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Madness in Solidar

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Madness in Solidar

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Author: L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
Publisher: Tor, 2015
Series: The Imager Portfolio: Book 9
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Four centuries after its founding, Solidar's Collegium of Imagers is in decline, the exploits of its founder, the legendary Quaeryt, largely forgotten. The Collegium is so lacking in leadership that the dying Maitre must summon Alastar, an obscure but talented senior imager from Westisle far to the south who has little knowledge of politics in the capital, as his successor. When Alastar arrives in L'Excelsis and becomes the new Maitre, he finds disarray and lack of discipline within the Collegium, and the ruler of Solidar so hated by the High Holders that they openly refer to him as being mad.

To make matters worse, neither Rex Ryen, ridiculed as Rex Dafou, nor the High Holders have any respect for the Collegium, and Alastar finds himself in the middle of a power struggle, with Ryen demanding that the Collegium remove the strongest High Holders and the military leadership in turn plotting to topple Ryen and destroy the Collegium. At the same time, Ryen is demanding the High Holders pay a massive increase in taxes while he initiates a grandiose building project. And all that, Alastar discovers, is only a fraction of the problems he and the Collegium face.



The two gray-clad imagers sat in the two chairs before the oblong desk. The prematurely gray-haired one glanced at the timepiece on the corner of the desk, and its sands flowing from the top of the glass to the bottom.

"Do you have to go?" asked Cyran, the younger of the two men, if only by a few years, although some silver hairs streaked his blond thatch.

"Not quite yet. I'm supposed to meet the rex at half past eighth glass.

He'd be happier if it were sixth glass."

"Is he that early a riser?"

"Supposedly. He always looks tired, even when he's angry, and that's

more often the case than not."

"Alastar... don't you think you're acceding to his wishes too much?

Even Maitre Fhaen..."

"He is the source of almost all our funding. That's barely enough right now, as I pointed out at the last meeting of the senior maitres. The drought in the southeast, around Piedryn, and the last rains here and in the west, have halved crop yields, and prices are going up... and will increase more. Then there's the small matter that the Collegium's charter is to support the rex, and that means against the High Holders and everything else. In the past, that's meant support against the army High Command as well, but with Demykalon only recently becoming marshal, it's hard to say."

"The word is that he doesn't like imagers."

"That's likely true." In fact, that had been one of the first things Alastar had learned after arriving at Imagisle. "That doesn't mean that Demykalon is that fond of the rex, and these days, Ryen also needs support against the factors' council."

"And everyone else, the Nameless knows," replied Cyran. "That puts us at odds with almost everyone."

"Ryen is far less than he could be, but would you want Demykalon, or any marshal running Solidar? Or High Holders Haebyn, Nacryon, and Guerdyn? Or any factor that you could name?"

"Especially Elthyrd. He's behind some new money-lending factorage, likely another excuse for usury on a larger scale."

"Oh... the new Banque D'Excelsis?" Alastar couldn't recall where he'd heard that.

"The word is that he put up the golds to back his son. What about Lorien? Would he be a better rex than his father?"

"Who knows? I've never met him, but it's hard to believe he couldn't do better than his sire, but that's not a certainty. In any event, we shouldn't be the ones making that choice. If it ever came out that we did... and it would come out, you know that as well as I..." Alastar did not finish the sentence, but he did not have to, he knew.

"It wouldn't be the end of the Collegium."

"If it weren't, it would come Namer-fired close." The Maitre of the Collegium Imago shook his head. "So we'll do our best to keep everyone at bay with everyone else until someone with sense shows up."

"As if anyone with sense would be stupid enough to let it be known," countered Cyran. "Do you know what Ryen wants?"

"No." Alastar stood, letting Cyran know that their talk was over. "I can hardly wait to find out what new scheme or pet peeve he's become obsessed with."

"Better you than me."

"Thank you, my friend." Alastar offered a warm smile, then watched as Cyran left the study. After a moment, he picked up a leather case and riffled through the papers inside, although he doubted that Ryen would wish to discuss what was contained in any of them, unless, of course, Alastar neglected to bring the folder. Then, after donning a riding jacket that matched his imager grays and the gray cap with its polished black leather visor, he made his way out of the study and along the corridor toward the older end of the administration building, that section constructed by the first imagers of the Collegium. That was a much different time. Much different.

He still found it almost unreal that he had been the second-highest imager at Westisle less than two months ago, or that Maitre Zhelan had turned down the opportunity to come to head the entire Collegium and had let it be known that Alastar should take the position. The more Alastar heard and saw, the more he understood at least some of the reasons Zhelan had demurred. At least, no one had asked him to go to Mont D'Image, the isolated northern town at the base of the Montagnes D'Glace that housed failed or disciplined imagers. He shuddered at that thought.

