smirk is covered up by a fist and a cough. "As far as defending against him should he turn hostile...well...he's already proven that walls don't slow him down in the slightest. I'd suggest as large a guard detail equal to as much privacy as His Majesty is willing to give up. Such as Blades in his chambers as well. Though, most likely the...ah..." Another cough. "...Blademaster has some thoughts on that as well."
Talus Kahar sighs. "We know more than that, Oren. We know that there are several tribes of Wildlings, but that the dark ones seem to be the most cunning and tactical-minded. We know the dark Wildlings seem to serve themselves. So, while the tribe protected by the dragon fends off fights with other similar tribes, the dark Wildlings work to take over the entire territory beyond our wall." He smiles grimly. "And let me tell you something about that wall, Oren. When it was raised, *someone* among the mages granted exile imbued the stones with a curse. The afflictions that have plagued my bloodline for generations came not from the poison of a Wildling's claw, but from the magic in the Aegis that supposedly protects us. During my stay beyond the wall, my health notably improved. I could walk for miles while I get winded walking from one end of this throne room to the other." He shakes his head, frowning. "We have quite a few problems to untangle here at home before we worry too much about Zanorin's activities. The assassination attempt on Oren, the rebuilding of Light's Reach ... these should take precedence. After that, we should worry about what we can do to assist our protectorate beyond the wall. And we can begin making contingency plans for Zanorin. But believe me when I tell you right here and now that Zanorin is hardly the only Shadow-Touched mage who can bounce from outside to inside our walls. It happens every day, from what I learned. Not for malicious purposes, usually. But it does happen."
Hartnek Lomasa just stares at Sahna as she bestows a new nickname on him. His eyes go wide and he splutters a bit, and then shifts his gaze toward Duhnen. Finally, he finds his voice again: "The Emperor has his own personal guard. His Majesty assigns em as he sees fit."
Ashlynn grimaces faintly at Hartnek's addition about the Wildling's current resting place, before Sahna's deadpan addition has her pausing with a short sniff to suppress a snort. Hastily brushing the back of her free hand across her mouth, she lowers her head over her parchment and continues writing madly, her expression hidden as the subject moves on to grimmer topics.
Sahna, satisfied with winning her 'bet' with the bladesmaster, goes back to business. "Chancellor, that's assuming the church will even share information with us. They weren't very forthcoming with the matter of Halo, certainly. And to look at present events? A time of illumination to warm the people's hearts is a delightful idea, yet we still have no Lightkeeper. We still have no word from them, or any true sign of cooperation at all, even with the return of an emperor that they might very possibly denounce for his time beyond the wall. Frankly, I don't find the idea of lightning hitting a bunch of men in iron armor anything but grisly on our end. The wildlings that used to throw themselves at our walls, costing so many lives over the centuries, are no longer attacking us. Yes, we've gained a new foe in their place, but this foe is one that the Lady and her servant also detest. Common enemies for now probably means it's doubtful that the archmage will suddenly make an attempt on the emperor. I agree contingency plans should be put into effect, but right now, what do we have? Nothing, due to our limited knowledge. Our own wall makes the Kahars sick, and the people don't know it. Maybe it's just me, but even from my own faith I find that I don't like purposeful lies and misinformation. /Why/ are the church officials cloistered? For that matter, our own wall is doing nothing but hurting us right now, and we know it's full of holes. There's faith.. And then there's /blind/ faith. We need a liason with the church and we're being /ignored/." She states, emphatically.
Oren Nillu exhales a rather deep sigh, a single hand going up to rub the bridge of his nose. "Of course we are being ignored, Sahna." A pause. "So it is true. Crown's Refuge is now considered a... protectorate of the realm. A town beyond the Aegis, where men and women from those very lands reside, is now under the protection of the Crown. Your Majesty," he continues, lowering his arm to look at Talus, "with all due respect, you are creating every opportunity for the Church to rise up against you. I stand behind you no matter what, but the people of Fastheld -- the commoners, uneducated and simple-minded; the greedy nobility; the eager religious zealots -- may not share such a conviction. I would rather one town beyond our walls take care of itself than see the foundations on which Fastheld stands crumble. If you continue on this course, my liege, then the Instrumentalist's prophecy will become reality. I beseech you to reconsider our stance."
