Anaxus III surveyed his hall. To his right were statues of the gods. Thacanarion, Orbius, Tormus, Oshus, Olia, and Nocia. To his left, great Emperors of the past. Argeus, Polasius I, Tormusus II, Polasius II, Conorius II, and Anaxus II.
The current emperor gazed at his father. When Old Etor had been destroyed, and Tosus III had perished, there had been War. No, there had been Wars. The south and west had demanded independence. The surviving royals had squabbled among themselves. The Norgads had invaded. As had the Giants, and the Irinians, and Condoran mercenaries, and bandits from the Little Lands, and every minor warlord and their mother. The statue showed Anaxus II as he had looked during those times. Brave and determined, sword in hand. That was not the Emperor who raised a son. The man Anaxus III had know had been tired, worn down by years of fighting. Miserable after killing his brothers, defeated after concessions to the Norgad Lords. He had kept his crown. But he had spent his entire life defending it.
Anaxus III was going to be greater than any of them. He was preparing to go on the offensive. To destroy the sorcerers in their home. Everyone knew of the treasures stored in the Green Tower. Most of it, of course, was blasphemous magic. But there would still be plenty in the way of good, old-fashioned gold.
Anaxus regarded the men in front of him. The Priests of Thacanarion. Anaxus had once heard an interesting theory regarding that god. The theory held that the legend of Thacanarion had begun as a dragon-god, milennia ago, when dragons still walked the world. As the dragons drove each other out, the myth of Thacanarion merged with those of other gods. That explained his bizarre hodgepodge of dominions, including dragons, swords, iron, fire, and war. Anaxus didn't know if this theory was true or not. He didn't care. All that mattered to him was that the priests endorse his next war.
"Truly, this war would be the work of the gods," he said. "Not only would we drive the unholy sorcerers from the world. but we would be able to offer up all sorts of demonic instruments to the gods."
"The gods have no need of demonic instruments," the high priest said. "That is no sacrifice."
"Well, the gods always have need of gold." Or at least, their priests do.
"That," said the high priest, "would be a true and honorable sacrifice."
"Very well. A million gold Conoris will be given to the war god once victory is achieved." Anaxus stole a look at Conorius. The Emperor so rich the currency still bore his name almost a century after his death.
"Thacanarion would be pleased by that sacrifice. We shall pray for your fortune during the war to come."
"It pleases me to hear it. The Temple of Thacanarion has always enjoyed a close relationship with the Emperor. Even my crown, blessed by your order so that none but the rightful Emperor may wear it, and retrieved from the ashes of Old Etor. It is a constant reminder how helpful you are."
They exchanged pleasantries for some time more. Eventually, the priests left, and the next wave of visitors was brought in.
The Norgad Lords. Some of them, anyway. Lords Orin, Tong, and Bolar. The three who currently made their home in New Etor, instead of ruling from their citadels on the east coast of the Empire. These where the ambitious ones, the ones who wanted to work with the Empire. Many of their brothers thought themselves conquerors, ruling over the weak Etoran sheep. These three probably did as well, but at least they recognized that there were more sheep to be gained by following the Emperor.
They traded pleasantries. There was a complicated ritual about whether the Norgads could carry swords in the palace. Anaxus offered blessings in the name of the Six, and the Norgads offered blessings in the name of their own god, Ishdod.
"My lords, I am planning an invasion."
"One of the Little Lands," Orin asked. "Bathys? Darmash?"
"Irin," Tong suggested.
"No," Bolar said. "He wants to strike against the Norgad homeland. He needs our ships."
"The University of the Green Tower. A place weaker and richer than any of the lands you mentioned."
"And you want our men," Orin guessed.
"Does the Emperor not have men of his own?"
"I do. I use them every year. You, on the other hand... when was the last time you used your soldiers. They forget their training, their loyalty even. That is what happens to soldiers who aren't given their share of... plunder."
The interest of the Lord was piqued. "Plunder?"
"Indeed. Sorcerers make good valued throughout the worlds. Lamps that need no fuel and no fire. Impervious to the wet. Potions to heal any sickness you care to name. The dark powers have many applications. My men, of course, would never touch these foul creations. It would fall to your soldiers to destroy them. I trust the Norgad armies could be trusted to make these items disappear."
The Lords smiled among themselves. They were about to benefit from Etoran superstition.
"I, Orindod," will support you, said Orin. He was using the Norgad suffix for lordship. A habit even they had not dropped in their time in the Empire.
"And I, Tongdod."
"And I, Bolardod."
More pleasantries, more nonsense about carrying swords in the palace, and the Norgad Lords were on their way out. The Emperor allowed himself a brief smile. Yes, he had his personal legions. But they weren't for invading foreigners. They were for putting down rebellions. When it came to fighting the scum of other nations, why, that was where the Emperor's disloyal noblemen could be counted on to fight. Yes, the legions would make their appearance. But the true fighting and dying, it would be Norgad men doing that. And another enemy of the crown would become just a bit weaker.
