I rubbed my forehead, sighing.
“Sorry Chunnly, I think I misheard, how many meetings do I have today?”
Chunnly inspected the parchment in his hands counting through a list. Meanwhile I admired the office I was in, trying to distract myself from an alarmingly fast growing amount of duties. My Father’s study was ornate and elegant. The walls were painted a rich amber color, and the floor was decorated with intricate golden tiles. Large carved wooden balcony doors stood open, allowing the warm desert air to breeze in. Softly colored tapestries draped the far wall, which was adorned with a tall portrait of the City. A grand desk sat at the center of the room, its surface covered in stacks of paper and scrolls which I despised. Candelabras stood at either side of the desk, filling the room with a soft flickering light. A few cushioned chairs were set along one wall, inviting visitors to sit and relax. I would soon have those replaced with the most uncomfortable ones I could find.
Chunnly’s voice brought my focus back "Eleven meetings Princess, and you are scheduled for a field visit to the schools to review their progress later this afternoon.”
I nodded pursing my lips “Yea, that’s what I thought you said.”
Chunnly smiled knowingly, holding back a chuckle, "It seems that since your Father's passing, some of the merchants have been in a hurry to shift power around."
I rolled my eyes in frustration. "All so eager to shove their agendas down my throat. Perhaps we could have them all suffer unfortunate fatal accidents before arriving?"
"I understand your frustration, Princess," Chunnly said calmly. "Alas we don't have enough gold to hire so many skilled assassins' on short notice."
I huffed. "An issue of supply and demand, we must train up new ones, loyal to the crown."
Chunnly dutifully wrote it down, nodding "future matters of employees aside I urge you to do well in these meetings, it could be worse, it could be nobody wanted to meet with you."
I laughed sharply reaching for a glass of chilled water "And how would that be worse?”
“It would have meant none of them thought you would survive long enough to matter.”
I paused, placing the water down tilting my head in acknowledgement. “True enough, at this rate it seems only two thirds of them think I’ll kick the bucket soon, I’ll see what I can get out of these meetings.”
“I'm sure you will, Princess.”
I adjusted my silky black tunic and drank the ice-cold water deeply before giving Chunnly a nod to lead in the first merchant.
The first few meetings seemed to blur together like a horrible dream. One merchant wanted my father's estate given to them as payment to secure their alliance, another wanted the crown to supply them with duty free rights of trade. I had whipped them both into line nicely with some very serious rumors in regards to their respective failing industry profits and shady tax evasion practices. I quieted their complaints by offering to hire them on as third-party contractors for some future projects. Albeit I put in the clause I would accept free laborer's only, this raised some eyebrows but the contract's value quelled any issues. In return their caravan businesses were at my disposal. A failing industry in recent years due to the lack of quality exports but I had plans for it.
I met with the rare Merchant Bulgus who was owner of the Glassblower Company, a rare merchant who came in attire more fitting of a craftsman. The entire time he seemed irritated but I took no offense as I knew why. He was a man who cared mainly for the craft of glassblowing and left the business side of it to his son who also accompanied him; he most likely wished to get back to his workshop. Due to the nature of the craft and skill required the Bulgus family was one of the few who kept no slaves. His irritation was replaced with excitement when I offered a crown owned plot of land for a new large workshop to be partly funded with crown funds. “Finally a ruler who appreciates the craft!” he had said admirably, his son looked at me doubtful “What exactly would you like in return for this Princess Azeal?”. I smiled at him, “I would like the Bulgus family to supply teachers for the school to teach the craft of Glassblowing.” he raised his voice in complain but I held up my hand “of course the Bulgus family would have first dibs to recruit any skilled talent.” he closed his mouth but still seemed suspicious of me, merchants hated being offered deals that seemed too good “and I would like the Bulgus family to accept one future contract from the crown without the ability to refuse, of course it wouldn’t last for ever and would be profitable for your family, just a guarantee of work.” the son paused in thought but his father slapped him on the back laughing loudly “A new workshop, talent and job, what’s to doubt, accept her offer already boy.” The son shot a side eye to his father before sighing and reaching out, for a moment I felt an odd pang in my heart seeing their familiar relationship but It left quickly, I reached out and shook his hand and his fathers. Before they left, merchant Bulgus brought out a set of beautiful crystal glasses “A gift for the City's new ruler, I heard you were fond of drinking Raki.” I looked at the beautiful glasses and almost choked.
