“A council? You want me to have a council?” Elena rubbed her eyes. Sunlight had not even crept up the windowsills.
“You need a group of advisers to assist you in building and running this town and eventually the kingdom you establish. You’re already tiring from attending to the incessant needs of the immigrants.” Androl sat in front of her bed, not decked in uniform yet, but looking fresh from a bath.
Elena stifled a yawn. The past two weeks had been torturous. Androl had saddled her with four guards, two armed with blades and two magical guards, including Catlia, the girl who could melt objects. A molten blade could do her no harm, Androl reasoned. While the ordeal with Neptius had made her realize the need for a guard, it irritated her. Exacerbating that was the fact that the houses in Maray had been all filled up and even grouping those without families would not be enough. Constructing new houses would take more time than she had before the number of immigrants became too huge. The increasing number of people also put strain on the food and supplies of the town. Most of the people leaving Maray had taken what they’d grown and had been able to carry. Parting them from that had seemed unfair to Elena at the time but she now wished on occasion that she’d been stricter.
“Fine, but how do I pick who? And who does what? And what do I do if they do all the work?”
Androl laughed softly. “They will do the work you’re doing now. You will still have to review their reports and take the major decisions. Don’t worry, Elena. You’ll learn as you go along. You’ve already done brilliantly.”
Elena beamed at the praise. “Then, you know, you are the first council member.”
“As you wish, Empress. I would like to take care of the security of the town.”
Elena laughed and gave Androl a hug. “I don’t know what I would’ve done without you. But you still haven’t told me how to pick the other council members? And how many should I pick?” All her doubt about the man had been washed away he had saved him from Neptius. And if not for him, she would have been sitting in a tavern being ogled and groped by drunken brutes.
“I have given it some thought. Ordinarily, I would have suggested you to pick as many for the major tasks at hand and usually people with experience in those things before they came here. But this is a magical town with magical people. And we need to develop a magical society. How many different kinds of magic have you catalogued in your little book?”
Elena scuttled over to the bedside table, where she’d kept her blue bound diary. Ever since the man with Neptius had called her a gemmer, she’d started classifying the different abilities of all the people who came in. That part of her day excited her, where she witnessed them exhibiting their talents. She’d come across about fifty more gemmers, none close to her strength. Adaline accompanied her every evening and helped her classify the various abilities.
“Five including gemming. And I’m also making Adaline another council member. She’s a minder and she can carry out the cataloguing and allotment of people to their duties.”
Androl scratched his chin. “She is young. But has a good head on her shoulders. I approve. And I am going to make another suggestion. Make Lord Falmus a council member. The man willingly gave up his lordship of Averness. He brought most of his army to you and he’s been humble about all of this. Not making him an advisor would not only rub him the wrong way but also lose you the trust of a man who knows the politics of the land.”
Elena nodded. She had not expected the support of the ruling noble of the state, much less him swearing allegiance to her. And that she had command of his army, at least those who chose to follow him, was even scarier. “I still cannot figure out why Falmus would come and support me. And before you say it again, I know you have explained. But a noble? Someone who rules a bloody state doesn’t just come and swear fealty to an upstart like me. He definitely has some plan.”
“Of course he does. He realizes as do many others that the world is changing. And he wants to stay ahead of others. He’s wise and realizes the potential of your rule and your power. The normal people have no love of nobles. They are’nt going to rally behind him. You, on the other hand…”
“Yes, yes, I know. You’ve told me a hundred times. I still feel awkward about him. But I guess you have a point. Not putting him on the council would make him an enemy and I certainly do not want that.” Elena twisted her fingers in her palms. The numbness kept returning.
“Wise girl. Besides, he fulfils one of the kinds of magic – what do you call them again?”
Elena scoffed. “I don’t call them anything. The man who first brought the squirrel calls those creatures familiars. And now everyone who can create an animal calls them that.”
Androl shrugged. “Change the name if you want. Everyone will follow what you say. But before that I suggest going through the list of people under the remaining two heads and choosing one from each. We’ll sit down and finalise them by evening and then allot them roles.”
Elena nodded. Though it added an extra burden to her day’s routine, if she could pick the right people, it would alleviate the workload. The thought of having an own council sent a shiver up her spine. She was beginning to enjoy having control.
