Usurpee

“Prince Eric is in town,” Bellarmin said a little too casually. My head spymaster looked downright smug.

“Oh?” I asked, idly leafing through whichever unimportant report had been the pretext for our meeting. It was something about latrine cleanliness and death rates in the Narrows. The words seemed to slip straight from my mind even as I read them. My full attention was on Bellarmin’s words, and he knew it.

I stamped my seal on the latrine report in silence; whatever it said, I trusted Bellarmin to fulfill his cover role as Minister of Infrastructure almost as well as he wove his webs of secrecy and information across my kingdom.

Bellarmin watched me, equally determined to play the game of silence. He knew I wanted that morsel of information, and he wanted to make me dance for it, the sly bastard.

I played his game for a few more minutes before sighing and handing him the approved report. “Well?”

“Well what?” he asked, eyes wide with mock innocence.

“What about the prince, the Batrick heir? Eric?”

“Well, he’s back in town, you see,” the spymaster drawled.

“You already said that part.”

“He’s asking around about… things.”

I tried to not grind my teeth. My physician feared for the state of my dental hygiene, for some reason, and his opinion had saved more than one life important to me. Bellarmin had as well, which was the only reason I was even now putting up with his obstinance.

“Let me guess,” I said, forestalling the painful yet seemingly inevitable back and forth of making me jump and flip for every last scrap of information. “He, knowing that I killed his father, usurped the throne, and exiled him and his mother to a remote land, has returned in force to right the wrongs that were done to him and the people of this kingdom, and even now he seeks the support of the commonfolk to storm my dark keep that protect me from the justice due to me that would see my head in a basket while he is restored to his rightful position as the king, appointed by man and anointed by twelve of the fifteen gods, and let’s be honest those other three don’t quite rank highly in the grand scheme of things, do they?”

I stopped to catch a breath.

“Well… yes,” Bellarmin said, some of the wind let out of his sails. “More or less.”

“More?” I asked. “Or less?”

“Hit the nail on the head, really,” he muttered. “Damn, I need to step up or you’ll put me out of a job.”

I snorted. “And put you straight into the boy’s hands, is that it? Is he asking around for my worst enemies, or has he moved on to asking my most trusted advisors directly if they will betray me?”

“He has contacted me,” Bellarmin admitted.

“Of course,” I sighed. “Ranking spymaster, trusted of his late father, known past double agent who in all possibility only serves me so that he may gain my trust and backstab me at the opportune moment. Well? Am I dead?”

“You are not, sire,” Bellarmin confirmed. “Everyone expects a past double agent to continue to be a double agent. It’s rather cliche. Overdone. A spymaster is only as good as he is unpredictable.”

“Bellarmin, I have longed since given up trying to guess your mind. You refuse high stations and money in exchange for protection I already give you and yours?”

“That is correct, sire,” Bellarmin said quietly.

I rubbed my temple. “Doesn’t Yoretta want a nice necklace, at least? A pony for the children?”

“Ponies are more work than I would care to deal with, and Yoretta has no mind for frivolous sparkles.”

“You make it so hard to buy you, Bellarmin.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

“Oh, enough with the ‘lords’ and ‘sires’. You always get formal when I’m anxious. I’m of lower birth than you, you know, I can—“

“Yes, you can out-peasant the lowest of us, I know.”

I sighed. I must have been getting as predictable as Bellarmin was afraid of becoming. “So?”

“I told him to kick rocks.”

“Oh.” That shut me up.

“To be clear, I did fully intend to gain your trust and betray you when the time was right,” Bellarmin said conversationally. “But that all seems a bit… dramatic. And for what? Civil unrest, possibly uprising and civil war? Thousands dead while the power vacuum settles. It was bad enough last time, and frankly I don’t see how the kid would make the kingdom anything but worse.”

“Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree?”

“I fear the apple grew in the exact same spot that the tree was chopped down in,” Bellarmin said.

I frowned. “What?”

“The kid’s a dullard,” Bellarmin said. “And an ass. He speaks of what the kingdom owes to him as its rightful heir. His promises are honey now, but I fear they will turn to vinegar if he is given what he wants.”

“Exile is alleged to be a humbling experience,” I said.

Bellarmin shrugged. “You sent him unharmed to the court of his greatest ally.”

“Perhaps that was unwise in retrospect”

“It was kind, and it was a kindness that seems to have done him more harm than good.”

“So you haven’t joined him, apparently,” I said. “What about the army?”

“You increased their pay last month again,” Bellarmin said. “Before even I knew he was coming to these parts. Either you are prescient or you have an even greater spymaster in your pocket. Either way, they do not concern me.”

“The disgraced former General Tholar and his Dozenscore Knights?”

“Only threescore now,” Bellarmin reminded me. “Most took that retirement package you offered and haven’t fought in a decade. The rest are sellswords in Annax.”

“What about the people? The commonfolk? The peasantry?”

“The peasants of whom you are one? The commonfolk who have never seen so much peace, nor had so much to eat? The people for whom you—“ he flapped the latrine report in my face— “for whom you just approved a massive plumbing and sewage project without hardly a second thought?”

“Is that what that is?”

“You didn’t know?” Bellarmin exclaimed.

I shrugged. “I trust you to do what’s best.

Damn it, sire, that’s the issue here!”

“Issue?”

“How on earth do you expect us to revolt against you when you’re so damn… damn… decent?

I blinked. “I, uh, can kill a few townsfolk to prove a point if you’d like?”

“You listen to your advisors.”

“They know a hell of a lot more than me,” I said. “I don’t even know what plumbing is. I just figured less deaths are good.”

“You care about the wellbeing of the people.”

“More people means more workers, and more money.”

“You invest that money back into the city.”

“I can hardly rule if they’re so upset that they revolt,” I said. “Oh.”

Bellarmin made a there you go motion with his hand.

“So… no inevitable revolt.”

“He has one follower,” Bellarmin said. “Yellow the Grey.”

“You mean the drunkard?”

“Yep.”

“Huh.” I gazed at the floor.

“You sound disappointed,” Bellarmin noted. “Is something wrong? Would… would you prefer a violent revolution that ends with your head on a pike?”

“I just figured the kid would grow up to be greater than that,” I confessed. “Maybe if I were more evil… more ruthless… would he be a better leader then? It just seems as though he hasn’t reached his full potential.”

Bellarmin sighed. “You utter—“

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