They were the same style of glass I had smashed against the assassins face. Keeping the surprise off my face I gratefully accepted them. As they left I wondered how they might have felt if they had known I smashed one of their works without second thought.
The best of the morning was the sly Merchant Lady Relly who controlled most of the Cities' red-light industries and incidentally had an expansive information network. "Men always seem to think bolsterous talk gets us all flushed, best to take their money and secrets the fools." she had said and I laughed. She had brought her two very handsome sons and hinted that I should marry one to tie the families together. When I had refused she insisted I enjoy a night with one anyway as a sign of good will. As if I needed someone's loyal spy serenading secrets out of me under the cover of moonlight. In the end I had secured access to her information network in return for expanding her operating rights. It would upset some others but you couldn’t please them all.
Not all conversations ended fruitfully unfortunately, most ended without much as the demands were simply too outrageous and their families simply unwilling to compromise. I hated the way most merchants talked, throwing in casual insults and wrapping them in pretty words. Those who tried that earnt the brunt of my tongue and it was sharp from years of tuning. Some left quite upset.
The day dragged on but I was pleased with how well I was handling the negotiations. I took a quick lunch before the next meeting leaving the chambers heading to the kitchen, Chunnly was nowhere to be seen, off dealing with other important matters no doubt. My staff was seriously lacking but the Ulgar family always had a lack of skilled people, it’s why Father had relied on me for much, despite his violent inclinations. I could have gotten someone to bring me the food but my damn leg would cramp like a bitch by the days end if I didn’t stretch it out somewhat. The meal I received made me smile, delicious spiced lamb kebabs with hummus and fresh date bread, sweet and nutty drizzled in honey, covered with chopped almonds. After wolfing down the meal I walked slowly back to the office, leaning on the cane and carrying a cool glass of Raki, a milky-white alcoholic drink that tastes strongly of black licorice, a favorite of mine behind ice-cold water. It sat beautifully in my recently gifted crystal glass.
To my surprise there was an old man waiting at the office door who nodded politely when he saw me. He was an elderly gentleman with weathered skin and emotionless eyes, dressed in a tailored suit of black trousers and vest. His gray hair was pulled back into a neat ponytail. My eyes narrowed at the slave symbol on the back of his hand.
He bowed respectfully as I approached, “Princess, your presence is a pleasure. I am Rafael, head servant of the Vaar family, here to speak on behalf of Master Halin Vaar, primary owner of Vaar Plantations and Breweries.”
Vaar Plantations and Breweries. It was easy enough to pull up the relevant info, it was after all the current most profitable business in the City. Their products were of excellent quality and I would know, after all I had a glass of their Raki in my hand. The Vaar family owned nearly every piece of fertile land in and around the City, they were sparse in the desert but the hot climate was excellent for growing dates, grapes and apricots. They would own all of the fertile land if they could but the crown owned the rest and reserved it for food growth, food prices in the city were high as is, relying on more imports would only make it worse. But their family didn’t prosper from just monopoly, they had innovated in the space of distillation producing products in a quality and variety that was hard to match. Their profit margins were high and one of the prime ways they kept costs down was by using slave labor in their plantations.
I raised an eyebrow at him "And why has Master Vaar not come himself?"
Rafael sighed, clearly uncomfortable with the task he had been given. "Master Vaar is... indisposed for the moment," he said. "He was recently partaking in an event and his spirited nature has rendered him unable to meet you in person. He sends his deepest apologies and hopes that despite this unfortunate situation, you can still find it in your heart to hear his request."
“He’s drunk.” I stated flatly.
Rafel smiled apologetically “Yes.”