Outside the old main entrance, both his escorts were waiting, attired in the standard imager grays, with gray riding jackets and visor caps, given the stiff breeze and almost chill air of midfall. So was his mount, an older but not aged gray gelding, a symbolism that Alastar never voiced, but let others infer.

Although he could have summoned one of the Collegium carriages, he preferred to ride, even though that required two young imagers as escorts. While the two carried blades and truncheons, those were backed by imaging skills ranging from the simple expedient of imaging a cloud of fine pepper around the head of an assailant to imaging something into the body of an attacker.

Alastar looked at the gelding, murmured, "Here we go again, fellow," then mounted and urged the gelding forward. "The north bridge." He looked to the large gray stone dwelling at the north end of the green bordered by stone-paved lanes on each side. Unlike the family dwellings on each side of the green, it was two stories tall and extended a good forty yards across the front with a wide covered porch wrapping around it--a dwelling that would have been far too large for Alastar, a childless widower, were it not for his responsibilities for entertaining those within the Collegium and, occasionally, those from outside, although he had not done that in the brief time he had been on Imagisle. He turned toward the imager on his left. "How are your studies with Maitre Cyran coming, Belsior?"

"Well enough, sir."

"He mentioned that you have a tendency to be... excessively enthusiastic in imaging iron darts."

"Yes, sir. He made me understand that."

Alastar smiled at the understatement, knowing that Cyran had made the young man, a solid third, who might someday possibly become a Maitre D'Aspect, image darts until he collapsed, in little more than a tenth of a glass, then walked up to the fallen Belsior and put a sabre at his throat. "He does have a way about him."

At that, Neiryn, the other third, nodded.

Before long, the three were riding across the north bridge over the River Aluse. Once on the west shore, they turned north on the West River Road, threading their way past a wagon moving south and piled with bales of hay.

The shops that lined the west side of the road were neat enough, Alastar reflected, but definitely showed their age, unlike those on the East River Road. As they neared a point opposite the north end of Imagisle, Alastar again marveled, as he had every time he saw them, at the gray stone ramparts that sheathed the entire shoreline of the isle that held the Collegium. He still had a hard time believing that the first maitre had created those walls in a single day, although that was the story. For his own reasons, Alastar was loath to disabuse that rumor, as, he suspected, had been every Collegium Maitre since the first one. Yet... even in a month or a season?

At the west end of the Nord Bridge, the three turned their mounts onto the Boulevard D'Ouest, another wide stone-paved way said to have been created by the Collegium's first imagers, although the stones showed little if any wear, given that they had been laid nearly four hundred years earlier at the time of the consolidation of Solidar under Rex Regis. Then again, Alastar had to admit that those paving stones looked little different from the way the ones in Westisle had when he had first been an imager primus at that branch of the Collegium nearly thirty years ago.

As they rode closer to the Chateau D'Rex, the shops grew larger and their fronts newer, while the cafés and the occasional bakery sported awnings, although many of those were rolled up, most likely because of the brisk northwest wind. Where the boulevard intersected the ring road around the Chateau D'Rex, Alastar turned south and then took the lane up to the steps leading up to the main portico. At the foot of the steps, he dismounted and handed the gelding's reins to Belsior. "I have no idea how long I'll be here."

"Yes, sir," the two replied almost in unison.

Alastar took the steps, more than a score, reputedly imaged of near indestructible alabaster-like white stone by the Collegium's first imagers. He still wondered why they had not brought the approach lane higher so that there were fewer steps, but he supposed that was so that the grade to the stone plaza at the foot of the steps was gentle enough for wagons and carriages.

One of the guards escorted Alastar from the main entry up the grand staircase to the upper level of the chateau and then back along the north corridor to a chamber almost in the northeast corner, where another guard stood. The second guard rapped on the door. "Maitre Alastar, Your Grace."

"Send him in!"

The force of Ryen's words announced his mood, but Alastar smiled as he stepped into the study and walked toward the massive black oak desk that dominated the east end of the long chamber, on which were piled stacks of papers.

From where he sat behind the desk, the angular and nearcadaverous-looking Ryen glared. A too-long lock of black hair swept almost over his left eye. He wore a gold and gray striped tunic that did not become him over gray trousers, a far more conservative attire than that cultivated by most High Holders. "What took you so long?"

"The half-glass has not yet rung, sir."

"That doesn't matter. It still takes you too long to get here. It's not much more than a mille from Imagisle to the chateau."

