The Only Two Certain Things in Life

He turns to her absent-mindedly, mumbling something about wine, and goes in. The treasury door is heavy, and closing it requires him to strain at the ornate wrought-iron ring. Huffing in – obviously illogical – annoyance at himself, he steps across the carved wooden desk and past the other furniture, eager to finally sit. There is a mouse on the upholstered armchair behind the desk, eyeing him curiously. He can feel his temper rising. “Shush, you. Begone.” The mouse skitters away, and he almost flings himself into the seat, grimacing at the recent battle injury twinging in his left shoulder as he does so. “Idiot,” he mutters, the annoyance returning with a hot flash of embarrassment. “Commanding troops in the field as if you knew what you were doing. Too slow to even know what’s going on until it’s over. Clueless about formations. And all because your commander went back to Verunheim with Edwyn.” He covers his eyes with his hand. Minutes pass.

The knocking is getting more insistent. It takes several attempts for him to rouse; grimacing, he opens the door to let her in. She has changed – for the better – and rests the goblet and carafe on her hip while eyeing him warily.

“One of those nights, is it? Will you require the large decanter, Lord.. Volksnand?”

With a curt nod, he motions vaguely. “Just leave it there.”

She delicately places the wine on the desk, having to push aside a sheaf of papers to make room within his reach. “These look recent, Lord Volksnand. Did you place them on your desk sometime last night, maybe? In the darker hours of the evening, thinking you would get to them early today?”

He looks up, startled. Yes, that he had. But now an entire day had gone, inspecting pig farms and trying to figure out where Stragosa’s money was going, and despairing at the state of the books.

“I meant to look at them tonight, but thank you for your..” he attempts a smile and realizes it’s a smirk, “efforts at assistance.” He waves her off before she can say more. “You have served me well, and you will be rewarded. You may leave.”

Looking at him appraisingly, she pours some wine then holds on to the wine bottle as she leans over him. “When you start to feel better, let me know. You are focusing too much on being paranoid and you do much better when you don’t look this way.” As he covers his eyes again, she waits for an answer, but none comes. Shrugging, she turns and leaves quietly, door swinging shut behind her.

Time passes and he needs to refill his glass several times before mustering the strength to lean forward and pick up the first parchment. He smiles at the name on the outside, but it quickly turns into a frown at the words inside. Groaning, he throws himself back into his seat and rings the bell, opening the door as he does so. Shortly after, his chamberlain enters.

“Take down the following note from me and have it sent to Lady Gale and Sir Sanguine.”

He coughs, clearing his throat, and reaches for his cup.

“From the desk of Lord Emich von Volksnand, in the year of the lion 604, under the benevolent and watchful eyes of Benalus, in solemn fulfilment of my pious duty as the Master of Coin of the City of Stragosa, duly appointed by the hand of Reichsgrafin Sir Hezke von Heidrich, long may she reign.”

He pauses. “I’ll have to recite this every single time until the letterhead arrives? You can’t remember it? Or pre-write it? Fine. FINE. Next. No, don’t write this part down. Write down the next part. Yes, starting now.”

A moment passes as he rubs his eyes.

“As to the matter of the Night Lord’s Feast that you have been arranging and for which I have helped provide a guest list, and the requisite – and priceless, not easily replenished – materials from the Treasury:

Please remove my name from the guest list. I would like to address some of the assembled, but will not participate myself in the feast. In my place, please add Dame Khorshid, the feared warlord of the Indra’tariq, whose contributions to safeguarding Stragosa,” he pauses, touching hands to temples and closing his eyes, “far outstrip my own. If another spot becomes available, please consider adding Lady Shamara of the Indr’atma, whose efforts to fix malingering issues in Stragosa and overall contributions are..” he clenches his teeth but continues speaking, albeit strained, “highly admirable.”

He pauses.

“It probably does NOT need to be mentioned too broadly to the attendees at the feast – or indeed the general populace – that I nobly sacrificed my own spot at the table for a Sha’Ra warlord. Even though we both commanded troops in battle. I am sure dwelling on it too much would come across as unnecessary glorification. It wouldn’t do at all. I would hate it so. It would be most… upsetting to hear others praising my virtue.”

Walking over to the chamberlain, he hesitates, then resumes talking.

“Capitalize or underline the ‘not’ in the first sentence and make sure there are three dots between ‘most’ and ‘upsetting.’ Also, Khorshid is spelled K-H-O.. Oh, you have a cheat sheet? Good. Who? Yes, she’s the one I’ve talked about befo.. wait, no, that is none of your business. How dare you. We will talk about this later. Now, the next letter.”

The wine glass is starting to look bare, and he eyes the rapidly-emptying carafe with studied disinterest. Once the wine is gone, he will have to send for her again, and she will probably just tell him off once more. Curious.

“Now, private reply in a sealed envelope to recipient “R” as per the standard code book. Enclose their original letter and ensure both are destroyed after reading.”

Volksnand walks behind his desk, downs the remainder of his glass, and places his hands on the table surface.

