“If a government can’t solve a political dispute through negotiation, they resort to economic pressure. If that doesn’t yield the intended result, assassination and war are next on the list.”
... Why don’t you see me as an independent power? I always dreamt about opening an academy, so if you don’t piss me off, I might even share some knowledge with your younger generations.”
I line up my shot with the chest of the woman who is trying to negotiate with the Alliance’s government. My employers are interested in a quick and clean resolution of the ‘irregularity’, as they decided to call her. For that reason, they even provided me with a state of the art crossbow. It’s not often that I get my hands on military grade equipment from the Consortium.
From my position inside the ventilation shaft, I have a perfect view of the hall beneath me. The metal mesh in front of the shaft is a perfect concealment. A little mirror in the room’s left corner even allows me to watch the representatives of the various races. I had to go through great pains to place it there. It’s not like the security in this place is lax, but I take a certain pride in being worth the gold they pay me.
It took a lot of sneaking around and a few substantial bribes to get into this shaft. Add to that the fact that I was waiting for weeks to be here when they meet Joyce, this job is quickly becoming a badly paid undertaking.
Maximilian leans back in his chair. It looks like he is wrestling with lots of conflicting emotions. “We can’t have that. If we acknowledge your status as independent... It would be a precedent for all future negotiations with you.”
Now that I think about it, it’s highly likely that my employer is actually the Consortium itself. I got a very precise set of instructions. ‘Do not kill her if she is handed over to the Consortium, kill her if she goes free or makes a deal with the Alliance.’
“It’s the only way in which you may gain my cooperation. Apprehending me here and now wouldn’t only break several of your own laws, it would close off any chance that you may benefit from my abilities,” Joyce answers, completely unfazed by the fact that she is negotiating with some of the most powerful people on this continent. They are just the representatives of each race, but they are the direct spokespersons of each individual government.
My employers seem to be very interested in my success. They gave me an enchanted artefact which can’t be bought around the corner. It accelerates the crossbow bolt with force magic. The energy for doing so is stored inside the weapon. All the user has to do, is to charge the weapon beforehand.
Charging the weapon takes some time, but that’s of no concern in my case. Assassins aren’t interested in more than a single shot. If I miss, the mission is automatically a failure. The fact that I have to crawl backwards through the ventilation shaft will cost a significant amount of time. Time in which someone could find the origin of the attack and hunt me down. I have no intention to end my career early.
Maximilian tilts his head, silently considering his options. “We have no guarantee that you aren’t lying. Maybe it’s just a matter of taking control of the island. With you out of the picture, we would have all the time in the world to study Illum.”
Taking a deep breath, I make a final adjustment to the scope, another invention which points at the Consortium as the origin of this weapon. If I get caught with this baby, there will be no way to talk myself out of the situation.
Joyce smiles and shakes her head. “I am willing to swear an oath in order to prove that you would be empty handed at the end of the day. Like I said, the island is useless without me. And let’s assume that you can study Illum. Do you really think that other nations would just lean back and allow you to have such an artefact? Everyone would plot against the Alliance in order to return the balance of power.”
Having made sure that the sights are adjusted, I place the enchanted crossbow bolt in the holding mechanism. It secures the bolt, so that it doesn’t fall out if I have to move with the weapon.
The bolt itself is also a little artefact of its own. There are several stacked enchantments on it. In fact, I think that the creators of this ammunition overdid it. They stacked several layers of spells. Barrier penetration, armour piercing, fragmentation. I wouldn’t wish for anyone to be hit by this little beasty.
Maximilian nods slowly and scratches the base of his left horn. “The way you put it makes it seem like we only have bad choices to choose from.”
Down in the hall, they are still talking. Everyone is trying to assert their positions. It’s politics, the reason why people like me will never be without a job.
I aim at Joyce’s forehead and consider my options. There are some individuals with speed-type abilities who can move very fast. If she senses something, it wouldn’t be a problem for her to move her head by a few centimetres. I aim lower. It’s a lot harder to move her chest out of the way. The upper body has more mass and she is sitting in a chair, which makes it harder to respond quickly.
It would increase my chances to actually hit her. If the crossbow bolt works as advertised, then it won’t matter if I hit the head or the heart.
Joyce shrugs. “Life isn’t about good and bad choices. There are always drawbacks. All I can do, is to advise you to choose wisely. There is only one option which gains you something.”