"That is as the raven flies. There's no direct route from Imagisle to the chateau. I have to ride north to the Boulevard D'Ouest--"

"You've explained that before." Ryen smiled, the intense glare of the moment before instantly gone and replaced with an expression of total warmth. "We need to do something about that. I will obtain the land, and you and your imagers will build a new boulevard directly from the northern bridge... the bridge of wishes or whatever..."

"The Bridge of Desires," supplied the Collegium Maitre.

"...directly to the chateau."

"Just to the ring road around the chateau," suggested Alastar, well aware of the rex's very literal mindset.

Ryen frowned.

Alastar refrained from sighing. "If we build it right to the entry portico, it will destroy your east gardens and make it harder for you and your family to get to the hunting park or the marshal's headquarters or anywhere else. The extra few hundred yards or so won't make any difference in the time it takes to get to and from Imagisle."

"To the ring road, then. But directly there from the bridge."

"Once you have arranged for the land, we will stand ready to begin work on the road. Now... what was the matter for which you requested my presence?"

"High Holder Guerdyn has said that the High Holders of all Solidar may refuse to pay their annual tariffs if I increase them in the coming year."

Refuse to pay? Unprecedented as that sounded, it didn't surprise Alastar after the rhetorical rumblings over the past season.

"This year's tariffs?" Alastar knew tariffs were due by the end of Feuillyt, thirty-two days away. "Or next year's?"

"They haven't said. I haven't asked. Yet. It's likely to be this year's tariffs. Why else would they say that now? I have to announce next year's tariffs before this year's are due."

"You have to?"

"It's in the codex."

"What if you don't?" Who could make you?

"According to the codex, they don't have to pay this year's tariffs until I announce next year's."

"That could pose a problem..." temporized Alastar, suspecting that if even a small fraction of the High Holders withheld tariff payments, Ryen--and the Collegium--would face difficult times before long, certainly within months, if not weeks.

"Pose a problem?" snapped Ryen. "There are Namer-fired few golds left in the treasury. They know that. There have been fewer every year by the end of harvest. That's why I need to increase the tariffs. They haven't been increased in years."

"What about the factors?"

"What about them? They don't have to pay, either."

"Could you leave the tariffs at the same level for next year, and say that they'll increase next year?"

"Are you an idiot, Maitre?!! That's how I got into this mess. That's what your predecessor suggested. Then he went and died."

Alastar managed not to swallow. Fhaen had never mentioned tariffs. Then, the former Maitre hadn't mentioned all too many problems. "Is Guerdyn speaking for himself or as chief of the High Council?"

"He can't speak for the High Council until they meet on the eighteenth of Feuillyt."

"Have you heard anything from the other four councilors?"

"Haebyn and Nacryon agree with Guerdyn. Moeryn and Vaun won't oppose me."

"Vaun won't be a councilor after Year-Turn," Alastar pointed out.

"I know that. I want you to do something about one of those against me."

"What would you suggest?"

"Whatever it takes." Ryen's smile vanished. "Those insufferable malcontents... privileged and spoiled brats... all of them..."

"That may be, sir, but if any of those three vanish or die suddenly, everyone will blame you. They will as well if any of them takes ill this soon before the High Council meets."

"Then find a way to get one of them to change his mind." The rex's voice turned cold. "Your predecessor was less..."

"Less willing to point out the unpleasantnesses? That is true." And that was one of the reasons why the senior imagers continued to support him until almost the end.

"I was sorry to learn of his passing." Ryen's voice softened, then turned colder once more. "You know that Demykalon doesn't like imagers, especially when they bring up the unpleasant."

"I'm well aware of the marshal's distaste for both scholars and imagers. Have you talked with him about this?"

"I'd prefer not to use force of arms at this point, or even threaten it. Haebyn and several others would refuse to pay until I put a battalion on his doorstep, and sending a battalion all the way to Piedryn would create problems I don't want to think about."

Alastar nodded. From what little he'd heard about Haebyn, and he had heard a few things, Haebyn never let go of a grudge, at least according to Maitre Zhelan.

"I'd end up having troopers riding everywhere. That would cost more golds. I won't countenance spending golds to obtain them. I won't!" Ryen's voice rose not quite to a shout.

Alastair waited a long moment. "The High Holders might raise private armies in return, and we'd have a civil war on our hands." And because some of the commanders come from High Holder families, they might well not obey orders to discipline other High Holders.

"I'm glad you include the Collegium as part of 'we.' " Ryen waved toward the study door. "Let me know when you've taken care of the problem."

"I'll look into it," replied Alastar. "Then we'll see."