I nodded, taking a sip of the delicious Raki. Halin Vaar, self proclaimed connoisseur of alcohol, more akin to an addicted drunk by most accounts. While his passion pushed his families skills to new heights his brutal tongue while under the influence had caused strained relationships with most other merchants. A man most merchants would recommend avoiding, although they still enjoyed his product.
Unfortunately, he was also crucial for my plans.
I looked Rafael up and down. “Well it can’t be helped then, take me to Halin Vaar.” confusion flashed across his face “Princess, Master Halin Vaar truly is incapacitated, perhaps we can schedule another time?”
In this world no one will give you what you want, not your friends, not your lovers and not me Azeal. If you want something, take it yourself.
The lingering words of a violent man whispered in my ear and I drank the rest of the Raki in one gulp feeling a sweet burn down my throat and a flush in my chest. I looked at Rafael with cold eyes.
“Do I look like the kind of woman who likes to repeat herself?”
Rafael gulped and after a moment shook his head.
“Then lead the way, and call for an escort.” I waved the cane at him and grinned crazily “we have some drinking to do.”
Rafael nodded, face pale.
“We have arrived Princess.” I looked at Captain Gezel who held up his hand to help me out of the camel pulled carriage. I smirked at him and handed him a half-finished bottle of Raki instead, he seemed appalled and I enjoyed that very much. I exited the carriage stumbling but saving myself and whacking Captain Gezel with my cane when he attempted to help me.
“Princess are you perhaps… drunk?” he asked, rubbing the back of his hand.
I hiccuped “Abs- absolutely not Captain, for yo- you to say that is inshubordination.” he looked back at me his eyes going wide “Princess-”
He was cut off by a Rafael flopping heavily out of the carriage into the sand below face first, he let out a heavy groan. Captain looked at the body for a moment then looked at me, I smiled back innocently.
Given my complexion perhaps it looked less innocent.
“Please help up Rafael Captain, he appears to have had too much to drink.”
Gezel sighed and helped Rafael up who had a stupid loopy grin on his face. He had been a stickler and tried his best to refuse any drink but when the orders were from the sole surviving member and heir of the royal family it was hard to decline. He loosened up after the fifth drink, after that I didn’t even have to order him anymore.
Rafael laughed “Princess I must say you are mu-much better company than the rumors state. I think you and Master Var-” he stopped as he shifted his head and vomited, incidentally he happened to shift his head to the side that Gezel had been helping him from.
Gezel looked mortified as the vomit covered the front of his uniform. I turned to hide my laugh, it wouldn’t do well to laugh at the Captain of my Guard in front of his soldiers but good god I wanted to.
I looked out upon the Halin Vaar and was greeted with an expansive and ornate mansion stretching out in the middle of a lush desert oasis. The grounds were modestly manicured and well taken care of, with a large pool in the center of the courtyard surrounded by palm trees and fountains. Attached to the mansion were huge warehouses and pillars holding up huge wooden barrels. The grounds were populated with servants, guards, and other attendants bustling around conducting their daily duties. Beyond the estate miles and miles of farmland grew a variety of goods.
“Well Rafael, lead us to your Master.”
“-Right away Princess.” Rafel responded weakly from behind me.
Rafael led us through the estate, sloppily stumbling to catch himself every now and again. As we walked through the estate I noticed some of the guards and servants pausing and looking towards me, whispers grew amongst them but quickly silenced after we passed, Captain Gezels turned away most who grew curious, their scimitars, artifact chainmail and stoic faces were deterrence enough. Although deep down I liked to imagine it was the stench of vomit on Gezels uniform that did the job, to my great delight many passersby had pointed at him, still dutifully carrying the Raki I had handed him while having vomit all over himself. I hadn’t known at the time but the nickname of Drunkard Gezel would soon circulate the upper echelons.
As I felt the buzz of alcohol inside me I remembered my carriage ride with Rafael. He had talked easily once his tongue was loosened by drink, about his master's proposal, a desire to buy land from the crown and share profits. An offer he had brought to my Father and been turned down some years ago. I also learned many more things that Rafael knew about Halin Vaar. I was surprised, it seemed that even though he kept slaves he trusted them greatly and even treated them somewhat well.
