Katarin was bored. Holding court was pure drudgery. Petitions, drafts of edicts and laws, and reports were read to her, one after another. When Tzar Boris sat on the throne, he would ask spontaneous questions and pass judgment on the spot. That, however, had too often resulted in poor and inconsistent decisions and also to interminable question and answer sessions that led nowhere.
Katarin had reorganized everything after she took the throne. She would sit with her Chancellor every afternoon to prepare for court the next morning. Her questions would be answered and her decisions made in advance.
The following morning, business would move quickly, as the Chancellor would ask rhetorically whether it was her pleasure to do a particular thing. Most of the time, Katarin would answer yes, though sometimes she would modify the Chancellor's recommendation in a way that made her seem more just, or merciful, or severe, as the circumstances warranted. After reports were read to her, Katarin would sometimes ask a few probing – but thoroughly rehearsed -- questions and the Chancellor would give intelligent -- and well-prepared -- answers.
The trick was for Katarin and the Chancellor to act as if everything was spontaneous. The more they could do that, the more confident her court was in her rule. As a result, almost every morning Katarin had to act as if she was paying attention to things she'd heard the prior afternoon and act as if she was making a decision on the spot, when she had already made up her mind the prior day. This required a degree of acting Katarin found tiresome.
Court, however, was now much more thorough and organized, and the quality and consistency of decisions were much better. The general sense was that Katarin was intelligent, dedicated to the welfare of the country, and hard-working. Tzar Boris had commanded loyalty with his valor and charisma. Katarin was nothing like him, so she had to cement loyalty to her with the tools she did possess; a strong work ethic, intelligence, knowledge, and insight.
Katarin had been removed from court at the age of five, when she first manifested the gift, and had been sent to live with her great aunt Tatyana, herself a powerful Ice Witch. She was a humorless and strict teacher and Katarin was scolded, slapped, and even beaten and starved, throughout her childhood. She did, however, learn. Katarin learned about Ice Magic, of course, but her great aunt also schooled her in letters, numbers, literature, poetry, history, science, geography, and even Reikspeil. After Katarin had turned fourteen, her great aunt began to instruct her in politics as well.
In fact, one of the few pleasures Katarin had been allowed as a child was access to her great aunt’s considerable library. In the eleven years she lived with her great aunt Katarin had managed to read a large percentage of the books in the library, some of them two or three times. When Katarin was recalled to court she was too tall, too skinny, awkward, and mostly ignorant about the social graces and the ways of court, but she was already better read than almost everyone else, including all of Tzar Boris’ counselors, who were far better soldiers than they were scholars.
She was also good at listening and watching. Her great aunt had enforced long periods of silence during which Katarin was forbidden to speak, but allowed to see and listen to everything that went on in the house, including her great aunt’s meetings with other Ice Witches. Afterwards, Katarin would be questioned about what had been said and done and why, and also about the various people with whom her great aunt had met. Katarin had thus learned form a young age how to understand situations and their context, as well as to assess people; learning to weigh their motives, objectives, strengths, and weaknesses.
Katarin had put these skills to good use after she had arrived at court. One of the men who had caught her eye was Militsa Skvortskova. He was of common birth and had been a middling bureaucrat under Tzar Boris, but he was smart, hardworking, loyal to the crown, and dedicated to the service of his country.
He was also courageous and was one of the few people at court who would tell Tzar Boris hard truths. He was frequently berated and threatened by Tzar Boris for his candor and Tzar Boris had even beaten him one day at court for accurately reporting that the treasury was nearly empty and that there were no monies available to buy a large artillery train from the Imperial forges in Nuln. Nevertheless, Skvortskova was back at court the following morning, bruised and clearly in pain from having had his nose broken. Katarin decided that day that he would play a large role in her government.
When Katarin came into power one of her first edicts was to put Skvortskova in charge of the treasury. He did not disappoint her and within two years he had somehow untangled the financial mess Tzar Boris had left behind. In addition to putting the country on a much sounder financial footing, his work won Katarin the loyalty of the many Boyarin from whom Tzar Boris had “borrowed” money throughout his reign as Skvortskova had somehow found the funds to repay all of those forced loans, with interest.
It had also won Skvortskova the grudging respect of the Boyarin, who had viewed him as a grubby commoner who counted money like a miserly shopkeeper. The Boyarin came to see that a man who could handle money made them richer too, and the Boyarin were by and large a greedy lot.
