“Tell me, Vindrel, what is power?”
Sarthius Catannel turned his head away from the window for a moment to regard Claire as she stepped across the threshold to the small room overlooking the courtyard. Below his shock of blonde hair, his green eyes stared at her with the same vacant stillness as when she had met the man years before. Never a word to acknowledge her, his lingering look held all the wisdom she needed to understand. She felt a chill and drew her robes around her body tightly. She saw that the window was open. Just a breeze then, she thought.
“Power, sir?” Vindrel, the captain of the guard for as long as Claire could remember, stood beside Sarthius, his uniform of blue and green and as crisp as always. He was one of the few higher-ups of the military staff that had been kept on after the old count passed away, probably because he had no family to speak of, and therefore nothing at stake in the politics of court. She envied him.
“Yes, power.” Sarthius stared out the window as Claire crept up to stand slightly beside him. “What does it mean to have power? To be powerful?” She could smell the fire in the courtyard below, and understood what was taking place. She didn’t want to look, but knew somehow she would. In the end, she could not avoid it. Sarthius would see to that, somehow. Then the smell would get worse.
“Power…” Vindrel looked down for a moment. “Power is the ability to exact your will. To do what you wish.”
Claire noticed the flintlock pistol that Vindrel openly carried, in defiance of divine law, which had only in the last dominion declared match-lit firearms to be non-heretical. There were rumors that Vindrel was a Promethean, or as they called themselves, Somniatel. Watching him stare out the window with his familiar stone-cutting gaze, she believed he could, in truth, be a member of one of the strange highland clans that as much as worshipped the technological apostasies of the Dark One, even though they lived like savages in the wilds of the world. If it was true, it explained much of his retention with the young count; Prometheans were valuable sell-swords, just as much for their uncanny skills as for their lack of ethics.
“A good answer,” Sarthius said, “but not quite right, I think. A woodcutter chops down a tree because he wishes it. Is he powerful?”
“He is to the tree,” Vindrel said, scratching his thick, black beard.
Sarthius cracked a smile. “So he is. What do you say, Claire?”
Claire felt a lump in her throat as the count’s empty eyes met hers again. “I think the woodcutter is not the powerful one in this scenario.”
“And why?” Sarthius said.
“Because he can’t chop down the tree. He needs an axe. It is the axe that has true power,” Claire said, doing her best to stand up straight and look the part of her position as grand cleric.
“Spoken like a true devotee of the Twelve,” Sarthius said. “I’d expect nothing less than an acknowledgement of the gifts of the gods of knowledge to man.”
“But it is the woodcutter who swings the axe,” Vindrel said. “The axe is just a tool.”
“Like you?” Claire said. The words came out with unexpected venom.
“Aren’t we all?” Vindrel said, his face only hinting at offense. “It is Lord Catannel that is the wielder, even if the tools can think.” Vindrel’s eyes were narrowed in the bright light from the open window, drawing in rare shades of yellow to a more common green iris.
“I like this analogy,” Sarthius said. His lips twisted into the semblance of a smile. He gestured for Claire to approach the window. She swallowed, feeling the lump in her throat return. She stepped up beside the count, looking out the ornate stone portal to the courtyard below. There was a raging fire beneath a raised stone platform, a stage that usually served up executions in the form of hangings. That day, however, the deathly theater would not display such a casual disbursement of criminals. “The woodcutter has as much in common with the axe as the axe does the tree.”
“How so?” Vindrel said.
“The axe has no will. No real will, and like you said, power is the ability to exact your will, though it is more than that,” Sarthius said. “The axe is merely doing what it was designed to do.” He nodded to Claire. “By the god Ferral, of course.”
“Of course,” Claire said.
“But the woodcutter is also doing what he was designed to do,” Sarthius said. “He too is a tool, serving masters he does not even recognize as such. He cuts the trees because they have value to others, not himself. The trees are merely a means to some other end – his family and livelihood, perhaps.”
“That seems like life in general,” Vindrel said. “If you don’t mind me saying so, aren’t we all just serving some end with our actions?”
“I don’t mind you saying what you wish. Better than groveling,” Sarthius said. “Everyone serves somebody else, thus sayeth Denarius the wise, yes?” He cast a glance to Claire, then turned as another set of footsteps entered.
It was Donovan Daniels, a man who had been given his commission from his high birth, and advanced it through brutality. Claire envied him less that Vindrel, if only because she knew that in the shifting landscape of power on the Green Isle birthright was more likely to be a liability than blessing. At least beyond the Cataling court she had no claim to power.
“Yes, you are correct, my lord,” Claire said, choosing to lock eyes with the clean-shaven Daniels as he approached rather than look out the window. “Our place among all others is the gift of Denarius. His gifts are the foundations of our society. Our interdependence and interconnections are bound by his gift of the coin.” Feeling awkward staring at Daniels, she looked down on the courtyard. Only a few people stood to witness what was going to happen. For what Claire expected to see, usually only the most perverse residents of the city enjoyed bearing witness.
“The truly powerful do not submit to such notions, cleric,” Vindrel said. “The powerful do what they will.”
“Exactly,” Sarthius said. “I knew I made a good decision keeping you on. The axe would only be truly powerful if it cut the woodcutter, rather than the tree.”
“I don’t follow, grace,” Claire said.
“To be powerful, you must be able to make the wills of others conform to your own.” Sarthius gave her a smirk, but his eyes were as calm and still as ever. “To be powerful is to make the system into what you want it to be.”
“Such ideas are dangerous,” Claire said. “In the wrong company, of course. The same goes for your gun, Vindrel.”
“Are you the wrong company?” Sarthius said, raising his eyebrows.
“No my lord,” Claire said. “As cleric to your grace and the church of the city, I am merely giving advice for your dealings with the world. You have done much to further the church and its ministry, but there are men who prefer to judge according to words, and not actions.”
“I am lucky to have such a wise councilor,” Sarthius said. “Action… perhaps that is the last element of power. If you have the power to do something and never do it, who is to say you had the power at all? Yes, power only exists if you use it.”
“Otherwise a beggar could claim to be the greatest sorcerer in the world,” Daniels said.
Sarthius chuckled, in a deep and scratchy tone. “Yes, of course. Let us observe an element of power.” He nodded toward the platform below.