FEWER things were so welcome on a warm spring evening as a quiet stroll around town. The Tax Collector closed the inn door behind her. Followed by her bodyguards, Dmaril and Yalesk, she started off down Vialikzadni Road.

Wax tablet anchored to her hip, she walked along the forested path admiring the beauty of such a quaint little settlement. Loprikha? Yoprika? Something of that nature. The hamlet was barely a whisper on the wind back in Igna; being here, she could see why. The population was scarcely over fifty. What few buildings existed were built along the road. The inn, which appeared to be the only true business aside from the mill, had just three rooms. She made a note on her tablet. Of course, Vialikzadni Road connected Igna to Sarona—the Blue Queen’s capital city.

Traveling here was nothing more than a vain attempt to squeeze blood from a rock. Despite the hamlet’s destitution, there had to be something they could spare. It was built to support a grain mill, after all. The Red Queen needed every single scrap of tadril in Zoldonya Chovrekozh to win this war, and they were so close. Taxing landowners alone was no longer enough.

Igna was wealthy. The mining magnates alone funded most public works. Losevka and Vechnavaya took care of themselves, too, but Zoldoni lands were vast and bustling with life. Without everyone’s contribution, how would the roads get built and repaired? How would victims of famine and plague receive compensation? Who would pay those brave warriors that risked their very lives to bring their countrymen independence? The Red Queen may be fabulously wealthy, but no single Zoldoni could be expected to finance an entire nation. The poor would have to make do. This was everyone’s fight. It gave the Tax Collector no happiness; it was only her solemn duty. Glory to the Red Queen, she thought.

A little farther down the road, something just off the right-hand side clumsily disguised with vines and bushes caught her eye. She cast them off and smiled. A shrine to the Five. Of course they practiced Orthodox Quintinity here. The hamlet stood less than three hundred paces from the border. The Blue Queen’s influence was nothing if not spiritually strong.

She made another note. Admittedly, this would raise their tax rate. A hazard fee, in simple terms. The Tax Collector frowned to herself. Adhering to the Cyclical Mysteries raised no rates at all. Lesser faiths whose names she couldn’t bother recalling had much lower fees attached as well. Next to her note of the shrine’s location, she added: “Increase total by twenty-five percent.”

Her knee began to ache—an old war injury. It may have prevented her from continuing to fight, but it did open the door for her to acquire this position. The Red Queen needed self-sufficient, capable officers to travel the countryside. She turned back. Tonight, she had a meeting with the hamlet council over supper. Gods willing, she’d be off to the next settlement by sunrise.

Fifty paces along, she nearly walked straight into a dirty-faced boy of twelve or thirteen. She said nothing to him and carried on. From behind, she heard, “Greedy bleedin’ pig.”

She pivoted and stared him down. “Excuse me?”

He spit at her feet and made a gesture she’d never seen but could surmise as vulgar.

As she stepped nearer to him, she noticed a small gathering of settlers encroaching. Some lingered near the road while others yet pretended to do their washing and work. She glanced at Dmaril and Yalesk. They seemed to notice, too.

She huffed. “Wash your mouth, boy. I am your elder and you will respect me.”

Someone came running from between the huts. “Vazhil?” He yelled. When he saw the Tax Collector, he lunged for the boy and yanked him behind himself. “I am so, so sorry,” the man said. He was older, but not ancient, and definitely out of breath. “I don’t know what was said, but he didn’t mean it, I’m sure. He just lost his ma. Have mercy, please.”

The Tax Collector pursed her lips. “And I presume you are the father?”

He winced. “Uncle. Pa’s been dead years.”

“In that case, it would seem you are his father, and I would encourage you to keep a closer eye on your charges from now on. Being that I have a…forgiving nature, I leave his lesson in respect to you.” She locked eyes with Vazhil. “Other officers of the Red Queen are not so kind.”

“They wouldn’t be dead if the red bitch wouldn’t have killed them,” Vazhil shouted.

His uncle forced his hand over Vazhil’s mouth. Unprompted, Dmaril came forward and struck the boy on the side of the head. At once, there was a crowd around them, spitting and snarling, screaming indecipherable taunts and insults. Five villagers circled Dmaril, prodding him and shouting at him to strike.

“Dmaril,” the Tax Collector snapped over raucous taunts. “You listen to me. Citizens of Loprikha! I have no quarrel with you. I am here on official business. I will soon meet with your leader to—” A throbbing pain struck the side of her head. She clutched it, vision blurring with involuntary tears, and staggered forward. Her veins flared with brilliant orange Essence. Blind rage took control. She whipped around, letting her Essence flow. A ball of flames exploded from her hands.

Silence.

The Tax Collector stopped her dance. A rock laid at her feet. Black blood glistened on her hand as she withdrew it from her throbbing head. Whatever fool threw a rock at her must have had a death wish.

Ahead of her, seven scarred and blistering faces clutched at their skin, crying in agony, and their clothes singed. Her eyes fell upon Vazhil’s charred hands covering his burned face.

For a full moment, the silence remained. The Tax Collector composed herself, raised her blistered hands, and shouted, “I do not wish to escalate—”

Everything happened at once. The mob ran at her, Dmaril and Yalesk, each other. Gritting her teeth, she drew more Essence from her veins until they glowed bright as the sun. She wheeled and spun, striking her attackers down in a violent dance of flames. Fistfights made ragged edges of the mob. She carved away a path for herself and bolted, bodyguards be damned. Their idiocy caused this mess.

Her knee ached, but she pushed ever northward down Vialikzadni Road until she could no longer hear the cacophony. She stopped to breathe behind a poplar. When the Tax Collector composed herself, she surveyed her hands. Cracked and blistered, as to be expected without the use of casting gloves. The wax tablet was long melted and abandoned, probably somewhere along the road. No use going back for that.

She sighed. Now there was the matter of being a Roseheart in Blue Army territory. If memory served, there was a river not far from here that ran across Rahvesk. If she followed it, Igna would eventually appear on the other end.

Face etched into a scowl, she started walking. This was just her luck.

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