“You’re late,” Summern Adlerbrise commented as Kuren strolled briskly through the doors of the High Council chambers, assuming his seat next to their newest member, Giselle Schmutzleben.
“You called an emergency session,” the Feuerborn responded lightly. “I came as soon as I was able.”
“And pray tell, what is consuming your attention in this time of crisis?” Adlerbrise demanded, his caramel gaze piercing.
“Summern,” Flugel said softly, tiredly. “It’s not relevant. We’re all here now; let’s turn our energy to what requires it most.”
“She’s right,” Adelheid sighed, bracing her forehead in her hands. She sat at the head of the table, staring down its mahogany length at the seven councilmembers before her. “Froh Bezaubernd is handling the situation outside. The United Forces is stationed around the palace tiers to keep the public calm and orderly following the broadcast last night. I have to release a statement at the conclusion of this meeting, so this is our opportunity to clarify our position.”
“May I ask,” Giselle inquired, her long blond hair spilling over her shoulders, obscuring her family’s brooch, “do we know the individual’s identity?”
Adelheid released a sigh of frustration, straightening in her chair. “No, we do not.”
“Do we know what the Iron Faithful is?”
“Yes, we do. It was a group established in 83, following Krawall and Kummer Stahldritten’s efforts to organise a military force. They expanded the Stahl Army from one thousand men to four thousand men; their foundations laid the path for future expansions of the army, which proved invaluable in the Devonian attacks to follow.
“In an effort to increase accountability and lessen the opportunity for any current or future Great Mage to abuse their power as chief commander of the Stahl Army, Krawall Stahldritten established the Iron Faithful and tasked them with ensuring the soundness and effectiveness of the ruling Great Mage. If any corruption was suspected, the Iron Faithful was expected to relieve that Mage of duty.”
“Kill him,” Hagel Klinge clarified bluntly.
Adelheid’s brown gaze flickered to her. “Yes. Krawall Stahldritten married Prallen Klinge – your ancestor – didn’t he?” Hagel nodded her assent. “And he appointed their trusted friend Ahren Eisen as it director and commander.”
“Why have we never heard about this until now?” Emmerich inquired, confusion and anxiety lining his brow.
“Because it was a secretive agency,” Adelheid explained. “The nature of its objective could suggest possible involvement in the assassination of past Great Mages; that sort of information could have caused widespread panic and retribution. What we do know is immensely limited.”
“And what do we know?” Giselle asked.
“We know that their presence can be insinuated throughout the past three-hundred years, although there’s no concrete evidence or documents to support their existence beyond their inception.”
“Then how do we know they’re still operational? That this isn’t some ruse or fanatics?” Summern prompted, gesturing with a sweeping arm.
Adelheid released a heavy breath. “Because it’s very possible they are fanatics. There’s evidence to suggest that Konig Stahldritten hunted the last of their members down and executed them on arbitrary crimes. We don’t know how many were actual members, or how many remain. But it’s very likely that this was the reason for their reclusion up until now.
Emmerich shook his head in concern. “So why act? What do they have to gain now? The title of Great Mage in the Stahl Realm is decorative at best; there’s no established leader. How are they performing their duty in persecuting us?”
“Because they believe that we’re corrupt,” Flugel conceded, her tone heavy and chagrined. “And they feel responsible. Whoever remains of the Iron Faithful, whoever is in charge, probably feels responsible for Heike’s dictatorship.”
“So why not appear earlier? Why not just perform their duty and take out Heike?” Kuren pointed out, waving a dismissive hand.
“Because she was far too powerful at that point,” Flugel explained evenly. “And their jurisdiction only extended to Klauen as Great Mage – not Heike as Empress. But now they feel responsible for what occurred, and they’re seeking to correct their wrongs after the fact. They can’t assassinate Heike, but they can remove whatever sources of corruption they perceive as having helped her gain her power. Either they couldn’t or didn’t stop Heike, and they want to fix what they failed to do the first time.”
“So they want you, me, Emmerich, Svetya and Behende to stand trial for what, treason?” Kuren snickered, incredulous. He leaned one elbow on the table, drawing her into his confidence. “Where would we go from here? Care to turn yourself in, Luftzweiten?”