After Pjotr Losov had been revealed as a traitor, Katarin had promoted Skvortskova to Chancellor. He had served Katarin faithfully and well throughout and after the Spring Driving and Storm of Chaos, especially while she was away from the city leading relief columns. He had also been essential to the city’s defense when D’aagron the Exalted had laid siege.
Katarin was lucky to have such a man in her service and she was grateful for his work. She was also proud of herself for seeing Skovrtskova's talent and elevating him to positions worthy of his skills.
Katarin firmly believed that one of the great injustices of the world was than men like Skovrtskova were too often born into obscurity while men of far less talent and character were born into the ruling class. Katarin could not change that reality - that was far beyond even her formidable magical powers – but she could find places of importance for men like Skovrtskova whenever she encountered them.
In fact, Katarin desperately wanted to delegate even more responsibility and authority to him and be free of more of the drudgery of governance, but she could not. Unlike Tzar Boris, her legitimacy derived in large part from the fact that she was actually good at ruling the country, however mundane and tedious that could be. Her great aunt’s strict tutelage had prepared her well for the task, but it was still a wretched thing.
As Skvortskova went on about the progress rebuilding the docks at Bolgasgrad, Katarin looked over at Irena and the rest of her ladies. Irena was almost 29 and thus old enough to be the mother of the youngest of Katarin’s ladies, who was barely 14. Still, she was easily the most beautiful of all of them. Indeed, Irena was more beautiful than any woman at court, including Katarin.
Katarin loved Irena dearly, but she had nevertheless always been somewhat jealous of her friend’s great beauty. Katarin had many gifts and talents and she had matured into a reasonably attractive woman, even if she was still too tall and too thin, but she lacked Irena’s natural good looks, as well as her curves. Instead, Katarin had to rely on her wit, her fashion, and her demeanor to project the sort of image people expected from a queen. Still, even with all of Katarin’s efforts, Irena always outshined her at court, no matter how hard Irena tried not to.
Katarin, however, could never be angry with Irena, let alone send her away in a pique. In addition to being her closest – and perhaps only – friend, Irena ruled Katarin’s ladies with an iron fist, bringing some semblance of order and decorum to their service.
Indeed, other than Irena, Katarin’s ladies were a sorry lot. Many Boyarin and their families had been killed in the Spring Driving, so Katarin had been forced to accept girls as young as 13 into her service. Even then, Katarin had far fewer potential recruits from which to choose than she would have liked.
Besides being too young and immature for court, many of Katarin’s ladies had been a source of scandal before Irena had returned. So many young men had died in the Spring Driving and Storm of Chaos that girls’ prospects, even those of girls of the Boyarin class, were limited. These days, many girls of all classes, including those of Katarin's court, were overly free with their favors and affections in their efforts to find a match among the limited pool of suitors.
Katarin and Irena had certainly flirted with young men when they were girls at court. On occasion, both had more than flirted, but the behavior of Katarin's ladies had too often gone too far and they had also been far too careless about it. Given her own affair with Mikhail, Katarin could not completely begrudge them – good men of any rank were scarce and love was even more difficult to find - but she could not tolerate their lack of decorum and their recklessness. The Frozen Court was built on a foundation of majesty and Katarin would not see that undermined by the indiscreet dalliances of immature teenage girls.
In fact, one of Irena’s principal tasks as the mistress of Katarin’s household was to enforce some measure of discipline over the ladies of the court, and enforce discipline she did. Irena had a kind heart, but she was also stern and uncompromising about matters of decorum and propriety. It had served Katarin well as a teenager when Irena had taught her the social graces and it was serving her well once again now that Katarin was queen.
Ladies who did not meet Irena’s high standards were regularly lectured, sometimes punished, occasionally beaten, and, on one occasion, even matched with a mediocre suitor and sent from court in disgrace. Irena’s efforts had made a huge difference in the behavior of Katarin's ladies and the quality of their service. Katarin was grateful that her friend was willing and able to manage such terrible girls and teach them the things their mothers clearly had not. That was a distraction with which Katarin could not burden herself, yet the work had to be done.
Besides, Katarin had no idea how to mother a teenage girl, or anyone else for that matter. She had no children of her own, her mother had died when she was only 3, and her great aunt had been more of schoolmaster than a parent. The closest experience to parenting Katarin had was her custody of her cousin Anastasia. Even there, however, Anastasia had a governess and a tutor. Katarin's only responsibilities to Anastasia were to instruct her in Ice Magic and to teach her the ways of the Ice Witches.
