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Charon's predecessor had held his position for well over twenty years, during which time he'd promoted a great many members of his family to influential positions at Court - with six uncles, five aunts and a score of cousins, nieces and nephews, there had been quite a considerable number of them and, unlike certain other families, they tended to stick together like a bunch of goblins, although their behavior was slightly more civilized, to the King's regret; a misbehaving servant could easily enough be dismissed, but to fire a man for simply being part of a large family would be a bit more tricky to pull off without causing a fuss.

To clean house, therefore, the King had decided to appoint a new Prime Minister. In theory, the old one could not be fired without either a trial for high treason ending in a verdict of 'guilty' and an execution, or, alternately, a letter of resignation. The last turned out to be impossible to obtain, the first, sadly, required too much evidence that simply wasn't there. And so, during a game of Mah-Jong that would be talked about in months and months to come, the King promised to appoint whomever would win the game as his new Prime Minister, with a charming smile that left just the tiniest bit of doubt as to whether or not he was joking.

Half the on-lookers decided right away that it had, in fact, been a joke and laughed accordingly. The other half joined in after ten seconds during which royal disfavor failed to fall on those who'd laughed straight away. Of the players involved in the game, one was the King himself, who never laughed at his own jokes (or anyone else's for that matter) and simply smiled enigmatically. Another was the present Prime Minister, whose smile turned sour and who considered the royal promise as more of a personal reprimand than an announcement of his impending retirement, being an excellent Mah-Jong player, albeit one who considered it political to drop a few stitches in games that involved his Royal Highness.

The third player was Dowon, who was well-known to lack any and all ambition beyond that of his current position as one of the Specialists. He neither laughed nor smiled, but instead looked at the fourth player with an unreadable expression that would later be claimed to have been either suspicious, surprised or conspirational, depending on whom one asked.

Obviously, the fourth player was Charon.

 

Charon's family could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be called 'large'. His father had had one elder brother who had died childless in a skirmish up North, and his mother had a sister with whom she exchanged barely civil Midwinter-greetings once a year. The highest position any member of Charon's family had ever held was that of First Rank Secretary to the Minister of Justice, which rank had been held by Charon's great-great-great-grandfather. Charon's father had made it to Lieutenant Third Rank, while Charon's mother had never risen above the rank of Second Class Faerie.

Before the Mah Jong-game, Charon had been viewed by most with a mix of pity and smugness; his gifts were considerable, but due to his family's lack of influence, the best he could hope for was to be taken in as someone's protege and, with luck, end his days as an over-worked, burnt-out Secretary. His children, perhaps, might fare a little better, depending on their mother's family.

Needless to say, after the game, people began to look at Charon altogether differently. The thing was, the King's promise had clearly been a joke. It couldn't have been anything else; to award any position at all as a trophy in a game was ridiculous. If it had pleased the King to prolong his joke, well, then that was his royal prerogative. Charon ought to have bowed out with grace, made it clear that he knew the whole thing was a joke - perhaps, with the right amounts of daring and discretion, he might have insinuated himself into the Prime Minister's service, showing he knew how the game was played.

Instead, Charon had gone along with the King, accepting the tap on the shoulder with the royal pipe by way of being elevated to a position well beyond him. The next day, the former Prime Minister was gone - the official story was that he'd retreated to his family's estate in the East, but none of the messengers or visitors who went there met with success - and Charon had taken his place.

Within two days, four-fifth of the noble families had sent lesser cousins to have a word with Charon's parents, to call upon them to remind their wayward son of his rightful place. His father was politically astute enough to refuse to comment or commit himself; his mother (as well as his sister) were less cautious and had no qualms about coolly replying that Charon was, in fact, precisely in the place he deserved to be and that they had no intention whatsoever of doing anything less than support him.

Over the next three weeks, Charon went through the Secretaries like a scythe, replacing and demoting where he saw fit, and appointing at least two dozen new ones, most of them from families like his own, whose influence had waned or been non-existing for a long time.

Three months later, only half a dozen relatives of the former Prime Minister still held the positions they had held before Charon's rise to power. None of them had any hopes left of attaining a Minister's post, although Charon had promised that he intended to promote based on merit, rather than lineage.

 

The thing was that Charon, for all his gifts and abilities, was alone. True, he had a sister, but women didn't have any political clout (or so the men told themselves) so she didn't matter. Charon could appoint new people and make friends, only when it came down to it, he had nobody to rely on.

Over time, the outrage died down and was replaced by a feeling of grudging acceptance. The former Prime Minister's family had become too powerful anyway, people told themselves. It had been time for a change, and at least Charon was moderately competent, if not as competent as a member of their own family would have been. The field was wide open again; there were opportunities for anyone with the abilities to grasp them. Any day now, the King would grow tired of Charon telling him how to do his job (because it was well known that even his Royal Highness was not safe from Charon's criticism) and give him the choice between a resignation or an execution.

Medea's presence at Court counted for little, it was felt - she had none of her brother's gifts, and the way she went about throwing herself at the King was laughable. Clearly, the King had no interest in her whatsoever which meant, by extension, that he had no interest in safe-keeping Charon's family either.

"The fatal flaw in that reasoning being that they assume the King could only possibly like women," the youngest Royal Inspector in the history of Avalon commented to the recently appointed Minister of Defense. "Maybe he simply avoids the sister because he's involved with the brother."

"I don't think so," replied Camaxtli ('Max' for friends and people unable to properly pronounce his name, which meant pretty much everyone aside from his sister, who tended to address him as 'you idiot'). "If that was so, then why would his highness be chasing your sister?"

"Because my sister's very good at running away," said Pain. "Think about it. Who gets to spend as much time with the King as the Prime Minister? Who is allowed to disturb him at any time of the day? Who has just turned down an offer of marriage into one of the top-five families of the Court?"

"I would thank both of you not to talk about me as if I weren't here," said Charon, frowning.

"But it's the hottest piece of gossip right now," objected Pain. "Scion from an impoverished family sleeps his way to the Prime Minister-ship. You can't get much more juicy than that - well, maybe if the Minister of Defense was to have a stormy affair with the most popular and best-looking Royal Inspector. That'd probably make the headlines."

"Why 'stormy'?" asked Max.

"Try and find out - or remain in ignorance forevermore," said Pain, grinning.

"I'm not that curious."

"You wound me deeply. In that case, perhaps I should flirt with death and dishonor. Do you have any plans for this evening, Charon?"

"I am to discuss a number of things with his Highness," said Charon stiffly, knowing Pain well enough to expect him to at least fish for more details. "In private," he added. "Alone."

Pain surprised him by saying nothing more about the subject, instead losing quite magnificently at the game of Mah Jong that had somehow managed to take up most of the afternoon. Nina won, with Charon coming in a close second and Max's score being closer to Pain's.