"If you don't solve it, I'll have to cut the golds to the Collegium, you know."

"I'm well aware of the source of much of our funding, but at times, tightening one's belt is preferable to slitting one's throat." Or the throats of innocent students and young imagers, which is more to the point.

"I won't press the point, Maitre, but an increase in tariffs would serve us all far better than belt-tightening. That would only encourage more attempts to throttle us both in the future."

Alastar nodded, if reluctantly, although Ryen was doubtless right. He turned and made his way from the rex's study, well aware that Ryen's gaze had turned to the window even before Alastar closed the study door on his way out.

On his ride back to the Collegium, Alastar pondered the situation facing both Ryen and the imagers... and the fact that Fhaen had never mentioned the tariff problem.

Once he was back in the administration building, he stopped at the table desk set in the anteroom outside his study and looked at the elderly imager secondus seated there. "Dareyn... would you please inform the senior imagers that there will be a meeting in the conference chamber at the first glass of the afternoon. It won't take long, but I expect all of them to be there." Not that there are that many seniors these days.

"Yes, Maitre."

"Thank you."

After Alastar returned to the study, his eyes took in the ancient Telaryn sabre mounted on a plaque hung on the wall behind the desk. Not for the first time, he wondered why the most tangible memorial remaining from the Collegium's founder was a sabre, given that the founder had been an imager. With a faint smile, he took his copy of the Collegium's master ledger from the small bookcase behind and left of his desk chair, sat down, and began to peruse the ledger. After that came an examination of the Collegium roster... and the revised junior imager training and academic program that he had proposed a month earlier, when he had become Maitre, and oh-so-slowly begun to implement. He was still going over that when Dareyn knocked.

"The others are all in the conference room, sir."

"Thank you." Alastar stood and left his study, crossed the anteroom, and entered the conference room, where he took his place at the head of the long, time-darkened, and well-polished oak table, glancing at the five senior imagers gathered there. Outside of Cyran and himself, there were only four others--Taryn, Akoryt, Desyrk, and Obsolym, all of those four Maitres D'Structure, although the white-haired Obsolym was barely that in terms of imaging ability.

"You're not going to bring up more changes to the academic, physical, and imaging training again, are you?" wheezed Obsolym.

"No, I'm not. I'm going to go over your roles in implementing it." Since some of you aren't doing what is necessary. "But before we get to that, I'm going to tell you why." He paused. "I had a meeting with Rex Ryen this morning."

"What did he want?" asked Cyran.

"He wants us to build an avenue straight from the Bridge of Desires to the ring road around the Chateau D'Rex. That was the more reasonable demand. After that, he effectively demanded that we make certain that the High Council does not vote to oppose the increase in tariffs on High Holders and factors that he intends to impose next year. That will require changing one of the probable votes in the coming High Council meeting because the High Council is opposed to paying any increase in tariffs. Ryen doesn't want to announce an increase if they'll vote to withhold their tariffs. They don't have to pay this year's tariffs until he announces next year's, and the treasury is almost empty."

"It's always been almost empty by the end of the year," declared Obsolym. "What about this avenue?"

"I told him we could do the road, but not until he owned the property and had made the arrangements. I also told him it would take weeks, possibly longer. The other matter is... more delicate and dangerous. I'd like each of your thoughts on that, especially given the precarious position the Collegium finds itself in." He looked to Taryn, the black-haired Maitre D'Structure to his left.

"Ryen hasn't been the best of rexes..."

That total understatement drew a few chuckles, mostly from Cyran and Desyrk.

"...and he's never been predictable, but he has a point. We're struggling to pay for everything. The factors and the High Holders complain if we use imaging to make anything that cuts into what they do. The army consists of six regiments, or thirty battalions, and the navy is made up of a score of antique warships. Ryen barely rules, but a tariff increase is necessary." Taryn turned his head to the redheaded Akoryt, the youngest man at the table.

"The High Holders won't listen to reason," said Akoryt mildly. "They only respond to force. Force won't work with the factors. There are too many of them, and too few of us to intimidate enough of them to make a difference."

"The factors will follow the lead of the High Holders, though," added Cyran. "Even if they're not happy about it. So far, they have, anyway."

Desyrk cleared his throat. "My brother the commander has often pointed out that force is often the only thing that works. Force will turn everyone against us. That makes all the choices before the Collegium unpleasant." His brown eyes fixed on Alastar, then dropped.