I study the woman’s expression. Her demeanour is disconcerting me. In my line of work, I have to be extremely good with judging other people. More than once I had to disguise myself as a servant to gain access to my target. Doing so needs an extraordinary amount of acting talent, combined with the skill to predict the actions and thoughts of the people around you. Who are the ones I have to be wary of? Who are those who don’t pay attention to me and are easily tricked?
Maximilian reaches for his hammer. “The only way to solve this problem, is to call for a vote. Whatever the Alliance will do, as a whole, we have to take responsibility for our actions.”
Joyce doesn’t answer. Her smiling expression is like a mask. She is a beautiful woman with her black hair and those deep, grey eyes. It’s the eyes which betray her. They are dead and hollow. I have seen those eyes many times. They belong to people who have given up.
Those who know that death is inevitable and are fine with their fate… or those who simply don’t care. Such people are the most dangerous ones. They are willing to gamble everything on a small chance. All or nothing.
But that’s not all I see in Joyce’s eyes. There is one more thing. Without it, my impression of her wouldn’t fit the situation. That additional thing explains why she is able to face the council in such a relaxed manner. She is looking down on them. In her eyes, they aren’t even equals. She looks at them like someone would study an interesting bug and consider what to do with it. A shudder runs down my spine. This woman is dangerous.
Maximilian brings down his hammer to silence the room. “We’ll vote on how to proceed. There are three options. We apprehend Joyce and hand her to the Consortium. We simply take Joyce at her offer and hand the Illum to one of our factions. Lastly, we can treat Joyce like an independent power, which would mean that we also have to treat her like a noble. The Illum would be an independent state. We’ve heard the most important arguments for and against all those scenarios.”
The dwarves get to choose first. Their representative stands up and corrects his clothes. “It’s clear that the Illum can’t fall into the hands of anyone. And how long would Joyce be able to defend that flying castle of hers? I say that we hand Joyce to the Consortium and destroy the Illum. That will return everything to normal.”
A gnome from the table next to the dwarf gets the opportunity to voice his opinion. He represents one of the guilds, which also have a seat in the government. “The merchants are against it. It would violate the very foundations on which the Alliance was built. We have no other choice, but to acknowledge her independence.”
The humans and beastmen get their turn, voting for the option of adopting Joyce and her possession. Though, they clearly have different opinions on who should crew the Illum. It seems like they are willing to take the risk of losing that little game of influence.
Some of the minor factions get to vote until it’s the turn of the demons. Maximilian looks around and studies his peers. “Three factions are in favour of taking the Illum, for whatever end. Two votes for her independence. Two want to hand her to the Consortium.” He clears his throat. “The demons think that it would be best to regard Joyce as an independent power. It would cause the least disturbance among the members of the Alliance. I think that the elves have the last vote.”
The elven representative rubs her earlobe and tilts her head sideways. It’s clear that her oversized earring is a communication crystal. She is listening to instructions from someone higher up the chain. Maybe the elven king himself. The brunette beauty plays with her long hair and seals the newcomer’s fate. “Don’t interfere with her. Regard Joyce as an independent power.”
I release my breath slowly. My index finger curls around the crossbow’s trigger and the bolt is released with a silent ‘Twang!’
It breaks through the thin metal mesh which is covering the ventilation shaft. My target’s hand shoots upwards, placing her open palm in the line of fire. The bolt breaks through a barrier which suddenly shimmers into existence, surrounding Joyce. A second barrier is also pierced, slowing down the bolt.
The tip of the projectile impacts her palm and the fragmentation spell activates. Three fingers are blown off and a large part of Joyce’s hand disintegrates. The metal fragments spread out and impact the woman’s chest and throat. Her right hand comes up in a blur of motion and something thuds into the ceiling of the ventilation shaft. Two of the guards behind her go down as the woman is thrown backwards and out of sight.
The guard with the shield jumps forward, foiling any chance at taking a second shot. Reloading would take too much time anyway.
I curse and crawl backwards. Looking up, I find a glowing dagger stuck in the ventilation shaft’s ceiling. It must’ve missed my head by a few centimetres. Had I been just a little larger… I shudder and try to crawl faster. Even as I do so, the dagger starts eroding the material around it slowly, but steadily, so I double my efforts in getting away.
They definitely didn’t pay me enough for this job.