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The Trouble with Peace
Author: Joe Abercrombie


PART IV

 

“In times of peace, the warlike man attacks himself.”


Friedrich Nietzsche

 

 

The World’s Wrongs


“I hope no one minds if we dispense with this for now?” Orso tossed his circlet down, gold twinkling in a dusty shaft of spring sunlight as it spun around and around. “Damn thing chafes rather.” He rubbed at the sore spots it had left above his temples. There was a metaphor there somewhere. The burden of power, the weight of a crown. But his Closed Council had no doubt heard all that before.

The moment he sat they began to drag out their own chairs, wincing as old backs bent, grunting as old arses settled on hard wood, grumbling as old knees were eased under the tottering heaps of paper on the table.

“Where’s the surveyor general?” someone asked, nodding at an empty chair.

“Out with his bladder.” There was a chorus of groans.

“One can win a thousand battles.” Lord Marshal Brint worried at that lady’s ring on his little finger, gazing into the middle distance as though at an opposing army. “But in the end, no man can defeat his own bladder.”

As the youngest in the room by some thirty years, Orso ranked his bladder among his least interesting organs. “One issue before we begin,” he said.

All eyes turned towards him. Apart from those of Bayaz, down at the foot of the table. The legendary wizard continued to gaze out of the window, towards the palace gardens which were just beginning to bud.

“I am set on making a grand tour of the Union.” Orso did his best to sound authoritative. Regal, even. “To visit every province. Every major city. When was the last time a monarch visited Starikland? Did my father ever go?”

Arch Lector Glokta grimaced. Even more than usual. “Starikland was not considered safe, Your Majesty.”

“Starikland has always been afflicted with a restless temper.” Lord Chancellor Gorodets was absently smoothing his long beard into a point, fluffing it up, then smoothing it again. “Now more than ever.”

“But I have to connect with the people.” Orso thumped the table to give it emphasis. They needed some feeling in here. Everything in the White Chamber was cold, dry, bloodless calculation. “Show them we’re all part of the same great endeavour. The same family. It’s supposed to be a Union, isn’t it? We need to bloody unite.”

Orso had never wanted to be king. He enjoyed it even less than being crown prince, if that was possible. But now that he was king, he was determined to do some good with it.

Lord Chamberlain Hoff tapped at the table in limp applause. “A wonderful idea, Your Majesty.”

“Wonderful,” echoed High Justice Bruckel, who had the conversational style of a woodpecker and a beak not dissimilar. “Idea.”

“Noble sentiments, well expressed,” agreed Gorodets, though his appreciation did not quite reach his eyes.

One old man fussed with some papers. Another frowned into his wine as though something had died in it. Gorodets was still stroking his beard, but now looked as if he could taste piss.

“But?” Orso was learning that in the Closed Council there was always at least one but.

“But…” Hoff glanced to Bayaz, who gave permission with the slightest nod. “It might be best to wait for a more auspicious moment. A more settled time. There are so many challenges here which require Your Majesty’s attention.”

The high justice puffed out a heavy breath. “Many. Challenges.”

Orso delivered something between a growl and a sigh. His father had always despised the White Chamber and its hard, stark chairs. Despised the hard, stark men who sat on them. He had warned Orso that no good was ever done in the Closed Council. But if not here, where? This cramped, stuffy, featureless little room was where the power lay. “Are you suggesting the machinery of government would grind to a halt without me?” he asked. “I think you over-sugar the pudding.”

“There are issues the monarch must be seen to attend to,” said Glokta. “The Breakers were dealt a crippling blow in Valbeck.”

“A hard task well done, Your Majesty,” Hoff drooled out, with cloying sycophancy.

“But they are far from eradicated. And those that escaped have become… even more extreme in their opinions.”

“Disruption among the workers.” High Justice Bruckel rapidly shook his bony head. “Strikes. Organising. Attacks on staff and property.”

“And the damn pamphlets,” said Brint, to a collective groan.

“Damn. Pamphlets.”

“Used to think education was merely wasted on the commoners. Now I say it’s a positive danger.”

“This bloody Weaver can turn a phrase.”

“Not to mention an obscene etching.”

“They incite the populace to disobedience!”

“To disaffection!”

“They talk of a Great Change coming.”

A flurry of twitches ran up the left side of Glokta’s wasted face. “They blame the Open Council.” And published caricatures of them as pigs fighting over the trough. “They blame the Closed Council.” And published caricatures of them fucking each other. “They blame His Majesty.” And published caricatures of him fucking anything. “They blame the banks.”

“They promote the ridiculous rumour that the debt… to the Banking House of Valint and Balk… has crippled the state…” Gorodets trailed off, leaving the room in nervous silence.

Bayaz finally tore his hard, green eyes from the window to glare down the table. “This flood of disinformation must be stemmed.”

“We have destroyed a dozen presses,” grated Glokta, “but they build new ones, and smaller all the time. Now any fool can write, and print, and air their opinions.”

“Progress,” lamented Bruckel, rolling his eyes to the ceiling.

“The Breakers are like bloody moles in a garden,” growled Lord Marshal Rucksted, who had turned his chair slightly sideways-on to give an impression of fearless dash. “You kill five, pour a celebratory glass, then in the morning your lawn’s covered in new bloody molehills.”

“More irritating than my bladder,” said Brint, to widespread chuckling.

Glokta sucked at his empty gums with a faint squelch. “And then there are the Burners.”

“Lunatics!” snapped Hoff. “This woman Judge.”

Shudders of distaste about the table. At the notion of such a thing as a woman, or at the notion of this particular one, it was hard to say.

“I hear a mill owner was found murdered on the road to Keln.” Gorodets gave his beard a particularly violent tug. “A pamphlet nailed to his face.”

Rucksted clasped his big fists on the table. “And there was that fellow choked to death with a thousand copies of the rule-sheet he distributed to his employees…”

“One might almost say our approach has made matters worse,” observed Orso. A memory of Malmer drifted up, legs dangling from his cage as it swung with the breeze. “Perhaps we could make some gesture. A minimum wage? Improved working conditions? I heard a recent fire in a mill led to the deaths of fifteen child workers—”

“It would be folly,” said Bayaz, his attention already back on the gardens, “to obstruct the free operation of the market.”

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