"They are," responded Alastar. "When I was summoned here from Westisle by the former Maitre, I had no idea how much the position of the Collegium here had deteriorated. I have debated summoning several Maitres D'Aspect and perhaps one Maitre D'Structure from Westisle, but, if I did, they would not arrive for more than a month, perhaps not until midto late Finitas, and that will be too late for them to help with this difficulty." He paused, knowing what he was about to say would sound like ancient history, but knowing it had to be said. "The first imagers of the Collegium were warriors. They were survivors of prosecution and persecution and murder. They numbered only a handful, but they were battle-hardened veterans who had developed enormous powers, the kind of powers we've not pursued developing to that degree in all imagers. We've neglected them because that kind of upbringing, testing, and training kills nine out of ten would-be imagers." As it almost has you several times. "As some of you know, as the senior imager of the Collegium in Westisle, I was criticized because my training methods resulted in greater losses of young imagers, even though what we did there was as nothing compared to what those first imagers endured. If imagers are to survive in Solidar, we must toughen our studies and our training."

"The kind of training you're talking about takes time and patience," declared Taryn. "You're right about how we should train imagers in the future. That was why I supported Maitre Fhaen's decision to summon you, but we have to deal with the problems we're facing now."

"You're absolutely right," agreed Alastar. "We can't rush training of the younger imagers. In fact, their training will have to take longer if it is to be effective. That means we must deal with Ryen and the High Holders by subterfuge, give the impression of greater strength than we have in fact, and create the sense that we are forbearing use of mighty powers in the hope that the High Holders will come to their senses."

"You and Cyran are the only ones with those kinds of abilities, especially at a distance," pointed out Desyrk. "Even you two might be pressed against the latest cannon of the army. Or the focused fire of the heavy rifles."

"When do you intend to make all these changes?" demanded Obsolym.

"We've already started. You know that. Maitre Cyran is working with the most promising seconds and thirds to develop shields and other capabilities sooner in their studies."

"The older way was safer," declared Obsolym.

"Safer for the individual imager at the time, but failing to develop imaging capabilities to a greater degree has put them more at risk than they ever would have been if we'd followed what I've set out." Or what we began two years ago at Westisle. "Something like ten imagers brought Rex Kharst and Bovaria to their knees. Ten. We have close to a hundred, between L'Excelsis and Westisle, and I doubt that any of us could image a fraction of what those ten could do." Alastar was understating slightly, because he and Cyran could do quite a bit more than a fraction, but nothing close to what the structures created by the legendary Quaeryt and even the less legendary Elsior showed was possible. "Now we're faced with a near-impossible situation, and we're in that position because we've pampered ourselves and the young imagers."

"You can't change that overnight," Obsolym pointed out.

"You're absolutely right," Alastar repeated, hating to keep harping on the situation, but knowing that at times repetition was necessary, "but the sooner we begin, the sooner we can begin to change matters, and improve our situation." If we can hold off Ryen, the marshal, the High Holders, and the factors... and possibly even the guilds. "Now... let me go over the outline of the training program... and what I expect of each of you. I'm open to any suggestions about improving matters..." Alastar had no doubt that the meeting would last at least another glass, but he had to make certain that each senior imager understood not only his responsibilities but also the responsibilities of every other imager.


Meredi morning just after seventh glass, a good glass and a half after rising, and after an easy run around Imagisle, Alastar stood in the rear courtyard of the armory, watching as Cyran conducted a training session with imager seconds. A cool wind continued to blow, and Alastar could see a line of gray clouds above the walls to the northwest.

As Maitre of the Collegium, Alastar needed to meet with High Holder Guerdyn, but that required finding out where Guerdyn might be. Whatever High Holder served as head of the High Council could use a comparatively modest but elegant chateau just off the West River Road about a half mille north of the Boulevard D'Ouest. That dwelling, although too small to accurately be termed a chateau, also served as the meeting place for the High Council. Unfortunately, because High Holder Guerdyn had his personal chateau and holding only ten milles east of L'Excelsis, Alastar had to send one of the young imagers as a courier to determine if Guerdyn was at the Council Chateau or at his own holding, and if he happened to be in L'Excelsis, to have the courier request a meeting for the afternoon.

Since worrying would not bring a reply any sooner, Alastar forced his concentration back to the courtyard. Leaning against the stone wall at the west end were wooden targets cut into shapes representing troopers in various positions. Standing to Alastar's right, a few paces from the east wall, were Cyran and seven imagers second, five males and two females, ranging in age from ten to fifteen, not old enough to be men and women, and too old to be boys and girls. The distance from the imagers to the targets was close to thirty yards. A large pile of iron scrap stood in the corner of the courtyard nearest the young imagers, a necessity to keep the seconds from drawing iron from the armory itself, weakening the building or the pitifully few weapons stored there.

