“Some may think of the Alliance as a place of peace and equality, but every society has a dark side. Nobody won the war, so we are in the unique position to remember history without the censorship of the winner. It shows that there are no true heroes or villains. In the end, all of them just struggled for survival, power, and fulfilment of their dreams.”
I lean back and glare at the ceiling. My office at the garrison in Union City is small, but I don’t need more. I am just an officer after all. It's already getting dark and my magelight is the only thing which allows me to work at this hour.
This morning, my father brought me very bad news. It seems like the Atrachs used their chance and discredited us. The enmity between the Biralds and the Atrachs is old and runs deep, so their trickery wasn't surprising.
Damn Joyce and her stupid games. The various noble families of the human kingdom are always grasping for more power and Joyce's appearance turned a cold war into a hot one. Using force isn't beneath the Atrachs.
We may not be the most powerful family, but three airships of the Alliance are commanded by our brethren. That gives us a lot of leverage on anyone who might stand in our way. It's also a thorn in the side of the Atrachs, who wish for nothing more than our end.
The king knows of this ongoing battle for influence, but he doesn't care. He even encourages it, as long as the other races aren't involved. One might say that he is turning a blind eye on the squabbles of his underlings. Of course, only as long as they don't get strong enough to overthrow him. Battles between the families keep them too weak to challenge him.
The appearance of Joyce and Illum is for the families what a light is for moths. Everyone wants a piece of her. The woman is a great catch for anyone. She is a powerful mage and negotiated eye to eye with the Alliance as a whole. By establishing herself as an independent power, she not only made herself attractive for the lower nobility, but for the ruling houses themselves. I bet that even the beastmen are thinking of approaching her.
And I swear that she knows exactly what she is doing to us. Nobody can be that oblivious. I bet that not only the humans have their eyes on Illum. That woman talks of peaceful coexistence, but at the same time she dangles a piece of meat above a pit which is filled with starving dogs.
Nothing she says is wrong, or unreasonable. They allowed her independence because the Alliance would tear itself apart to get control of Illum. The last thing we want right now is a civil war. At the same time, the Alliance can't allow a chance like Illum to slip away.
After her behaviour at Gregor's party, it didn't come as a surprise when my father told me that our mansion was attacked by unknown agents. Which means that they were Atrach operatives. We have many enemies, but only the Atrachs would try something like murdering a whole noble family. Our family fought them off, but three-quarters of the servants are dead. My mother and my little sister went underground to avoid further attempts on their life. After such an attack, it would be irresponsible to stay at our estate.
The Atrachs have clearly proven that they are willing to do anything to get us out of the way. And the king is silent. Without undeniable proof against the Atrachs, he will do nothing to help us.
My train of thought is interrupted when the door to my office opens and Pavel Atrach arrogantly enters the room. He smiles and waves a stack of documents at me. “Normally, I would never visit you inside this hellhole, but this is simply too good! I had to bring you the news myself.”
I squint my eyes and try to make sense of his presence. He is the current representative of the human kingdom. In that function, he has no reason to be here. “What do you want?”
“New orders! This is just a copy, but you will find it interesting. You will get the real ones this morning.”
While he brags about the new orders, I slide a hand to the communication crystal at my desk. It doubles as a surveillance device for the garrison. A small screen appears above the crystal, it’s an illusion. A few mental instructions are enough to check the hallway in front of my office and various other locations. Everything is empty, so Pavel didn't come with a group of bullies to take care of me and my father. “You are really just here to brag?”
He throws the documents onto his desk. “Not only to brag, but to see your face when you read this.”
I lean forward and look at the documents. They are deployment orders for our ships. To be exact, for the three ships in our patrol group. There is a lot of redistribution among the crew, but most importantly, Captain Zesni and Captain Mandrich get promoted. Perilous and Legit are going to replace them. I know their names; they are Atrach loyalists.
That will put two of our ships under the control of the Atrachs.
“Look at your face. It's exactly as I imagined it! It makes up for the public humiliation you and that wench caused me. I had to take quite a lot of steam because of that. Well, that's everything I wanted, goodbye.” He turns around and attempts to leave.
I place a finger on my desk and quickly trace the rune which activates my office's security measures. The spell activates and the door slams shut. A complicated web of barrier spells appears on the door, the walls, and even the window, which means that this room is impenetrable for a short period of time. There will be no getting out or getting in.
Pavel turns around, an outraged expression on his face. “What's the meaning of this!?”
I press my lips together and study him intensively. Is he really that stupid, or is it an ingenious trick? One where he offers himself as a sacrifice? Is his family using him as a bait? No. It's hard enough to get one of their people into Pavel's position.
Pavel isn't a strong mage and he isn't exceptionally smart. Joyce judged him correctly when she met him. There is just this pesky ability of his, which allows him to shape energy as he pleases. Thanks to that, many people underestimate him. It makes him an opponent to be wary of, but nothing special. He relies too much on his ability and totally forgot to train his magic properly. Using an ability is much easier than to shape a spell. It’s a shortcut.
People who possess both, magic and an ability, are either very dangerous or just average. Their magical growth is stunted because they rely too much on their talent.
Pavel is just average, but getting caught by his ability is still dangerous. That makes him perfect for the position as the human representative. All he has to do in his job is to sit down and listen to Alliance meetings. Then he gets a short moment of glory when he can relay the wishes of the human king to the other races. It's a position with prestige and the possibility to insert some whispered comments into the king’s ear.