Finally, we reached the entrance to Master Var's dwelling. Rafael brushed himself off attempting to look presentable, he knocked on the door. "Master, Princess Azeal has come to see you." there was a pause and then a loud groan "Rafael you bastard I told you not to wake me until evening and to speak to that monster girl yourself!" Rafael's face went sullen as he looked to me and I only smiled back "In-indeed Sir, I did as you instructed but Princess Azeal insisted on seeing you in-person, she is here with me, outside the door-'' there was a loud laugh "Ha! Only a fool would leave the palace in her position, half the Merchants want her dead, and the other half want her as a puppet. Enough of your jokes, begone and do not disturb me till evening, my head is killing me." I snorted and Rafael looked as if he had sobered up from shock alone.
“Princess, Master isn’t himself at the moment he-” I grinned holding up my hand cutting him off “Don’t worry Rafael, I know exactly what to do to sober up a drunk man.”
Walking up to Captain Gezel who was trying desperately to rub off the vomit from his uniform I snatched the bottle of Raki that he was still holding and pointed at the door. “Captain, if you would be so kind as to order your men to tear down the door.” Captain Gezel stopped and saluted “As you decree Princess, guards get to it!”
The guards rushed to obey the order, the wood of the door splintering and shattering within seconds under the swing of artifact blades, sharpened enough to cut through wood like butter. A surprised scream came from inside and as the last bit of the door fell away my guards made their way inside, weapons drawn.
I was immediately greeted by the heavy scent of alcohol and a dimly lit interior with mostly brown furniture and a few paintings of desert landscapes, drapes covered most of the light from the windows and bottles, cases and empty glasses littered every surface. Halin Vaar had gotten up from his bed. He was wearing a simple tunic and trousers, both stained. His clothes struggled to close around his fat beer-belly and his thick unkempt beard seemed almost matted either with alcohol or spit, a bald head and beginning of creases on his face indicated he was middle-aged, or perhaps younger and the alcohol simply was taking its due. His eyes were bleary from drink and he covered them with his hand squinting at us with a scowl "What is the meaning of this!?" he glanced at the armed guards with some nervousness, good, it seemed he was awake now. Rafael stepped forward bowing down “My apologies Master but as I said, Princess Azeal has come to see you in person, she was most… adamant.”
I stepped forward, cane clacking against the floor and stood before all of the guards. I took a deep swig from the bottle of Raki, letting out a satisfied breath, I heard Captain Gezel sigh behind me. Halin’s eyes widened at my un-princess like behavior. I looked at him with amusement and a mocking smirk. "So, Halin Vaar," I said, my voice slurred but controlled. "I heard you had a proposal for me, I thought it best to discuss it in person." I held up the bottle of Raki, winking at him "Of course, I’m a good guest and brought something to drink over."
He studied me for a moment, his drunkard eyes flashing with intelligence briefly before disappearing, he let out a deep bellowing laugh “Ha! You truly are as crazy as the rumors say, and as ugly too.” my eye twitched at his bluntness, it wasn’t untrue just… blunt, if he noticed my annoyance he didn’t show “But let no one say I, Halin Vaar, turned away a drink offered, come, let us sit and discuss.” he looked at the guards before adding on “Princess.” for good measure.
I scoffed but motioned for him to lead the way, he got up and began to walk, Rafael took to his side and whispered something into his ear. Halin led the way, to a more orderly chamber, where two couches sat facing each other with a simple low table between with a few glasses on it. He sat on one Rafael standing behind him and motioned for me to take the other. I obliged, cane clacking against the floor as I made my way to it, Captain Gezel and a couple of my guards followed, standing by the doorway.
His face winced with every clack and he asked Rafael to close one of the window blinds "My apologies Princess Azeal but my head is still pounding, I fear I have a deadly hangover."
I nodded, "Luckily I have brought the best cure." I poured him a cup of Raki and handed it to him "Nothing like fresh drink to chase away old bite." He laughed and took it drinking deeply, he paused looking at the glass closer.
"I figured you might recognize it.”
“This is one of the drafts made by me.”
“Yes, its flavor and smoothness is second to none.”