“If it will disperse public outrage, then yes,” Flugel retorted, her gaze steady and filled with conviction. “I want what’s best for the Realms – then, now and always. If that means standing trial for my ‘crimes’, I will. And you should too.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I hate to agree with him,” Emmerich said softly, gaze downcast to the table, where he wrung his hands. “But I don’t think holding trials will calm the public at all. Heike threatened our lives and our families; you and Kuren included. We did what we did to keep them safe, and that will come to light at trial. That won’t calm them. It will just fuel their hatred for Heike; and with Klauen gone, they won’t perceive any justice arising from this. They’ll just see as scapegoats for more of Heike’s crimes. What the public needs to someone to be held accountable, truly accountable for their crimes committed under Heike. Whether that’s Klauen Stahldritten or someone else, I don’t know. But caving to their demands – what will it achieve? We don’t even know whether they’ll return Klauen Stahldritten to our custody once we’ve persecuted all the High Council members.”
“You’re forgetting about Svetya,” Giselle reminded him, and the table at large. “You can’t drag her back to persecute her. She’s grieving; and she’s Great Mage now. The Erde Realmneeds her for stability and security. Our leader was assassinated, and our high family attacked. We have in our hands an orphan, an relatively inexperienced leader, and an upcoming wedding of significant diplomatic importance. Not to mention, our Realm is turbulent enough with the exposure of the Viele; campaigns are already spreading demanding its disbandment. To take what little hope and solidity we have right now away would be catastrophic. The entire Erde Realm would be cast back into chaos.”
“We can’t do nothing,” Behende reasoned. “As Adelheid said, we have to state our position – whether that’s a refusal to negotiate with the Iron Faithful, or an agreement to persecute…us – we need to state something. The people want a response. This broadcast has been the catalyst to an already turbulent political environment. We need to keep it contained and under control before mass hysteria makes this calamitous.”
“So what do you suggest?” Giselle asked, exasperation lining her usually sweet tone.
“Send out searches,” Kuren suggested. They all turned blank expressions on him, and he shrugged offhandedly. “Appoint a contingent of the United Forces to flushing them out. They’re a vigilante group; we can’t be seen negotiating with them, or caving to their demands. We should release a public statement saying we’re considering their requests. And Bezaubernd should appoint a contingent to begin discreet searches to uncover the Iron Faithful and return Klauen Stahldritten to our custody.”
“My fiancé Macht is familiar with most of the Stahl Realm,” Emmerich added, enthusiasm entering his tone now that a viable solution had been put forth. “As are his sister Finte and brother Kolben. It would make sense to start there, since the Iron Faithful is Stahlborn. And they’re all commanders and lieutenants of the United Forces. He can lead the contingent.”
“That probably wouldn’t be very wise,” Kuren contradicted with a grimace. “The Iron Faithful was headed by an Eisen; they’re probably still headed by an Eisen. Hagel can probably attest that her family has never had any affiliation with them?”
The Stahlborn shook her head in agreement, and Kuren turned back to Emmerich.
“Your fiancé, as dutiful as I’m sure his intentions are, is still an Eisen – so are his siblings. I don’t think we should be sending Eisens after Eisens. It just doesn’t make sense.” At Emmerich’s protest, Kuren raised his hands in a surrender. “I don’t suspect any of them of corruption. I just don’t think it’s wise. Send someone else.”
“It may actually be wiser to send them,” Behende mused aloud, meting Kuren’s gaze. “The best way to flush out traitors – and to clear their names of any suspicion – is to send one of them to conduct the searches. Any disparities in their efforts will become blatantly clear; if they’re protecting the Iron Faithful, it will show up in their reports. If their efforts are diligent, that will show as well. I say we should send Macht Eisen.”
“I agree with Behende,” Adelheid conceded. “It’s the best way to clear his name, Emmerich. And I agree with Kuren’s earlier points.” She rose from her seat, and the others rose with her out of respect for their new Empress. “I’m going now to release a statement saying we are ‘considering the Iron Faithful’s requests’. And I will instruct Froh to appoint a contingent to Macht so he can begin searches immediately. We’ll assemble tomorrow to review what reports he is able to provide. I expect all of you to be in attendance at each daily meeting, and on time,” she added, glancing in Kuren’s direction.
“Apologies, Empress,” he responded, inclining his head.
“We’re adjourned. Let’s hope this is enough to keep them at bay.”