Katarin looked around the Frozen Court. Ivan Radovic was, of course, present, eying Irena, but most of Tzar Boris' Boyarin were gone; either dead from old age or war, or at home in their dotage, or because they were anachronisms in the new order Katarin was trying to build.
Ivan Radovic made Katarin laugh, at least on the inside. He was typical of the loud, pugnacious, and uncouth Boyarin of Tzar Boris’ generation. In fact, he had been somewhat out of place even in the rough and tumble court Tzar Boris had maintained. More out of respect for Tzar Boris' memory than for Katarin's authority, Ivan Radovic had tried to master the new ways of Katerin's court, but he could not. Indeed, he was very much the country rube even in his own time, let alone these days.
The younger courtiers mocked Ivan Radovic and the others of his generation, often openly, though never in Katarin’s or Irena’s presence. Tzar Boris and the Boyarin of that generation were great heroes who had rescued Kislev from anarchy and whipped the country into firm enough shape to survive the Spring Driving and the Storm of Chaos. Many of those that survived into their late middle age had been killed in the Spring Driving or Storm of Chaos leading Pulks on too-often hopeless missions, but invariably taking at least a handful of Kurgin with them in final combat. Even if such men were relics of the past, they deserved respect, especially from those who had accomplished far less and suffered relatively little.
It was for that reason that Irena tolerated Ivan Radovic’s absurd and sometimes crude advances. It was also why Katarin always made sure she put him and others like him in places of honor whenever they attended court and to grant them whatever favors and honors they requested. Katarin was determined to build a new future for her country, but it could not come at the expense of the heroes and traditions of the past; no Kislevite would tolerate such dishonorable behavior or respect any ruler who did.
Besides, Ivan Radovic and the other Boyarin like him were still of value to Katarin. Whatever they lacked in social grace, sophistication, and education, they usually more than compensated for in their knowledge of war. Tzar Boris had always been at war; against greenskins, beastmen, servants of the Dark Gods, and anyone else who had invaded and infested the land. He had waged 2 campaigns almost every year he was on the throne and had regularly dispatched his Boyarin on independent expeditions. Those who had survived, like Ivan Radovic, had a wealth of military experience.
Indeed, while they lacked the formal training and knowledge of the more esoteric aspects of the art of war that an Imperial commander like General Spitzaner possessed, the older Boyarin understood perfectly well how to fit out a pulk, get it moving, keep it supplied, and lead it in battle. They also had been on so many campaigns that they were a wealth of knowledge about Kislev's enemies and the armies they fielded, the land itself, and all the various other practical aspects of war that could only be learned by waging it.
Such men may not have been suitable for Katarin's government, but they were extremely valuable in times of war, which in Kislev was most of the time. One of Katarin's better inventions had been a permanent council of war. Aside from Katarin, all its members were Boyarin of Tzar Boris' generation. It was an honor, of course, to be selected, but the council also served a real military purpose, planning campaigns, assessing military intelligence, and monitoring the readiness of fortifications, standing bodies of troops, and supply deports and magazines.
The council also was yet another school for Katarin and the old Boyarin her latest teachers. She learned something about the art of war at every meeting. These men would not live forever and she needed to absorb as much of their knowledge and experience as she could before they were gone. She had to be ready for the future, which was likely to be at least as violent as the past and present, and there was no guarantee that the Boyarin of her generation would ever be as knowledgeable or experienced as those of Tzar Boris' time.
The other function served by the council was to mostly separate military and civil administration. That was both a matter of getting the right men in the right jobs and also preventing any of her servants from accumulating too much power and influence across the many instruments of state power. Katarin would never be a hostage of or vulnerable to any of her subjects.
Katarin sighed on the inside. Even now, there was still a wealth of talented men in Kislev, but matters of class, rank, and tradition made it very hard to place them all in the right positions, where their talents would be of the most use to her. Breaking down barriers and changing expectations was something to which she devoted tremendous effort and the Spring Driving and Storm of Chaos had made it somewhat easier, as so many men of high station had been killed while many men of lower status had truly distinguished themselves, which made it easier for Katarin to advance them into positions that would otherwise have been beyond them. But, the work was hard and it had to be taken slowly, so as not to cause too much discontent.
Still, Katarin was barely 27 and so she was likely to sit on the throne for many years. She could afford to be patient and thorough, as well as determined. Kislev would change and she would change it, but it had to be taken in steps.
Katarin’s mental wanderings stopped when Skvortskova finished his report on the Bolgasgrad docks and paused for any questions. Katarin smiled at him and said, “thank you Chancellor, you may proceed.” Inside, however, she was in misery. It would be a long morning.