"When I point to you," ordered Cyran, "image an iron dart into the target in front of you with enough force to hold. I won't point in order. So watch me." He pointed and snapped, "Beltran!"

A sliver of iron, hardly a dart, appeared in the target opposite the second, wobbling and barely sticking.

"That wouldn't even cause a coney to halt," observed Cyran. "Oestyl!"

A shorter, broader, and younger second concentrated, and a knifeshaped dart bounced off a target, not even the one directly before Oestyl.

"You can make the dart smaller. You don't need a hilt, but you need more power. It would also help if it went where it was supposed to. Julyan!"

Julyan's dart was smooth and deadly and buried itself halfway through the thick plank from which the target had been cut.

"Good! Now you, Celiena!"

The young woman did not seem to concentrate, but a perfectly shaped dart struck the target, but barely hard enough to stick in the tough wood.

"Excellent dart. You need to find more power. Aelbryt!"

Aelbryt's dart looked more like a spear point. It hit the target, held for a moment, then dropped to the stones below.

"You need more power, young man. Much more," declared Cyran.

Alastar walked over to the other maitre. "You'll keep them at it until they're exhausted... then bring them back for another session late this afternoon?" His words were barely a question.

Cyran nodded. "They're a bit tired already. They ran a mille first. They'll need to work up to two milles without collapsing. I had them imaging salt mist and fine pepper after that."

"I'll see you later." Alastar left the armory courtyard quietly, still holding full shields, as part of his own efforts to maintain his abilities amid all the politics and planning, not to mention trying to unscramble the finances and administration of the Collegium. As he passed the locked door to the armory, he wondered again why the Collegium even bothered with an armory, or had it just remained from the time centuries ago when a regiment had been quartered on Imagisle? So many useless remnants combined with an education little more than meaningless memorization of rhetoric and rote imaging. If it weren't for the fact that imagers needed a strong Collegium in L'Excelsis, where it could effect the rex and the High Council, Alastar would have been tempted to close Imagisle and ship all the imagers to Westisle. But that would just delay the decline of imager power, when what was necessary was to reverse that decline and reestablish the power of the Collegium in L'Excelsis--close to the rex and the High Council.

After he returned to the administration building, he went to the archives, overseen by Obsolym, who was absent at the moment. The archives were one of the few areas of the Collegium that did happen to be well-organized, and Alastar wanted to see what he could find about the past history of the present members of the High Council. Not surprisingly, he found nothing, except their names, as well as the names of every councilor who had served since the time of Elsior. Elsior, not Quaeryt? When he returned to his study, he took down the copy of the legal codex of Solidar, supposedly yet another creation of the legendary Quaeryt, and opened it, thinking as he did, Was there any aspect of the founding of Solidar that wasn't his doing? No man could do all that.

It took him almost half a glass to find what he sought, and he had barely given himself a self-congratulating nod when Dareyn rapped on his door.

"Imager third Glaesyn is here, sir."

"Have him come in."

The young man who entered was tall and broad-shouldered. From his observations and inquiries, Alastar knew he had an even disposition and was probably unlikely to progress beyond third, even with the more demanding training exercises that Cyran had begun to implement.

"Did you find High Holder Guerdyn, or one of his assistants?"

"Yes, sir. He was at the Council Chateau. He took the message himself. He said he would be pleased to grant you a meeting at half past second glass at the Council Chateau, despite the short notice."

Pleased to grant you a meeting? Not "pleased to meet with you"? Or "honored to meet with you"? "Were those his exact words?"

"Yes, sir. You told me to report back exactly what he said."

"Thank you. You've done well. I'll need you and another third as escorts at a half past second glass. Tell Imager Dareyn that, and have him work it out with Maitre Desyrk."

"Yes, sir."

For the next glass, Alastar pondered how far he needed to go with High Holder Guerdyn, jotting down thoughts... and rejecting most of them. Then he walked to the front of the building, carrying an oiled leather cloak in case the growing clouds decided to drop rain on L'Excelsis before he returned.

With Tertius Glaesyn was Chervyt, another third no longer a student. Chervyt held the reins to Alastar's gray gelding.

"Thank you," the Maitre offered as he took the reins and then mounted. "We'll take the north bridge."

From the time his gelding reached the slightly raised middle of the north bridge, formally called the Bridge of Desires, until he left the bridge and turned north on the West River Road, Alastar studied the buildings to the west of the bridge, knowing that, regardless of what Ryen had said, some of the crafters and owners of other buildings would suffer as a result of the rex's desire for a direct route between the Chateau D'Rex and Imagisle.

Somewhat more than half a glass later, the three crossed the Boulevard D'Ouest. Even from a half mille away, Alastar could see their destination clearly because the chateau stood on a low rise.