“I have another matter I wanted to address. You cannot keep this shack as the centre of your empire. At least not to the public eye. They won’t take you seriously.” Androl placed a hand on Elena’s shoulder, light but firm.
She shrank back. “But this is my father’s town hall. He ruled from here. I cannot give this up.”
“Your father did not have to contend with ruling a world of magic and expanding your kingdom.” Androl turned Elena to face him.
“But why do I have to give this hall up? We’ll redecorate it. Make it seem more…royal.”
“That won’t work, Elena. You can continue living here, if you wish. But when you appear as the Empress, you need to look every bit the authority you command. These people deserve that of you, Elena. They need an Empress. They need the protection of somebody who can stand up for herself and is not afraid to show it to the world. They need to believe that none compare to you and you’re the epitome of all their kind. Only then will they feel comfortable trusting their livelihoods to you. Hundreds of people are pouring into this little village all because they know you are providing them a home and safety. They are looking for you.” Androl paused. “Looking for the Empress.”
“But…” Elena felt an innate attachment to the hall. But what Androl said jarred her. Somebody had to take charge. After all, her father had always said ‘A leader is not one who leads because he likes leading, but when he leads, all eyes should be on him and all should believe he is the only one who can bring them justice and fairness.’
“Look outside, Elena. Your people are waking up.” Androl’s brown eyes shone with belief.
Elena walked to the window. People had started milling about. Among them stood a lady she had taken into the village yesterday, carrying a bucket full of water, smiling and chatting with another. She’d walked twenty leagues away from her town, where her newborn had been burnt to death. All because a small baby could change the colours of an object around her. Anger and pity filled Elena. “You’re right. People need to see the Empress for who she is. They need to see me as one of them. Which is why I’m keeping this as my council room. But we will build a city worthy of being called the magical capital of Quindor.”
Androl’s smile bolstered her confidence. This city will be the beginning of a magical empire.
“The Drinking Goat. They didn’t spend too much time thinking of a name, did they, Wallace?” Fabius scrunched his nose up. The signboard had a goat drinking from barrel. Worse, the tavern reeked of a pungent odour of paint.
The rotund boy stepped out from behind Ainsley. “Lord… Fabius, I don’t know much about taverns.” His eyes remained glued to the ground.
“Cheer up, Wallace. And look alive. Nothing better than an evening jaunt in a tavern to find out the truth about the mysteries of the city.”
Ragnasary tugged at Fabius’ shirt sleeve and held him back. “You let Viallan stick us with this fat lump? What kind of a guard is he? He’ll probably wet his knickers the moment a knife is pulled out.”
“After Ainsley’s little jibe, it’s lucky we got Wallace. Besides I need a guide, not a guard. The kid seems to know the city.”
Ragnasary’s eyes flickered downwards for a moment, but shot back. “Except the dark backstreets.”
Fabius chuckled. But the cook spoke the truth. Captain Viallan had given him the most inept member from his force. Wallace was the son of a merchant who’d taken one loan too many and had to pledge his son’s services to Lord Droullin to have the usuries paid off. Not fit for combat, he’d been apprenticed to the head healer in Lushrow.
The boy though had been excited at the prospect of doing something other than keeping a stock of what medicines and herbs the doctor needed and maintaining an inventory. He’d taken them through the entire town including the famous market of Lushrow, which sold pulses and grains from the north. Fabius had sent off Ainsley and the two Royal Guards to engage the militia of Lushrow and the adjoining farms.
The day had not been productive but Fabius knew the best gossip roamed in taverns. Two taverns that Wallace took them to first, were too posh to have news of caravans. This one though seemed perfect, humming with unruly drunk men. Sounds of loud laughter and clanking mugs floated outside as well.
Wallace looked back nervously, his pudgy face lined with a nervous frown. Fabius waved him on, as the burly Ardagh clapped him on the back and pushed him through the tavern door.
The Drinking Goat was overcrowded, with people jostling to get tables. Fabius discerned that it also doubled up as an inn with the line of haggard travelers with worn boots being directed upstairs by a stout lady taller than himself.