Talus Kahar shakes his head. "It is not as though I adopted an existing town of outsiders and brought it under our purview, Oren. I brought those people together and helped them build it with my own hands. We left Vhramis Skinner and a Bladesman behind to serve in my stead. I will not abandon them to stand alone against whatever threats may face them. If I could extend the wall to include Crown's Refuge, I would not hesitate to do so. However, as that hardly seems an option, I settle for the alternative of making them a protectorate." He steps down off the dais entirely now, starting a slow pattern around the table. "The commoners don't have as much blind faith in the Church as they used to, Oren, especially after the Halo incident. Religious zealots are unlikely to gain much traction right now. Worry less about the Church and worry more about showing we *do* care about the *people*, rather than showing that we care more about kowtowing to the Church or a conniving crowd of backstabbing nobles." He stops next to Oren's chair and places a hand on the Chancellor's left shoulder. "I understand and appreciate your concerns, but my decision on Crown's Refuge is final. I came back here, but I haven't forgotten that I owe many of those people my life. I would not have survived beyond the Aegis without their aid. They will have mine. The topic is closed."
Duhnen folds his hands on the table, a sour look crossing his face. "Have there been any attempts to communicate with the church recently, on that note? The only sister I come into contact with now is Moira Oak. And even that's been a little bit."
"Reconsider what's right, out of fear? Because our government might not hold up without continuing to pander to ignorance?" Sahna asks, both thin eyebrows lifting. "While I agree that the people rightfully will uphold the faith, I think it's the faith we need to be looking at. I'm no theologian, but it occurs to me that with the support of the church instead of the obstruction, even the zealots will mostly fall in line. They did when we released what was well-known to be a shadow creature.. With exceptions, such as my late ex-husband. There will always be people who cannot change with the times, but I think much of Fastheld, if told the truth, would be able to compare faith and fact and realize that the two no longer match. The church does not rule in Fastheld. /We/ rule in Fastheld, and we need a line of communication open to make it very clear to the church that condemnation of what we must do is.. Most unwelcome. The last attempt to communicate was mine.. With the leaders cloistered, I even put out notices to the entire /realm/ trying to attract attention. It's absolutely unacceptable, and some festival isn't going to make everything back to the way it was." The small Nillu balls her gloved hands into fists, stubbornly. "As much as I hate to even say it, the church is three-hundred scourges strong. Our military forces are ten-thousand strong or so. They'd resent being strong-armed, but I think it's time that all these dirty little secrets they're holding are revealed to the government before we're left to deal with the aftermath of /another/ disaster."
Oren Nillu closes his eyes for a moment. "As Your Majesty commands. The topic is now closed. We will deal with the matter once and if it comes to pass. With that aside, there are other things the Council must know, things that I have told only His Majesty and held back because I was assured by Church leadership that the problems would be resolved. If what I am told about recent Scourge disappearances is true, I fear that might not be the case. The reason the conclave is taking this long is because the Corona was not the only one die. A number of Patrons did as well. Both Corona and Patron deaths were the result of assassination. There are influential units within the Sun's Keep -- and beyond it by logical extension -- eager to see what they believe is a balance in the Light restored. Now, I was assured at one point these units are not dangerous, but at this point I will draw my own conclusions and urge you all to be on your guard."
Duhnen's eyes narrow at that, and the man leans back in his seat again. He inhales deeply and looks up to the ceiling. "Assassinations in the Church. And an attempted one on you, your Grace. As well as his Majesty. Though the last one was at the hands....claws...of a Wildling. I don't suppose all of them were?"
Sahna just stares for a moment, incredulously, eyes widening. "Yes, any details you have on the situation, however belated, would be welcome, Chancellor." She murmurs in a low, dusky voice, expression thoughtful. "For all the crisis of faith we're having, those inside the church must be having one at many times the magnitude. These assassins may perhaps be members of their own... What a thought. Is his majesty going to make a showing at this Illumination ceremony, then?"
"I *should* put in an appearance, I think," the Emperor says, stepping back onto the dais and settling into the throne. "Back in the realm and the first thing I do is disrespect a major Church event? That really would be an unnecessary snub."
Oren Nillu turns to Sahna. "Not perhaps. At the time I was informed of this, the insurrectors in question were indeed members of the Church. That is all I know, sadly. The Scourge disappearances may, of course, be completely unrelated, but as Duhnen has pointed out, if you consider the recent attempt on my life..." He shakes his head. "Regardless: I felt it important to bring it up, small as the possibility may be."
The Surrector considers that, still looking to the ceiling. "I can accompany his Majesty, if he wishes it, to the Ceremony."
Talus Kahar chuckles. "I think the Surrector will have little choice but to do so. I think it's in the job description somewhere."
"I'm far too busy." Sahna murmurs, gesturing to the documents. "Uncle Oren can hold up the good Nillu name.. Not that most everyone wasn't saying the family was a pack of tyrants trying to form our own government, and all. " She seems none too unhappy to say so, either. "Absolutely.. The surrector ought to go with you as well, considering his position." Gosh, she looks chipper at the thought. "Perhaps everyone can find out more while they're there?" She queries, toying with the tome on the table. "Which reminds me. Has his majesty found any suitable candidates for Empress yet?"
"His Majesty is quite hard on me," Duhnen adds, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth."
