“It took a long time for the various nations of the world to realize that the members of the so-called resistance didn’t fight for freedom of their own free will.”
I return my attention to the crowd, but it seems like my pursuer hasn’t caught up. Maybe he has to change clothes. I didn’t stay to check on the aftermath of the collision with the servant, but I imagine that afterwards neither of them was presentable.
Some people are paying attention to us, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary. With so many people in the vicinity, some are bound to pay attention to us.
“Are you aware that I could lose my job over this? My whole family is in danger of losing status,” Zane complains.
“Really? Are you in trouble with your competitors?” Is it really my responsibility to consider his situation? I have my own problems and it isn’t like I haven’t killed to solve my issues. What’s someone’s job compared to a human life?
A more weighty problem is the fact that Zane and Oswin will simply get replaced with others. Do I want that? There are certainly worse people to have as a tail. “Don’t worry. If the worst comes to worst, you can apply for a job on Illum. I am willing to take you in. Your expertise with an airship would immediately get you and your family a place among my ranks.”
Zane shakes his head. “That isn’t something I wish for. We are a renowned family and I have a fiancée! If you screw us over, she might call off the marriage.”
I huff. “Marriage? Being seen with me shouldn’t be a problem if you two love each other.”
“We aren’t seeing each other often enough for anything like love. Serving on an airship doesn’t help,” he grumbles.
“Ah, so it’s political. It doesn’t change the fact that I’ll use you as a shield,” I whisper and watch the mermaid who is passing below us. She doesn’t care that the whole world gets to see her assets. “That girl is naughty. Why is she allowed to do that? It’s unfair that some races can go for a swim in this pond while others have to follow the dress code.”
Zane shrugs. “It can’t be helped. Amphibian races can’t stay on land for an extended amount of time.”
Our discussion is interrupted by a man who joins us on the bridge. I recognize him as the same guy who was following me earlier. He took off his fancy jacket, but it’s definitively him.
Zane groans and whispers into my ear. “Pavel Atrach. His family has the ear of the king. They have their fingers everywhere and they aren’t keen on sharing power.”
Pavel reaches us and bows slightly. “Joyce, I was looking forward to meeting you.”
“I wasn’t,” I answer as cheerfully as possible. The corner of Zane’s mouth pulls downwards, but he says nothing.
Pavel’s expression turns haughty. He clearly doesn’t think much of Zane and his family. “I would advise you not to listen any of the lies which come out of a Birald’s mouth.”
I click with my tongue. “Ah, indeed? He didn’t mention you. I simply chose him to accompany me tonight since I already know him. When I said that I wasn’t looking forward to meeting you, I meant everyone who wants to use me for his own gain. The disrespectful reception already taught me that I am not here because you people honour my abilities.”
“You people? And you chose him?” the newcomer asks with raised eyebrows. Pavel grins at Zane as if I just insulted my chosen partner.
“Nobles. Men and women who think that they are better than others because they drew a better hand of cards when they were born. When I was invited to this party, it wasn’t because any of you respect my achievements. It was to determine if you can use me for your own gains. Allow me to return the question. What can you offer me that makes it worth my time to listen to you?”
He straightens his back. “You sound very high and mighty for a newcomer. How long do you think you can play this game without allies? You didn’t even listen to my offer. Instead, you start ranting like a little kid. Nobody can expect to receive respect if he or she did nothing to earn it.”
“I did nothing to earn it? What of Illum? What could you offer me? A political marriage to gain status which I don’t need? Money which I am already swimming in? Power which I command with my little finger?” I tilt my head and regard him without any emotion. “Your aura doesn’t look very impressive. I suppose that most of the time you hide behind your underlings.”
He glares at me. “There will come a day when your house of cards crumbles. Someone will learn Illum’s secret and suddenly you won’t be so special anymore. Though, I bet that you simply found a power stone and are very good at hiding it.”
I call up Illum’s control menu. This will be an enormous bluff. In fact, if anyone realizes that I am not the one who is casting the force fields, I am screwed. Illum’s ability to project force fields is limited to three kilometres around the island. That sounds like a lot, but it isn’t. Now I am glad that I manoeuvred the island closer to this building, just in case.