He smiled at the blatant flattery and took another swig, this time savoring it more. “I made this batch decades ago, I believe before you were born in fact.” he said in a voice full of admiration. “This bottle... yes, I gave it to your father when you were born as a gift.” He looked at me with a spark of recognition in his eyes. “He had taken to the drink you know, after your mother died.”
I took a deep breath stilling at the mention of older days, of a woman I never knew and a man I knew too well. "I never once saw my father drink, he was always himself in all actions he took." Halin nodded "Aye, that he was, he dropped the drink soon enough, his duties wouldn't allow it. I drank with him once back then, he only ever talked of you the entire time, with fondness-"
"Does it look like he was fond of me?" I cut him off sharply. Halin's eyes scanned over my body, over the burns, scars and sightless eye, he shook his head "No. Not even the infamous Whispers of the Dunes do what has been done to you, can I be frank Princess?”
“I doub’t even God's seal could stop you from speaking truth. '' I said taking another sip.
He grinned “You-” he pointed a meaty finger at me “are a mangled mess of a monster, hideous and cruel, mothers have begun telling their children of the Monster Queen, of how she’ll come in the night and take your eye to replace the one she traded to the devil. If I wasn’t half drunk I’m sure I'd be petrified with fear right now, so I’m curious as to why the monster has come to my humble farm for drink.”
I leaned back as all the pieces came into place, Halin Vaar was playing me.
He was riling me up so he would have the upperhand in whatever deal would come out of this talk. I still couldn’t tell if the sly bastard was being blunt on purpose or if he truly enjoyed it, but nonetheless he was using it to his advantage. I let all the agitation slip out of me with a relaxed sigh, it was always easier once you knew the other player.
“Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Ah yes, I have asthma so I’m afraid smoking would make me might uncomfortable.”
I grinned at him, “Perfect.” and proceeded to place my drink on the table and pull out my pipe stuffing it, he stared at me wide eyed “Princess, I’m afraid I-” I cut him off by lighting a match against the table the bright light causing him to wince, I lit the pipe and took a deep pull blowing out the acrid smoke, he instantly began to cough, Rafael quickly began patting his back offering him some water, he drank it deeply before turning an annoyed glare to me “This behavior is unfit for a Princess of the City you-”
“The rumors, they’re not so untrue.”
I held his glare as I took another deep puff from the pipe, blowing out the smoke, I was done playing drunk. "If I could replace this eye by taking it from another, I would. And the Merchants who take and take, giving nothing back, eating till they burst, are they not Monsters? What else am I to them but their Monster Queen?" he opened his mouth but I continued, hitting him while he was stunned.
“Rafael told me of your proposal, the proposal to buy land from the crown and share profits, it was the same one you brought to my Father, the same one he rejected. Rafael also told me of something else, of your desire to expand, to have your alcohol reach the farthest edges of creation. That when people think of the City, they think of Vaar Drink.”
Halin leaned back, his face annoyed, he looked to Rafael who only bowed in apology.
"Don't blame him, it was your fault for sending him alone, what could he do besides obey my orders? Besides, I think it’s admirable, your alcohol truly is the best, even compared to imported goods, it is also the number one good bought by traveling merchants. It’s a product in high demand it seems."
He sat quietly, mulling over what I had said, he looked at me with a veiled greed and pride in his eyes “Then you accept the offer?”
I smiled at him, I had him.
“No.” I took another puff blowing it.
“What? But you just-” Halin broke mid sentence coughing.
“I said the dream was admirable, your proposed method to get there is not.” I stated flatly.
Halin's face reddened, anger and disappointment flooding his face. He composed himself quickly, though, before speaking.
"Then what do you suggest? How can I achieve the same goal without making more product?" He asked, trying to sound patient.
I took a slow pull from my pipe, savoring the sweet smoke as it filled my lungs. "You can't, you need more land, more farms and more space for distillation." I held his gaze for a few moments before continuing "But using the little amount left in the City would be disasterous and simply wouldn't be enough". I motioned my hand and Captain Gezel came forward laying out a map, in the center was a small area, the territory of the City, barren and dried up.