“My kind and attentive friend. I appreciate your concerns and that you bring such scurrilous rumors to my attention at once. I wish to be clear. At no point have I refused to ‘release Spice’ from the Stragosa Treasury in my capacity as Master of Coin, and I have not neglected certain women despite my prior claims to the contrary. To the contrary, I have in fact followed Sir Hezke’s desire to support an official feast and am highly agreeable to reward those citizens of Stragosa who have helped in the recent battles, helped improve the city, or provided other vital services to the Throne. At no point have I opposed having even the most inferior and debased cultures and their warped religions participate in the feast, as long as the practitioners of those abhorrent, vile practices have improved our city. To suggest otherwise is a slanderous blood libel the likes of which I will fight with the full force of Fafnir’s fulgurous fury.”

He looks up and catches the chamberlain’s expression, then leans back.

“Change the words after ‘fight’ to a single word — ‘vigorously.’ Then add the following — ‘Given that we have essentially no Spice left in the Treasury, and are dangerously low on Coin, I am primarily concerned with re-filling Stragosa’s coffers and planning prudently for the long winter ahead. We can feast fully once the dreams of spring have turned into sunlight and sprouting.’ Yes, that is it. Deliver unsigned.”

Volksnand paces back and forth in front of his desk. “Next: to Corvo di Talmerin, Master of Coin to the City of Silbran.”

He takes a deep breath.

“I intend to agree with your proposal and we shall discuss at forum. However, as to the matter of taxation, for now I intend to uphold the taxation system that was implemented by Master Bakara during his short-lived tenure as Master of Coin in Stragosa. Most of the levies have not so far been .. uh.. levied.. Yes, rewrite that. Have not so far been raised, and as such I intend to give it at least another forum before seeking to make changes to it. Now, as you are not from Gotha yourself, you may not be familiar with this core principle of House Fafnir – a principle that has made the house great. It is a principle of conservatism – indeed, a principle of prudence. It is known by the people as the parable of the moat. When a man is appointed or rises to a position, they wish to improve things. Inevitably, they have ideas. Let us assume for instance that they see a moat or a portcullis. The reformer – let us call him the progressive, who wishes to bring progress to his lands – goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” However, the prudent man – nay, perhaps even the man possessed of uncommon wisdom – retorts: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.” This indeed is how I believe the matter of Bakara’s tax code for Stragosa is to be viewed. I am not yet wise enough to seek to destroy that which was created by a man who was here for longer, whose hair was whiter, and thus who was arguably possessed of relative local knowledge that I do not – yet! – possess. Regardless of his other many obvious inferiorities. For Sir Hezke would not have appointed a fool. Certainly not twice. Undersigned yours Lord et cetera.”

The carafe is empty. He hadn’t noticed it at all. The remainder of the wine swishes slowly around the wide goblet, leaving a lazy, thick trail along the side. What a curious colour indeed. Yet he cannot help but feel pleased, almost as if wrapped in a warm, slightly damp blanket, sticking tightly to his ribs, back, and legs. Where was his sword again? Ah, yes. What a glorious feeling to run it across his arm, shaving off hairs with a razor-sharp blade.

“You aren’t done yet,” the words come. Thickly, distantly, almost as if spoken by another man. But the chamberlain turns and picks up his quill expectantly.

“Hello mother. Lady mother. High-born lady mother in the castle. Your favourite son here. You’ve been expecting my letter, yes? Here is it. She left. The woman left. I felt close. So close. But she left, and didn’t want me to come along. That was great. No, I didn’t try everything. You know full well I didn’t. And yes, I could’ve sent her home with … a gift. I didn’t do that either. TRIPLE ELLIPSES BEFORE GIFT, MORON. No, I didn’t do that either. But look, I have a different gift for you. I give you, dot dot dot, four enemies. No, I haven’t stayed out of trouble. And no, none of them are from Sha’Ra, despite what you may have heard from a letter last year when I hilariously misspoke at the wrong time and almost got turned into a jug of piss by a wizard. They have them here, you know? Magicians. Anyway, as I was saying, I have made four enemies. There is the slayer, who means me ill simply because they see through me without even trying. The stag, whose hide I prize and whose antlers I shall mount on my castle walls. The stiletto, bared in the open yet unaware of its true strength. And finally, finally, the serpent, its poison dripping ever more sweetly. Many of my friends are gone or dead, mother, and my enemies are in ascendance.

Signed, your devoted son, full name and title, signet ring, red wax. It’s in the hollow book, third from the left on the middle shelf, fifth volume in “The Great Houses of Gotha,”’

He rises unsteadily and takes the finished letter from his chamberlain. “Take a few extra coppers on your way out. Get your daughter something nice, yes? Something to remind her of home. We.. you can all go back soon, one way or another.”

With the door thudding shut, Volksnand looks at the envelope. Folded once, it fits neatly into the brazier. A single hot coal from the fireplace ignites it with a quiet huff, black specks dancing their way towards the high ceiling as his eyes follow their ascent.

“More wine.”

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