Civil Mage: Empress (2/3)
Irella confronts the new Empress
The palace functionary who brought her clean robes said that Valentia was meeting with General Dagrim in the inner courtyard. Two guards standing in the archway that led from the gardens to the inner courtyard repeated Valentia's order that she not be disturbed.
Irella considered waiting outside the door, then tightened her lips.
Eramepi was dead.
They would never let an unauthorized visitor pass; she would be lucky to convince them to even ask Valentia for an audience, and she was in no mood to be slotted into a queue with every other supplicant seeking the new Sovereign's ear.
Instead, Irella nodded politely and walked away. She kept going west, around the corner of the grand hall that separated the two outdoor areas, until she stood outside the throne room. With Eramepi gone and the throne unclaimed, it stood empty and unguarded.
It was, after all, just a chair.
"Valentia isn't here," Alem pointed out.
"Eramepi worried about assassination attempts when Oruku ceded to him without so much as a battle," she told Alem in a low voice. "I mapped the palace very thoroughly and made a few alterations."
Valentia would not be pleased at the reminder that her safety depended on Irella's goodwill, but in that moment, Valentia's happiness was of secondary concern. Irella climbed stairs that led to the gilded throne and then reached behind it, pushing her fist into a particular stone. The wall parted smoothly, revealing a narrow passage.
A bare moment later, she closed the tunnel behind her. Alem hissed a startled breath as the room went dark, but shuffled along beside her, fingers surprisingly loud as they traced the wall.
She traversed the tunnel by memory, but Alem had no such advantage. He nearly walked into the wall after brushing past her. With an apologetic wince, Irella leaned against the corner and reached out at hip height until she found the other push-stone.
Valentia and Dagrim stood beneath the feathery pink fronds of a tamarisk tree, illuminated by the stars and a single palm oil brazier.
Valentia's distinctive cloak of imported silk whispered as she turned, heavy brows furrowed in annoyance. "I left orders that I was not—" She sighed when she caught sight of Irella. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Was there something unclear about my proclamation?"
"People don't die of bloodspot fever, amir-Valentia." She hated to offer the honorific, but it would be foolish to antagonize Valentia more than she already had. "I came to find out what is going on."
It was an unpleasant disease, to be sure, but not deadly. Victims got a rash. Their joints hurt and their head pounded. Maybe they vomited; she hadn’t, when she’d caught the fever on campaign outside Keldehss.
"People don't usually die of bloodspot fever." Dagrim ran his hands through his short gray hair. "It does happen."
"There is something else going on here," Irella said stubbornly. "We have to find out what happened."
Valentia sighed, exhaustion carving lines into her face as she allowed herself to relax. "Or you'll what, nin-Irella? Rebel? With whose help?" Irella's gaze flicked to General Dagrim, more out of confusion than anything else, and Valentia laughed bitterly. "I assure you, if the General thought he could do a better job of holding the League together than I will, you would have found me bleeding out on the courtyard stones."
Dagrim's porcine nose flared as he snorted. "Valentia, please. I would have arranged things a bit more neatly than that."
"You're right," Valentia said, touching the General's bare arm with apparent fondness, though Dagrim was easily twice her age. "You would have made sure whoever discovered my body was part of your scheme."
Irella's mind spun with shock. Valentia's refusal to wed Sargov of Keldehss had been the flashpoint that led to the Unification War. If she was now willing to entertain even the notion of a political marriage... or was that fond touch just a façade to keep Dagrim loyal?
Irella never was any good at understanding Valentia's schemes. She pushed the attempt aside. "I know you've never liked me, amir-Valentia, but I've given your family nothing but loyalty since I was a child. I have no intention of seeking out a rebellion or a secession."
"It's not that I don't like you," Valentia said softly, sounding more vulnerable than Irella had ever heard before. "I suspect you would no more seek to put someone else on Eramepi's throne than pry open your own chest. But you're a liability, and I'm still not sure Eramepi was right to insist on your investiture with the Temple."