Several hours later, the Emperor was almost done procuring the support for war. He had talked to the treasurer. He had spoken with his generals. He had asked his spies whether New Etor would rebel in his absence. He had begun to draw up plans. He knew those plans would have to be abandoned. They were built entirely on guesswork,since nobody knew anything about the strength of Koteph's army of monsters. The current plans called for a month's march there and back, and a week to conquer the Tower and distribute its contents.
The Emperor had one more audience that day. It was with Quisus Stanium, the Chief Inquisitor of the Empire. The man responsible for removing any shreds of sorcery from the Empire, and burning them.
He was an older man. And a slight one. He wore the robes of an Inquisitor, and a medallion to show his rank. He bowed his head to the Emperor, as was proper. He was a high-ranking member of the court.
The Emperor ran his fingers over his rings. "You wish to speak with me, Quisus."
"I do, your Imperial Majesty. I have heard tell of a plan to attack the Green Tower."
"As Chief Inquisitor, I work closely with all the priesthoods."
The Emperor weighed this news. The war wasn't exactly secret. He certainly couldn't blame Quisus for hearing about it. "I trust you will be more discreet."
"The Inquisition is always discreet." The Inquisitor looked at the ground, before returning his gaze to the Emperor. "Are you sure this war is a good idea."
"It will bolster our coffers, restore our prestige, and deny the Irinians and the Condorans the sorcerers they use against us. A powerful sorcerer bent on revenge has volunteered to lay down his armies beside mine. It is a very good idea."
The Inquisitor inhaled. "After Old Etor fell, there were eight mages- eight powerful sorcerers, left in the country. By the end of the Wars, there were five. Four of them were successfully expelled without a fight. One of them- Toroshash- stayed in his Black Tower. The Inquisitor of the time sent thirty men to expel him. A week later, a raven brought him a single tooth. There was a note saying that was all that was left of the thirty men. So he sent seventy more. More success. Three of them fled."
"It is a good thing I don't plan on bringing seventy men. Seventy thousand, perhaps."
"You have to understand, majesty, it isn't just the sorcerers. The Towers themselves are impregnable. The Violet Tower lies at the heart of your Empire. We have attacked it with swords, with fire, with battering rams, and with catapults. We have asked strong warriors and Priests of Orbius. And we might as well have stayed home for all we accomplished."
"Then it is a good thing siege warfare has been invented, Inquisitor. Are you done?"
"With all due respect, no, your Imperial Majesty. You have heard of the War of the White."
"Of course I have."
"Illiel of the White Tower, a single sorcerer, persuaded the King of Irin to launch an attack against our Empire. The one man killed four thousand legionnaires. Many of our men flocked to join the Irinian side. Had Illiel lived longer, we would likely all speak Irinian today. As it was, we were left defenseless, with no armies. It was that defenselessness that allowed your family to take the reigns from their predecessors."
"And you mean to compare me to those weak Emperors? The last of the Legium kings?"
"N-No, my lord. I meant to praise you for being different. In your years as ruler you have kept the throne because you know who you can break, and who is not worth the risk."
"I do. I know that you, for instance, are very breakable." Anaxus gestured towards one of his guards. "Do you think he is breakable."
"Like a twig, majesty."
"Indeed." He motioned again, and the guard grabbed Quisus.
"No. No, have mercy, my lord!"
"Cut off his left thumb," the Emperor ordered. He addressed his Inquisitor. "Wear the thumb around your neck for ten days and ten nights. Let it remind you what I can and cannot break."
Later that night, Quisus Stanium lay awake in his bedchamber. His wife was beside him, finally asleep. Good.
Quisus snuck to his study. He opened a locked box, and retrieved a book he had confiscated over a decade earlier. He flipped through until he had reached the desired page.
He pulled out his bandaged hand. Slowly, but surely, he unwrapped the bloodied white cloth. He looked at where his thumb used to be. He consulted the book, and followed its instructions. Wards against infections, spells to dull the pain, an enchantment to help it heal over faster.
Quisus had meant what he said to the Emperor. He knew better than anyone that the army could not handle five hundred sorcerers. Even the Inquisition hadn't been able to handle sorcerers. At least, not without becoming sorcerers themselves.
It had been a gradual process, at least for Quisus. He had joined the Inquisition an idealist, just like all the rest. Intent on stopping the unholy monsters who had killed so many of his countrymen. But as he had hunted sorcerers, he had begun to realize that they were people. People with a certain knowledge, a certain talent, a certain skill. Put people, nonetheless. He had executed a Seer who had visions of the return of the King without Eyes. He had arrested wise-women, leaving sick men to die. True, some sorcerers were evil. Raiders from other countries hoping to prey upon a defenseless population, or black priests of the Cruel Goddess. But, during his long years of service, Quisus had come to the conclusion that magic was a tool, and in the right hands it could be a useful one.
So Quisus became curious. He opened the forbidden books. He read them. And he discovered he had a bit of a talent.
Quisus told himself that his advice to the Emperor had been an act of charity. A boon to the Empire, and an offering to the sorcerers he had so often wronged. But he knew that to be a lie. It had all been a failed attempt to protect his son.
Quisus had never been much of a father. Never even knew his son, accept from a far. Inquisitors weren't permitted to marry.
But even though Acanus didn't know his father's name, he had inherited his father's talent. Quisus just hoped it would be enough.