"Is that it, sir?" asked Chervyt. "The Council Chateau, I mean?"

"The building on the low hill? It is indeed."

A pair of guards in maroon livery opened the large, wrought-iron, double gates hung on gray stone pillars more than three yards high, then closed them almost silently, except for a slight squeaking. Although too small to be a true chateau, the High Council Chateau was definitely imposing, with a stone wall almost as high as the gate posts surrounding the grounds, a good quarter mille on a side, and with formal gardens on both sides of the stone-paved lane up to the dwelling itself, three stories high, a frontage width nearly twice that of the Maitre's dwelling at the Collegium, with a slate-tiled roof, wide windows on the upper two levels, and a covered entry portico wide enough for two coaches. Alastar had also heard that the rear wing held a sizable ballroom that opened out onto a formal walled garden, but, if so, that part of the chateau was not visible from the front lane.

A footman in the same maroon livery stepped out from the bronzed double doors at the entry to the chateau and descended two of the four wide stone steps before saying, "Maitre Alastar, welcome to the Council Chateau."

Alastar dismounted and handed the reins to Glaesyn. "You can dismount, but wait here. It may be a while." And it may not. He wasn't about to voice that thought as he strode up the steps after the footman and into the circular entry hall beyond the double doors, tucking his visor cap under his arm.

The footman closed the door. "High Holder Guerdyn will be here shortly." Then he departed down the corridor leading directly back from the entry.

The hall itself was spacious, some eight yards across, with a domed ceiling as high as the hall was across. Alastar stood alone in the circular entry hall for only a few moments, just enough to make the point that the High Councilor could make the Maitre wait, before a tall man with gray-shot brown hair and a warm and very practiced smile appeared. Guerdyn wore a gold and black doublet with black hose and shoes, and a black jacket trimmed in gold.

Quite a contrast, thought Alastar, given that he, and all imagers, wore deep gray shirts, trousers, and jackets, with black boots and belts.

"Maitre Alastar... I've heard so much about you. I wondered when you might attend to the High Council."

"Attending to the High Council will always be a priority of mine, and to the councilors, beginning, of course, with you." Alastar smiled, imaging a sense of warmth as well. "I would have attended to you sooner, if not for rather more pressing matters at the Collegium."

"Ah, yes... the death of Maitre Fhaen. A pity. He always understood the... shall I say, delicacy of the relationships between the High Council and Rex Ryen." Guerdyn presented a pleasant smile. "We should continue our chat in the study. It's quite comfortable there."

"Then lead the way." Alastar offered the words lightly.

Even so, Guerdyn stiffened almost imperceptibly, if but for an instant. He turned and walked toward the archway on the right.

Alastar followed, a half pace behind.

Guerdyn did not speak until he stopped opposite the third door on the right and gestured. "This is the receiving study." Two sets of armchairs were spaced in a circle around a low table on which refreshments might be placed, with two higher side tables set between the two chairs on each side.

"From where one can see whom one might be receiving," said Alastar after entering and observing that the windows afforded a clear view of the entry portico.

"It does come in useful at times." Guerdyn motioned toward one chair, then the one across from it, before seating himself in the first.

"All knowledge is useful, and those of us in the Collegium endeavor to understand even that which is never mentioned. It's one of our vices, I fear, you know, knowledge not just for power, but also for its own sake."

"Acquiring some knowledge may be more costly than it is wise to purchase."

"You are doubtless correct in that," replied Alastar as he seated himself across from Guerdyn, not that he hadn't thought of taking one of the other chairs. "The problem there is that one does not know the value of such knowledge until after it has been obtained. While I have the feeling you care little for anything that is not useful, usefulness is often hard to determine in advance."

Guerdyn offered a cool smile. "I do have a fondness for a few items of beauty that may have limited usefulness, but only a few."

"Artworks? Sculpture? Views from your chateau? Poetry?"

"They're few and eclectic. Some day, if you visit my own chateau, I'd be pleased to show you." Guerdyn's smile vanished. "You've been Maitre for little more than a month, and you've not been in L'Excelsis much longer than that. Many were surprised by how quickly you became Maitre, and that you were called here to become Maitre rather than Maitre Zhelan, especially since Maitre Fhaen wasn't that old, as I recall."

