- “Why are you asking the same question again and again!? It's not like I'll ever tell you the truth!”
- “I simply figure that there will be a point at which you get tired of lying.”
***Empire, Northern Coast***
I am drunk on power and I feel good about it. There is something satisfying about slaughtering these soldiers. After holding back for so long, it feels like pure bliss to punish someone, even if they aren't directly responsible for their nation's actions. They are still the Empire's soldiers and the simple fact that they belong to that depraved nation is enough reasoning for me.
“Please! Stop! Spare me!”
My rapier comes down on the soldier's forehead and splits his skull. Blood sprays across the deck and a piece of brain flops onto the wooden planks. Yes, definitely satisfying.
Grinning, I advance with a party of soulless undead behind me. This is the seventh ship which I boarded so far and it seems like it will be the last one. The battle is coming to a close. Most of the Empire's ships are taken or destroyed. All that remains is this ship, their command vessel.
I point at a hatch and five of my new recruits swarm into the opening. There are some muffled screams from inside, but I don't care. My target is the enemy general. He is standing proudly at the helm, rallying his remaining men even as one more of our ghost frigates crashes into his ship's side. The reinforcements throw themselves into the battle, further stacking the odds against our enemies.
The ship's deck is in chaos and slick with blood. Our enemies are still fighting, but it's clear that this is their last battle.
The commander spots me as I approach his position. Resigning himself to his fate, the enemy commander joins his people. He draws a large sabre and hacks at one of my soldiers. The sharp blade slices through the undead like a hot knife through butter. His temporary victory causes him to smile and he continues on his way to meet me.
Our blades collide in a shower of sparks and my smile widens when I realize that this man knows how to use a blade in magical battle. I take a solid stance and allow the power to flood through every vein, muscle, and bone in my body. The general's aura is bright and strong compared to his underlings. This will be a good fight.
The commander stops his advance just within my reach. Both of us aren't moving from our positions. Only our arms blur and the blades clash, creating a shower of sparks. I move by pure instinct, because I cannot directly see the motions of my enemy. Only his shoulder and upper body give me small hints at what to expect next.
The barrier around me flares several times as his blade manages to sneak past mine. Each time, his barrier also flares up as my blade strikes his. We trade blow for blow without a clear winner. Pearls of sweat appear on the commander's forehead and he raises his hand, attempting to cast a spell while simultaneously defending himself.
Seeing my chance, I step forward, right into his sphere of defence. Our barriers clash with each other and break. My blade collides with his and I use the interruption in our dance to jump forward, punching my elbow right into his Adam's apple. He gasps for air and isn't able to prevent my blade from sliding along his.
Grabbing his bladearm, I pull him towards me and step to the side, slashing the rapier across his belly. A rapier isn't intended for cutting, but it gets the job done like any other weapon with a sharp edge. I open him up like a pig. His guts spill out and I step away from his falling body. The stench is indescribable.
I reach up to touch the wound where his blade touched my cheek and cut into my earlobe. With both of our shields cancelling each other, his last strike got through. Grunting, I kick the man, rolling him onto his back. Then I sink the rapier right into his failing heart.
The battle is over.
Taking a deep breath, I place my hands behind my back and survey the scene in front of me. We took their flagship and it seems like all that's left to do, is to clean up.
“Your flagship reports that the battle is over.” One of the undead soldiers approaches and kneels down. He is carrying a large communication crystal.
I nod and take the artefact. It links me directly with my command staff on the Zenith. “Report!”
The general answers me from the other side. “We wiped out the imperial fleet. Nineteen ships were taken and three got away. The rest was destroyed. We lost twelve ghost frigates and twenty-four support vessels. Most of our losses were due to crashes with their ships. Some didn't manage to re-engage their levitation magic and crashed into the sea.”
That's a good ratio. We traded one of our ships for three of theirs. A traditional battle would have meant the loss of up to ninety percent of our forces. There was even a chance that we could've lost. “Good work. Commence with the clean-up and take over the captured ships. Separate our undamaged ships from the ones which are unfit to continue the campaign. I want the captured ships and our unfit ones to stay here. Send our support vessels down to the bottom of the sea. They have to retrieve every power stone that's still usable.”
“That will leave us with sixty-two warships.”
I nod. “Order a sufficient number of the support vessels to accompany us. There is somewhere we have to be.”
I return the communication crystal and point at the corpse of the enemy commander. “Bring him to the Zenith. He fought well and will be a good soldier. It would be a waste to throw away a man like him.”
Headache, go away. I groan and place my forehead on the cold surface of my office table. “Pain, pain, why? No spell works. What was in that stupid wine? Did they poison me? I've never had such a brutal hangover.”
Fae places a glass of water in front of me. “That was dwarven wine. Its unique property is that it can get even the hardiest people drunk. Even if they try to mitigate the effect with magic. Sadly, that also applies to the after effects of excessive drinking.”
Kiara raises her hand. “After her display at the party, I want to call for a petition. Who else thinks that Joyce should be forbidden from drinking alcohol?”
Several people raise their hands. They are all from Illum's command staff and assembled here, following Fae's wish. I have no idea what's so important that it can't wait. “Please, get this over with. Why does everyone have to be here?”