Talus Kahar smirks at Sahna. "I have received missives from numerous noble families, offering up their marriageable daughters as potential candidates. Suitable? That's another matter entirely. Only been back a week or so, Sahna. I plan to take my time with this. I'll start meeting with prospective brides ... soonish."
"I fear my wound will not permit me to leave the palace quite yet," Oren states. "Now, I believe we have covered every item on the agenda, unless Hartnek has something he wishes to add about the attempt on my life." He raises an eyebrow at the Blademaster. "If not, the table is open for anything anyone may wish to bring up. If not, we can consider this meeting adjourned."
"If you don't mind widows, you can meet my sister sometime. Her husband took a knife to a back. It would seem my branch of the family has a run of ill fortune with such things happening." Sahna murses, glancing sidelong at Oren and flashing an impish smile. "Did House Nillu remember to submit a list?"
Hartnek Lomasa shakes his head. "Nothing much new on that front, although we are looking into it. Things sorta dried up, I'm afraid. We've got a pendant, a bow and some arrows. The bow and arrows are Blades-issued, which is cause for some concern. But what's more concerning is the information etched on the bow. Belonged to a Bladesman named Harrik Spool. Died fighting Wildlings just outside the Aegis last year."
Ashlynn glances up at the new information, her gaze contemplative before she returns her attention to her scribing, beginning to set things aside now that the meeting is wrapping up.
"I suppose I should take *some* comfort in the fact that it is perhaps not the nobility but rather a tribe of Wildlings that wants me dead," the chancellor says. "Very well. Let us consider this meeting over. Remember to keep your eyes open."
"You can meet my sister as well, should you wish. She's a good woman, and it'd be nice to get her out of my cousin Jurus' keep. She's been keeping it together lately," Duhnen responds, the smile slowly fading. Something apparently occurs to him, and he sits straighter in the chair, returning his gaze to those about the table. "Forgive me, your Majesty, but I must ask. In your time in the Wildlands, you have not heard anything of Serath since he was lost?"
Talus Kahar sighs as he listens to Sahna and Duhnen pitch candidates to him. He rolls his eyes, but waves a hand and says, "I'll *meet* with them. We'll see how it goes." He nods to Oren. "Thank you, Chancellor." He stands, walks down from the dais and then says to Duhnen, "Nothing about Serath, no. Not even a body. So, hope remains."
"We wouldn't be nobles if we didn't try to foist off our single kin on you, your majesty." Sahna murmurs, winking. "But it does concern me.. Black wildlings can use bows, and we're not on their happy-fun list." She stands, and starts collecting her papers. "If we combined the two issues and you married a black wildling to secure the peace and thus didn't show favoritism to any noble house, things would all be peachy, I think."
Talus Kahar laughs, shaking his head. "I think I'll pass. I shudder to think of what the honeymoon would be like."
Oren Nillu does not seem to share the general mood in the room. Impassive, he rises and takes his crutch. "Good eve to you all. Sadly, age does force me to bed sooner than I would wish." He offers Talus as good a bow as he can manage and then starts towards the exit.
Ashlynn pauses as the emperor descends from the dais, waiting to see if there are anymore last minute additions, before stowing all her supplies away in earnest, rolling up her notes for later transcribing. Sahna's last dig manages to draw a wince from the courier before she returns her expression to blandness with a wry shake of her head.
Duhnen rises to his feet, bowing to Talus, and then to Oren. He lifts the helm from the table, tucking it under his arm. "There's always hope," he agrees, seeming a touch more somber, but otherwise waiting for the Emperor to leave before he does.
"Well, black wildlings are smart. I can't say the same for most noblewomen." Sahna replies, sniffing dramatically. "Ah, but the children.. Now there's a thought to inspire fear." She tucks the tome under her arm, grinning impishly over at Hartnek. "Now, don't forget your end of the deal, Harty. I won." She adds, beaming at the grumpy bladesmaster.
Hartnek Lomasa scowls. Gets to his feet. Grunts a farewell to the Emperor with the sketch of a bow. Then he turns and stalks away.
Talus chuckles at the departing Blademaster. "Dismissed, everyone. Light keep and protect us all."
"Ah, how cruel of me.." Sahna muses, without looking apologetic at all. "I think I made him mad. Maybe he'll think twice about calling a Duchess 'girl'." Before Sahna departs, she leans over to whisper something brief to the emperor, then walks off in a swirl of skirts.
Duhnen moves away from the table to wander over to one of the rows of columns, considering the stone silently.
Talus Kahar nods to Sahna as she departs, then clasps his hands behind his back and watches as Emmon and a couple of other personal guards step out of the torch-flickered shadows, ready to escort the Emperor back to his suite.
Her satchel once again resting against her hip, message tube tucked safely away, Ashlynn waits behind the emperor's right shoulder, awaiting more orders or a dismissal.