The Kastanian Empire is in decline. Most of the territory it once covered is lost and the five provinces it still controls are disarray. Astiros Koros, was the general of the Imperial army putting down a rebellion in Bragal province. Just as he was about to win the emperor calls back the troops and negotiates a peace. He claimed the war was costing too much money and lives.
Astiros bribes the captain of the palace guards to give him entry into the palace and assassinates the emperor and empress. He makes himself emperor.
His family joins him in Kastan at the palace. His wife Isbel, 20 year-old daughter Amne, five year-old son Argan, and infant son Istan. His oldest son, Jorquil, is in command of the Imperial Guard awaiting orders to invade another province in revolt.
Upon seizing power he discovers the imperial treasury is empty. He convenes the imperial council made up of the high priest, members of the five largest noble families, merchants guild and the imperial treasurer.
Astiros informs them that he intends to march back and finish the job in Bragal in six months. In order to do that he needs money.
He starts by telling the high priest that all the temples will be taxed. When the high priest starts threatening Astiros with destruction from the gods, the new emperor slaps him down. He reminds the priest that after every defeat the priest blamed their lack of faith instead of their lack of numbers and supplies. That the treasury was empty because the temples take money, but never give it back. He tells the priest he is no longer welcome in Kastan and is to leave immediately.
When one of the nobles tells Astiros he can't legally do that, he turns on the man and asks him, "Who makes the law?"
Astiros then tells the nobility that their tax exempt status is at an end. They will start paying taxes or have all their possessions confiscated. Turning on the merchants he tells them their taxes will be increased.
The imperial treasurer is then ordered to reduce the palace staff as there's no money to pay people who have no work. The staff had never been reduced from the days when the empire was powerful.
Think of the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the fall of Rome, or just about any empire. Astiros has described the major causes of their decline and fall. The church is tax exempt, but collects tithes making it rich which it spends on temples and vestments, but nothing to help the poor. The nobility are leaches soaking the masses with their monopolies, but paying no taxes. The merchants paying little in taxes saying if they are taxed they'll have to raise prices. The poor are the only one who pay taxes and when the poor are staving and have no money everyone wonders whey there's no money in the treasury. When there's not money the military is neglected, infrastructure deteriorates, crime increases and the empire is conquered.
Naturally after this meeting the high priest is vowing revenge, the nobles meet to hire a hit man from the guild of thieves and squabble among themselves which family will take over the empire.
What makes this story compelling is the number of balls being juggled at the same time.
- Jorquil is with the army and given the task of retaking a rebellious province.
- Astiros recruits and trains a new army to go back to Bragal.
- Amne is sent as an ambassador to the country Mazag, south of Bragal to negotiate a treaty.
- Isbel is to stay in the palace and run the empire while her husband is off fighting.
- The two children are growing up. Argan is a precocious five-year-old and Ishtan does nothing but cry when he doesn't get his way.
While Astiros marches to Bragal he is joined by mountain tribes he's bribed with what little money he has and Bragalese loyalists. He's forced to fight an army raised by Duras, one of the noble families. He easily defeats them and marched into Bragal.
Amne travels with three diplomats and a hunter/guide to travel through Bragal incongnito. It's the first time the young woman has faced any type of hardship and she develops feeling for her guide. This enrages the diplomats as he is far beneath her and trouble ensues.
In Kastan, Isbel finds a loyal captain of the palace guard who fights off all attempts to cause riots and revolt within the capital. In the palace itself Argan is poisoned on his birthday, he survives, but it places that much more stress on Isbel as she doesn't know who to trust in her own home.
The Bragalese is where a little magic come to the story. The women of Bragal are witches. They have magical healing power. Having sex with one is like taking a drug. The man is addicted to her and enslaved by her. Usually when an army wins a battle the victors rape and enslave the women, but with a Bragal witch; she rapes the victor. Most of the men die. Astiros orders the army to kill all women and children after the battle for this reason.
With the loyal Bragal he warns his men not to have sex with a Bragal woman even if she initiates it. If they do the father will kill them.
They have a funny idea of marriage. The father will kill any man who sleeps with his daughter before marriage. The husband is enslaved by the wife. After marriage she can sleep with any married man she wants and the man can sleep with any married woman he wants. This results in a large population.
In a subsequent book Jorquil sleeps with a Bragalese servant and marries her creating havoc for the empire.
Hope this is enough to whet your appetite for the books. They are even better the second time because there is so much going on things get lost in the shuffle.