It takes a while for me to realize that he expects an answer. He really doesn’t get it. I try to explain it slowly. “I think that you misunderstood the meaning of this redeployment order. Are you aware that your family attacked our estate? They killed a lot of people.”
He studies me, thinking. Then his gaze wanders from me to the window.
I slowly slide my chair a little further back. “It seems like you weren't made aware of the very stressed relationship between our families. No, you were aware, but you didn't know that it's so dire. Your people are preparing for the endgame.” I point at the documents. “And this is our last meal before our execution. One might say that you brought me a declaration of war.
“It's very likely that the new captains have orders to take down the Dawn as soon as there are no witnesses nearby. They will kill everyone and take the power stone. Maybe they will even use the unique chance to pin it on Joyce and Illum. That’s what I would do. I don't think that you were supposed to bring me this message in person.”
I chuckle. “Ah, now I see! They didn't tell you anything because you aren't supposed to bring me this message. There is no need for you to know everything. You should be sitting in your office, but you chose to get a petty form of revenge to satisfy yourself. Was the humiliation at the party that horrible to you? In the end, you are nothing more than a spoiled brat.”
Being faced with the aftermath, I also would love to take it out on Joyce. But I would never get the idea to face her on her own turf. That woman is sure to have some nasty surprises on Illum.
We study each other until I decide to inform him of the most important point. “Your guards aren't here. You used your connections to sneak into the garrison. You are essentially a spy on a military property of the Alliance. We aren’t supposed to favour one race or the other.”
He shifts his weight around. “The ones who let me in. They know that I am here.”
I shake my head. “Of course they know, but they don't 'officially know' that they let you in. You know how the king handles these things. Do you think that he'll be pleased to learn that the Atrachs have bought hands inside an airship garrison of the Alliance. What if that gets known?” I reach for the dagger at my belt.
“My chamberlain knows.”
“I don't believe that you are the type who would talk to a mere servant.”
There is a moment of silence, then both of us move at the same time. I throw my dagger, which Pavel easily blocks with his hand. The steel wasn't able to cut through his skin. He must have reinforced himself with inner mana manipulation. Pavel fires a spell at me and I simultaneously rise to my feet. With one knee beneath the table, I catapult it upwards. Everything inside the garrison is enchanted with counter-magic, so the table is a very convenient shield.
An orb of energy shoots from Pavel's hand and is cancelled by the enchantment on the table.
Huffing, I push the table with both hands and use it as a battering ram, crushing Pavel between it and the warded door behind him. Pavel’s second burst of energy breaks the table. Hadn't I jumped to the side, it would have hit me.
Pavel is a little disoriented from having his sight blocked. He stumbles forward, searching for a target.
Concentrating on my magic, I cast a confusion spell on Pavel and follow up with and illusion chant, rolling forward. He turns around and spreads his hands, throwing a web of energy at my after-image.
Getting back to my knees, I grab the wrist of his outstretched arm and punch upwards. The stress on his arm's joint is too much. There is a 'crunch' and his arm folds backwards at the elbow. Pavel's scream is a high pitched shriek. He tries to flail at me with his healthy arm.
I evade by allowing myself to fall to the ground and kick at his ankle. The large man falls forward and I strike his solar plexus to interrupt his concentration once more. A mage is only as good as his ability to concentrate. The attack wasn't about doing damage, but to stop him from casting. With his inner mana manipulation, it would be hard to get through his skin.
He lands on top of me and we grapple with each other.
It seems like Pavel is of the sort who circulate all their power through their skin. That makes them incredibly hard to cut or to stab, but it also sacrifices other benefits. Not reinforcing your bones and your muscles means that you are vulnerable to brute force. Personally, I prefer an even distribution of my power.
Magical battles are about versatility. Spell-casting and combat in close quarters are equally important. There are just too many spells which allow an opponent to close the distance.
I gain control of his good arm. There isn't much of a fight with the other one already broken. Bringing my legs up, I lock his arm between them. My calves come to rest on his chest. He realizes what I intend to do and concentrates his magic on his muscles.
It's too late. I already have the advantage of a better leverage than him. With his hand on my chest, I stretch and bend his arm backwards.
There is a 'pop' and his shoulder dislocates, followed by the cracking sound of ripping tendons.
I let go and reach for his head. He struggles, but with both arms useless it isn't even a fight. I roll him around and, still in a sitting position, take him into a headlock. Forming a fist with my left hand, I use my right arm to press my thumb's joint into his throat. Pavel flails with his broken arm and bucks, but that doesn't prevent his windpipe from being closed off.
“I dreamt of doing this!” I whisper into his ear. I am sure that Joyce wouldn't be against doing this herself. She had that certain expression when she gave Pavel her little demonstration. Somehow, I ended up doing her dirty work.
Pavel's resistance weakens and his whole body starts twitching and spasming as his brain suffers from lack of oxygen. Then he is still.
I keep him in my headlock until I sense that he is gone for good. Letting go, I grab his head with both hands and snap his neck. “I'll give you the credit of being a resilient cockroach.”
I grunt and shoulder the corpse. This will be a long night. First, getting rid of the corpse. Then I have to warn Dad, Zesni and Mandrich. The two other captains may get a promotion, but I bet that they'll end up on a ship which is crewed by Atrach loyalists. Then they will suffer tragic accidents a few days later. It would be better if they resign and silently disappear before they get their new orders.
We also have to think of how to escape the trap without causing the king to intervene. Something tells me that he won't be on our side. The Atrachs are way too aggressive. Did they get a free pass on wiping out my family? I also have to clean up my office. “What a pleasant evening.”