"The Architect has chosen to channel his power through me." Irella's response was stiff, but it wasn't the first time she'd made this point. "It is not for mortals to second-guess that decision."
"Yes, I'm sure your biladiyn agrees with your theological position, nin-Irella, but I don't have the luxury of ignoring the reality of the political situation. You're Voldshee. I know you can't help the unfortunate circumstances of your foreign birth, but the fact of it remains."
"I just want to understand how a man in his prime could be struck down by a minor swamp disease. Bloodspot fever shouldn't be able to spread through a proper camp." Once, it had been Irella's duty to ensure Eramepi's armies knew how to bivouac safely.
"I don't have time to worry about what petty minutiae might have kept Eramepi alive, Irella, as satisfying as it might be. I'm busy doing what I can to keep the League from dissolving into a pile of self-centered princes fighting over scraps. There are a lot of powerful people who would be happy to see our city-states along the Lysar to rot like corpses in the sun."
Irella winced at the unfortunate visual, but didn't let it stop her. "But if someone is responsible for your brother's death—"
"Enough! You're grieving, nin-Irella. I understand. I am grieving too. But there is no one to blame for this, and even if there were, we have more important things than revenge to consider." She took a deep breath. "The League will stay together if the Temples and the nobles think its in their best interests. When Eramepi had an army at his back, there was no benefit to rebellion. Now?"
Irella looked pointedly at General Dagrim. Clearly, Valentia hadn't lost the army.
Dagrim spread his hands helplessly. "I'm a good general, but I'm not Eramepi. It takes a Prince or a genius to keep an army big enough to cow a city from fragmenting into pieces or rampaging over the populace. Right now, I'm first among equals. Unless I become more than that, I wouldn't dare ask another General to put their men under my banner, even to discipline a wayward city."
Irella hid a wince. A rebellious Prince wouldn't act without at least one general as his ally. Irella wondered who Valentia thought so likely to be a problem that she was willing to let Dagrim court her.
"Right now, I don't have power. I have a couple seasons' worth of habit and the promise of prosperity to dangle like bread on a fisherman's hook. I want that prosperity for the League. I want you to be a part of that prosperity." Valentia looked pained. "In three days, the army will have brought Eramepi's body home."
"To Marna?" Irella blurted, confused by the apparent non sequitur. Marna was at least a decan away from Oruku by flatboat.
Valentia glared at her. "To his home in the palace in the capitol of the League he helped create. If you want to help, instead of railing against the unfairness of the gods, you could handle the memorial designs. Your High Priest won't interfere; he has other concerns." The new Sovereign softened her gaze. "I can trust you to give him the resting place he deserves, nin-Irella. You knew him better than most."
Irella swallowed. Valentia wasn't really giving her a choice. "I'll build him a tomb even the gods would envy," she promised.
Valentia stared at her for a long moment, then nodded, "Good. Now go back the way you came, and don't visit me without an appointment again. "
Irella bowed and left.
I only mentioned them in passing in this section, but tamarisk trees are surprisingly interesting. The newsletter I wrote about them when I was originally researching the Oruku palace is titled the salty tree that killed an invincible prince; I discovered them researching the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. I'm not sure if it's obvious to an outside reader only a chapter or so into the story, but Nahria is loosely based on Mesopotamia, at least in terms of geography, and I wanted to riff off of that for the feel. Thus the inclusion here. Tamarisks, like date palms, do well in near desert regions because they're very salt-tolerant.
Rivers in deserts is more of a thing than people realize, by the way. I wrote about it more in the petrichor edition, but the last time I was in Las Vegas I got caught in a flash floor while exploring the local wetland. And Vegas is definitely in the middle of a desert.
The world is like a fractal, I think sometimes. The closer you look, the more complex it can be, ad infinitem.
Unfortunately for Irella, politics can be that way too.
Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).
Check out one of these related posts
When AI is so wrong it's actually helpful
📗 One Barbarian Boy
On the ethics of quitting pain to embrace joy
📗 Marsh Rat
A long slow decline of a stable world