I look at Fae and Kiara. Then I study Tristen, Brian and Dorver. Everyone who belongs to my inner circle is here. The fact that Fae didn't invite people like Klein and Elma means that she doesn't want the contents of this discussion to spread to the island's population.
Fae crosses her arms in front of her chest and glares at me. “You lied to us!”
I squint my eyes against the light and flick my hand, using force magic to pull the curtains in front of the windows. That's better. “About what?”
Fae stabs her finger at the table's surface, making her point. “You lied about your origins! Why didn't you tell us that you are a Mirai?”
I rub my temples and glare at the elf. “I honestly can't follow you. Please explain, slowly. I assume that it has something to do with what Alias had to tell you?”
Fae presses her lips into a thin line. “He told me that he is relatively sure that you are a Mirai. They all have pale skin and black hair. That doesn't fit with your story. You told us that you are an escaped slave from the empire.”
“So that slimebag tells you something and you get doubts about me?” I take the glass of water. It's cool, so I press it against my forehead, rather than drinking it. “I still can't follow your reasoning. What does my ethnicity have to do with the fact that you jump to the conclusion that I lied about my past as a slave?”
Tristen shakes his head. “There are no Mirai slaves in the empire. Their last clash with the Mirai was decades ago, and by now, most Mirai are living on their island. Nobody has managed to get close to their cities since the war.” He looks at Fae. “Are you sure that Alias didn't lie? I, personally, never saw a living Mirai. But I guess that there are plenty of people with pale skin and black hair who have nothing to do with the necromancers. How did he prove to you that Joyce is a Mirai?”
Fae shakes her head. “I wasn't sure either, since I have never seen a living Mirai. They created something like a religion around their necromancy. Only their dead travel outside their state. I thought the pale skin has something to do with the fact that they were revived, but apparently, it's a trait of their people.
“Alias arranged for the Mirai envoy to meet you. He made me watch and it proved his point. Normally, the corpses aren't interested in anything. They just walk around and observe without much interest. On rare occasions, they deliver a message from the Mirai Sovereign. But as soon as he saw you, he acted very creepy! He totally ignored us and just stood there, ogling you. Only after you told him to leave did he stop and walk away.”
I lean back and take a sip from the water. “Have you forgotten that I was a slave for over eighty years? I was born in slavery. Maybe my parents were captured Mirai? I don't know. I really don't understand what the fuss is about. So what if I am a Mirai? I am still me. I have no memory of my parents and no connection to their culture.”
Stupid, meddling elves. I'll make sure to take revenge on Alias. Didn't they promise not to mess with me? Pointing me out to my enemies comes very close to that.
Brian raises his hand. “I think that Fae wants to say that some things don't add up. All of us became invested in Illum. It would be a catastrophe if something happened to Joyce.” He looks at me. “Maybe you don't realize it, but the people on this island idolize you. I won't go so far to say that they worship you, but it's very close.”
Dorver raises a hand. “Sorry if I am prying, I only heard the story from the others. You said that your master kept you alive with rejuvenation treatments.”
So they are talking behind my back? I suppose it's to be expected. “Yes.”
The gnome nods. “Let's assume that you aren't a Mirai spy who wants to gain intelligence.” He looks around. “Which would be very stupid, because Joyce has more than enough money to change her looks as she pleases.”
He returns his attention to me. “So you were a slave. Do you have any idea how much rejuvenation treatments cost? There aren't very many healers who can cast the spell. Their time is precious and each of them has a full schedule. So why did your master keep you alive? Did he love you? Because, no matter how beautiful you are, the cost of a single rejuvenation treatment is enough to buy ten high-class beauties.”
Kiara squints her eyes and glares at the gnome. “And why do you know that?”
Dorver quickly clears his throat. “Slavery is one of the empire's support pillars. It's important to know about it to understand their economics. The black market is an important part of understanding the world's economics.”
I sigh. “I have no idea why I was kept alive. All I know is that there must have been a reason, but I don't know what it was. In one of my earliest memories, I remember that my master was practically ordered to take me in. But they never bothered to mention a reason.” I glare at the floor and try to remember more, but the alcohol is doing a good job at burying the bad memories. Maybe I should get drunk more often.
Fae massages her forehead. “Alias mentioned that the recent activities of the Mirai must be connected to Joyce. I don't know from where he got his information, but he is always travelling all around the world.”
Tristen pulls down the corners of his mouth. “Because of his meddling, you assumed that Joyce knows something, or outright lied to us. That's a long leap in logic.”
“This is getting us nowhere.” I hold out my hand. “There, truth read me all you want, it won't change my story.”
When nobody comes forth, Brian is the one who gets up. “I'll be the evildoer. If this doesn't get done, there will be always doubts.”
Five minutes later, none of us have learned anything different. And I am also grumpier. “Is everyone satisfied? Can I go back to sleep? I have to think of our next destination.”
Dorver raises his hand. “Actually, there is one more important thing and it's connected to this discussion. I waited to bring it up until the air is clear. A strange request landed on my table, just this morning. A certain Mirai envoy requested to see Illum in person. He offered to be a permanent diplomat for the Mirai state. According to him, they are very interested in your idea of turning Illum into a school. It would be an opposing force to the Consortium and they approve of that.”
“That's definitely not an accident,” Kiara concludes.
I press the glass of water to my cheek. My headache doesn't want to stop. “There is only one solution. Get that guy on board and we'll question him.”