"We have received reports, substantiated by people the Ministry trusts, of an uprising in the Southern Provinces. It seems a pretender has raised an army and is declaring herself to be the rightful Shan of Chala. She, with the support of the main Southern Lords, has declared independence for the region, which they call 'Ticha'. In essence the province of Toman and parts of Lower Fo, including the city of Melar."
Ra-Na-Kel looked at him blankly for a few moments, then laughed. It was a bright, happy sound, completely at odds with her earlier anger. Her mood shifts were a constant source of amazement to the old man. "But that is absurd! I am to be Shan. Even my rather stupid brother acknowledges that!"
"Indeed you are, Exalted. However ..."
"However, what? Get to it, Bola!" Her anger was back.
"My apologies, Exalted. Please forgive the vagaries of an old man ..." He drew his kerchief from his pouch, wiped his brow, coughed, all the time aware of his exposed position. Once his thoughts were in order, he placed the rag back and began. "The pretender claims she is the daughter of the man your parents dispossessed, Di-Sa-Tri. Her claim—which, I hasten to add, we know to be a total fabrication—has gained the support of the major southern families, a sizeable rabble and, just recently, a senior churchman. Rumour has it that he is none other than the Bishop of Toman, a relative of the Lord of Toman. He has, apparently, issued an edict supporting the pretender's claim. It is unclear at this stage whether this support was garnered at knifepoint or not. We suspect he had little choice in the matter, but given he is first cousin of the Lord of Toman, it could go either way." The First Minister stopped, surprised that he had managed to get so much out uninterrupted.
The Princess looked more curious than angry. "When my mother told me of Di-Sa-Tri, she didn't mention a daughter. Is there any truth to this?"
He caught no edge to the question. Her mercurial mood shifts once more took him by surprise. "Yes and no, Exalted. The traitor did have a child. Her name was Di-Mi-Tri and, had she lived, she would be a few years your senior."
"So she is dead? Then how can this woman gain support if she is not who she says she is? The Southern Lords are not stupid. They would not dare raise rebellion unless they thought the claim had some chance of being recognised. Are you certain she is not Di-Mi-Tri?"
A cogent summary. The First Minister smiled to himself. She was learning. "Yes, Exalted, I know she is not. I was present when your father removed that particular loose end, though I won't trouble you with the details. They are rather grim."
The old warrior remembered the fountain of blood as the little girl's throat was cut. He hadn't done the killing on that occasion, but he was the one who had thrown the body, along with those of many other traitors, over the cliffs near Lofen. In his long experience, loose ends tended not to come unravelled after such treatment.
"Then who is this pretender, First Minister? And what, pray tell, am I meant to do about it today, on my birthday?" The edge was back in her voice.
"Please forgive me, Exalted, I shall come directly to the point. This pretender—the name she has taken is the same as that of Di-Sa-Tri's daughter, Di-Mi-Tri—poses a grave threat to Chala, in general, and to you, personally. One option is the Southern Lords are using her as a means to legitimise their carving out an empire of their own from the Southern Provinces. Another option, and one I consider to be more likely, is they will use their provinces as a base from which to usurp the Imperium as a whole. They know we are distracted by the rebellion in the east and they are using it as cover for their own ends. Regardless of their ultimate motives, we cannot allow this division. If we do, Farth and Gralt will both see it as weakness and will soon strike at us. As will the Kesh, who are always up for mischief. My counsel, Exalted, would be to recall your army from Lofen immediately and direct it against the Southern Lords."
Another bout of coughing stopped the First Minister. Once he had recovered, he lifted his eyes. The Princess examined him closely, an unreadable expression on her face. She looked at him for a few seconds before she skipped lightly down the shallow steps. She stopped beside the kneeling First Minister and gently laid a hand on his broad shoulders. She squeezed once, gently, and smiled at him. "You are unwell, Bola. Go and sit in the sun for an hour or two with a warm drink. You'll feel the better for it."
© Mark Probert