"No... but he had a progressive flux of the lungs, not consumption, but the results were the same. He summoned me when he realized his days might be limited." In point of fact, Alastar suspected Cyran and some of the more junior maitres, likely pressed by Shaelyt, had persuaded Fhaen to do so, but Cyran had avoided any direct answers to general inquiries, and Alastar hadn't felt it wise to press. As it was, Fhaen had lived only a few days beyond the week after Alastar had arrived. "Maitre Zhelan had long let it be known that he had no intention of leaving Westisle." What Alastar wasn't about to say was that Zhelan had already been feeling uncomfortable about Alastar's greater abilities as an imager, and by refusing the post as titular head of the overall Collegium, Zhelan could maintain his position and allow Alastar to advance without overtly ever admitting Alastar's superiority.

"That hasn't caused a problem? He was senior to you..."

"I can assure you Maitre Zhelan is most happy with the situation. If you wish to write him, I am certain he will confirm that. He would confirm that in private with no witnesses."

At Alastar's last statement, Guerdyn laughed softly. "I already knew that. I wondered if you would confirm it."

Alastar shrugged. "I'm not surprised."

"I presume you are here at the rex's behest to inquire about the High Council's opposition to his proposed increase in tariffs?"

"I'm not aware of any proposal. If the rex were to decide to increase tariffs, it would not be a proposal. It would be the law. As a measure affecting all Solidar it falls under the definition of High Justice under the original legal codex of Solidar."

"So he did instruct you to talk to me about the tariffs?"

"That is obviously a matter of interest to both the rex and the Collegium, but he did not instruct me to see you, or even suggest that I do so."

"Then might I ask what he expects of you and the Collegium?"

"You can certainly ask, but you would know his expectations, far better than I would, since you have dealt with him for far longer than I. What do you think they might be?"

"His intentions are obvious. He wishes to strengthen his position at the expense of both the High Holders and the factors."

"His position or that of Solidar as a whole?"

"Most of the wealth and productive resources of Solidar belong to the factors and the High Holders. Anything that weakens either weakens Solidar."

"You don't consider the small holders, the laborers, or the crafters of the guilds as productive resources?"

"You're sounding very much like an advocate, Maitre Alastar."

"Perhaps... but it is a fair question."

"They produce, but they would produce little without what the High Holders and factors do. Higher tariffs would hurt them more than anyone. That is another reason why, if the rex were to propose an increase in tariffs, it would be a poor idea."

"You believe that rather strongly, but... as I observed before, if the rex decides to increase tariffs, it is not a proposal. It is the law. Tariffs do not have to be paid, I understand, until he does set the levels for the following year, but there is no provision for withholding of tariffs once the rex does so. How the law is enforced... or how lawbreakers are treated... is up to the High Justicers. Of course, it might not come to that." Alastar uttered the last few words softly.

"That would appear to be a threat, Maitre."

Alastar shook his head. "The Collegium cannot afford to make threats. If you examine my words, you will find everything I stated is of a factual nature."

"Then you have made a factual threat."

"I have said that, if the rex increases tariffs, it is not a proposal, but a law, and he has the power to make that law to raise golds. Anyone affected by a law who does not abide by it is a lawbreaker. If High Holders break the law, their cases are decided by a High Justicer, not by the rex. If the rex imposes a tariff increase, and High Holders pay it, then it will not come to lawbreaking. How is that a threat?"

"You are fencing with words." For the first time, Guerdyn's voice hardened.

"And you are not?" Alastar smiled gently. "Besides, and more important, fencing with words is far less destructive than doing so with blades or golds... or other methods. Isn't that why everyone agreed on a legal codex when Solidar was founded?"

Abruptly, Guerdyn nodded. "That is a very good point. Thank you for bringing it up."

"You're welcome." Alastar immediately worried about Guerdyn's reaction to what he had said. You've given him a tool, and you don't even know what it is.

"Now that we've talked around that point," Guerdyn said easily, "might I ask what your plans for the Collegium are?"

"I'm happy to tell you. We're strengthening the requirements for studies and imager training for students, and we're looking into areas where imagers can produce goods that are wanted and necessary, but which do not compete with those produced by either factors or High Holders."

"Admirable goals. The first is certainly attainable. I would be curious about the second."

Alastar laughed. "I'm curious as well. We're not so far along in that, but the last thing the Collegium needs is to compete with either High Holders or factors. First, it doesn't make sense, because there are so few imagers that trying to make something that others can produce by the score seems unwise, and frankly, not terribly profitable. Second, I'd prefer to see the Collegium, the High Holders, and the factors working harmoniously, rather than in competition."

"I fear you have your work cut out for you, Maitre."

Alastar could tell that the two would exchange pleasantries and generalities for a time yet, before Guerdyn signaled that it was time to end the discussion... and that was perfectly fine with Alastar, since he had learned what he needed to know--for the moment.

Copyright © 2015 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.


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