I pointed with my cane to the left where two other larger territories were. "The Kingdom of Creston, their lands are lush and their knight societies, while powerful, are sparse, they are currently in a pissing match with their southern neighbor.” I moved my cane below Creston to another territory also within the borders of the City. “The Principality of Altreia, a small but prosperous country residing just beyond the Blazing Peaks, they have a unique way of farming atop the mountains utilizing water from mountain top springs, they are not particularly strong in troops but their defensive fortifications deter most invaders. They recently had some land taken by Cresten and are focusing on building fortifications upon that front.”
Halin Vaar was looking at me like I was mad “You propose… war?”
I chuckled, "Do you know what the number one profession in the City has been the last twenty years?" Halin Vaar shook his head "Mercenary, nearly two-thirds of the City has been a mercenary based on yearly surveys and taxes collected." I gestured to Captain Gezel to take my place. He proceeded to explain the details of my plan, an odd spark in his eye. "In terms of trained and experienced bodies, the City has more than either the Kingdom or the Principality, taking some land and keeping it would be doable should they be mobilized."
Halin looked between us two, doubt was evident in his face, caution even, but also the one thing I could always rely upon from merchants, greed.
“And how might this new land be used?” he ventured.
“By the same deal you proposed, most of it will be given to Vaar Plantations and Breweries for a share of the profits, although the City will need to take much more, around 50% instead of the 25% you offered originally.”
“Bah, that’s daylight robbery! 30% is more than enough for the trouble.” he complained.
I grinned savagely at him, he was negotiating, that meant I had him.
From there it was all just finding the right number.
My guards escorted me back to the carriage.
Forty-percent profit shares and an agreement to convert all his slaves to paying employees, an
excellent outcome. I looked back at the estate and remembered the lack of anger Halin Vaar had at the request, it seemed he wasn’t too fond of slavery.
For now while I solidified my reign Vaar Plantations and Breweries would shift focus to exporting the majority of their product externally to build demand, Halin exclaimed this would be difficult since he had made enemies of the Caravan Businesses and Glassblower Company but I assured them I already had work orders from them and there would be no issues.
As a bonus Halin Vaar had also agreed to send some of his family to the schools to teach the art of-
“Princess, get down!”
A flash of light and high pitched hum was the only indication I got anything had happened before I was forced into a crouch which made my mangled leg scream as shields and guards came up around me. On the ground beside me I saw what had caused the commotion, a crossbow bolt.
Putting my hand to my chest I felt the necklace amulet there was warm, an indication it had triggered and redirected the bolt meant to take my life, I felt a mounting panic but it was quickly drowned out by a disgusting voice.
A ruler can be vile, but they cannot be weak.
I slowly got up leaning heavily on my cane “That will be enough Captain.” Gezel looked back at me from behind his shield “Princess, it’s still not safe, please wait until my men capture-” his voice trailed off as he noticed the look in my eye, after some time he nodded and his guards backed off, still scanning around cautiously.
In the distance on the top of a sand dune I saw a figure reloading a crossbow, below some of the guards were climbing up. I calmly walked forward, cane digging into the sand. The figure lifted the crossbow and took aim, Captain Gezel cried out alarmed “Princess, please stay behind-” I waved my hand at him, cutting him off.
The man must have pulled the trigger for I saw a glint of metal and shortly after another pitched hum as the bolt was redirected. I grinned savagely and raised my free hand up, sticking up the middle finger.
I yelled out to him “TRY THE THIRD SHOT YOU BASTARD, I'LL HAVE YOU COOKED ALIVE IN THE PALACE DUNGEONS!”
The figure paused reloading, took a look at the guards closing in on him and came to a conclusion. He pulled something from his pocket and popped it into his mouth, a few moments later he keeled over.
I scoffed at him and motioned to Gezel “I’ll be in the carriage, collect their bodie quickly, we must be off, I have more things to do today.”
He looked at me for a long moment, expression hidden, eventually he saluted.
“Your will is my command, Princess.”
I nodded and got into the carriage leaning my head against the seat, closing my eyes.
A nap would do nicely.