Fabius nodded to Ragnasary to take Wallace and the others and mix into the crowd. The more people they talked to, the better their chances were. Besides, it also kept of unwanted attention from them as a group. The cook melded through the crowd dragging Wallace to the bar.
A few bronze petals pressed into the palm of the barkeep earned him a free table and a drink, as he scouted the occupants of the tavern.
“Prince Fabius, how goes your business?” a man in a dark green robe sidled up beside him.
“Showman Thormane? Didn’t think showmen had any interests beyond their tents. Especially with a wine store as yours.” He recognized me. Fabius caught the mug of bitter ale which the serving girl slid across his table and raised it to his lips.
“And a showman needs to know the pulse of the public. Besides, I need to stock ale from Awad to sell elsewhere.” Thormane dropped his voice. “Don’t worry Fabius. No one’s going to know. Although, the hat and shaving the beard do make you a different man.” The old showman seemed to have read his thoughts.
“Then how did you pick me out?” Fabius raised the mug of bitter ale to his lips.
“I’m a showman! We are masters of disguises. How do you think we keep our acts from going stale. Once a gig is done, we simply change the character.” The showman waved around his hands, almost knocking mugs out of a serving girl’s hands.
Fabius smiled. “I’ll remember that when I go to a show next time.”
“So, tell me, what is it that you’re looking for in a rowdy tavern?”
Fabius looked away from the showman. “Affairs of the state, my friend. You need not concern yourself.”
To Fabius’ surprise, the showman laughed. “All right, be secretive. I know how much you really care about the affairs of the state.”
Fabius raised an eyebrow. “And how would you know that?”
“Which other noble or lord, let alone a prince roams about the land attending shows and drinking ale in taverns like an old guzzler.”
“It’s a cover, showman.”
“This is your real self. No one holds a mug of ale like that without years spent in taverns.” The showman’s eyes glinted in the low light of the lanterns. “Besides, we showmen learn a lot on the road. I may know what you seek. No harm done if I can’t help you.”
Fabius scratched his chin. He’d shaved his beard to meet Lord Droullin but he’d never liked being clean shaven. The man sees and knows too much. He couldn’t bring him to trust the showman. But neither could he see the pitfall of asking the showman about the caravans. After all, that had been the point of coming to the tavern. “Very well.”
He slipped off the chair and handed the serving girl a gold flower for a private coup. The serving girl led them past the milling crowd to the back where several small wooden cubicles had been set up, with heavy curtains. The inside of the cubicles were also heavily padded. Fabius settled himself on a plush cushion, which though comfortable, had seen better days. Thormane sat across from a small table on which their drinks were placed by the serving girl, who left and drew the curtains behind her.
Fabius leaned forward on his elbows. “Lord Droullin has been losing caravans of salt for the past year. Only salt. Five have been lost so far, the last one barely a month past. Three of the shipments came from different states and all on different routes. Even the guards with the caravan were from different states.”
“Which means somebody from Lushrow is the common factor, who knew about all the shipments and their details.”
“Strangely not. The shipments were all ordered by different merchants and the traders’ guild operates on secrecy. No merchant knows what the other is doing. I don’t understand this game of one-upmanship but I’ve talked to the merchants and each maintains not knowing about any other shipment.”
“Maybe one of the other traders is trying to sabotage the others?”
Fabius shook his head. Thormane seemed far more knowledgeable and smart than any showman he’d met. “Over salt? Why not hit them where it hurts and loot something more precious. The merchants who ordered the salt had far more precious shipments which came in around the same time, unpillaged.”
Thormane shrugged. “I don’t know how to help you. The only mention of salt I’ve heard in this city is from a lunatic beggar who kept asking for salt for his dead plant.”
Fabius laughed. “Dead plant?”
“He was carrying around a small shrub of some sort. Smelt pungent but that may have been the beggar himself.”
Fabius sighed. “Hopefully we can pin the guild of shrub-saving beggars for the theft. But thank you for your interest.”
The showman stood up and bowed. “An honour to be of assistance to a prince. I hope our paths cross again.”
Fabius’ eyes followed the man as he left the cubicle. The showman seemed to be genuine but the constant knot inside his stomach kept reminding him of his suspicions when they’d first met.