Letting go of Zane, I do some dramatic gestures with my free hand to distract from the fact that manipulating the control menu is the only thing of importance in this little show. The additional power cores gave me enough calculation power to do some upgrades on the interface.
At first I started out with basic command lines, which quickly evolved to a very rudimentary control panel. My current operating system still has a few flaws which I strive to get rid of, but that’s only because I invested most of my time into the program which allows me to sculpt Illum in three dimensions.
A pillar of water rises from the pond. It’s a little too close to the bridge, so I push it further away from us. Choosing two fractal equations, I apply them to the pillar in order to create a tree-like structure. The Brownian tree and the Pythagoras tree equation fit the situation perfectly. Then I copy the whole object to create a little fractal forest.
Adding a single, large pillar, I place a huge sphere at the top of it. It almost reaches the ceiling and for a moment I sweat blood when it seems like I got the size wrong. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful display of my skill and power if I crush this whole building by accident? Nobody would trust me and all my plans would be for naught.
As an afterthought, I add some water pipes which spread out through the hall. A few small basins allow the merfolk to come up for air and to mingle with their land-bound cousins. I add some basins to the outside of the sphere and give my whole creation a little spin, including the trees. This drains the rest of the pond, which turns out to be nothing more than a very fancy pool. It was made to appear like a pond with the help of illusion magic.
The befuddled mermaid and a few of her brethren are now floating inside the large sphere. The water pipes give them access to the whole ballroom. I smile and look up to study my inspired creation. Pavel looks up at the mind boggling thing. The muscles in his jaw work feverishly as he tries to stay calm and collected, but his eyes are slightly wider than before.
“Does it look like I am in need of one such as you?” I ask, and my words are carried far and wide. It isn’t like I spoke exceptionally loud. It’s just that the whole room had fallen completely silent.
Pavel returns his attention to me and corrects his shirt. “It seems like you’ll do perfectly fine on your own.” He bows and walks away. “But mark my words. There will be a time when you need friends.”
I sigh and link arms with Zane. “It seems like the bug is gone. Why don’t we go and get ourselves something to drink?”
Zane clears his throat and guides me off the bridge. “Of course. We are a little exposed. Mingling with the crowd might not be a bad idea.”
I nod and allow him to take the lead. It’s very satisfying when the people in front of us part and give us at least two metres of room. “It’s strange. They didn’t do that when I was alone. Your family must be very respected.”
“You mean that they didn’t do that before you demonstrated that your force magic could wipe the floor with ninety nine percent of the people in this room,” Zane replies.
“There are people who I can’t wipe the floor with? Tell me, I am interested in meeting them.”
He sighs. “Prince Gregor is one of them. There are also a few others throughout the Alliance, but I don’t know if they are present. The people in this party belong to families of high status, but the individuals themselves are not the reason why their families are so powerful and respected.”
“So you are saying that I was invited to a party for the young and the inexperienced. That’s yet another hidden insult. At an age of eighty-six I expect more. Well, almost eighty-seven,” I retort.
Zane laughs roughly. “I wouldn’t put it in such a way, and you never mentioned your age to anyone. We know almost nothing about you. The only people who might know something don’t leave Illum. Everyone suspects you of the most horrible sacrificial rituals to gather the needed power for your island. Of course, since you allowed us to inspect Illum and to talk to the inhabitants, we had to speak against such theories.”
Now, that’s strange. “I wasn’t aware that such rumours exist. My people are free to leave the island as they please. The fact that they don’t want to leave for any reason speaks for itself.” I am silent for a few moments, contemplating the situation. “At least I showed everyone that I have no need for sacrifices to cast my spells.”
“You did. Though, even after seeing it with my own eyes, I don’t believe that any of them will be able to duplicate your skill. Or is it an ability? I still believe that you are using power stones. You are just good at hiding them. Maybe you are hiding them inside a spacial pocket and found a way to access the energy.”
He is getting very close to the secret of my barrette. I don’t like it. “Why don’t we take a drink? It’s not like I would answer any of those questions. Oh, I forgot! I already gave you and your father the chance to read me with a truth spell. Both of you asked your questions and failed.”
We reach the round bar where I parted with Fae. Zane orders wine for himself and fruit juice for me. The fact that he noticed my preferences is very thoughtful of him. I take the drink and prepare myself for some idle chit-chat until the next problem arises.