“There is strength in being able to care for others.”
I take the empty chair and sit down in front of my captive. It took me weeks to catch one of the slaves who work for the rebellion. Admittedly, I already caught a few scores of them, but this one is the first who seems to know a little more than nothing.
My research led me from Gregor, who conveniently disappeared, back to the slaves who survived the attack of Gregor's pirate ship. Guess my surprise when the slaves had already extracted themselves from the hands of the authorities and disappeared before I managed to arrive at the scene. Honestly, those idiots from the harbour watch left the only witnesses of the attack completely unguarded. On the other hand, who would expect someone with a slave collar to simply stand up and walk away. A week later, the rebellion of the slaves started. An accident? I don't think so.
The man coughs.
We are inside an empty cellar which I confiscated as an interrogation room. The owners of the house aren't at home, so there is nobody who can complain if it gets loud. Save for a few shelves and a worktable, the cellar is conveniently empty.
I turn my attention to the man. Beastkin, dirty and badly nourished, but it seems like he wasn't a slave for too long. The tattered clothes on his body look like they were expensive, once. If I am lucky, he is still lucid. Too many slaves have completely mashed up brains. It's the slave collar's fault. After a few months, most victims simply stop thinking and turn into automatons. It takes incredible willpower to stay sane over an extended period of time.
The guy in front of me was about to start another one of those damned fire rituals. Of course, I informed the authorities of where to find the glyphs and runes which were supposed to activate the spell. I have no love for the Sociocrathy and their politics, but having them weakened could destabilize the whole world. The balance of power is already tipping as it is.
It would be nice if I manage to prevent another large war. “Who taught you the spell.”
As expected, he shakes his head and refuses to answer.
Smiling, I ramp up my ability and concentrate on him. He looks at me with admiration in his eyes and I reach out to touch his knee, trying to convey that I understand his situation. “I know that this is terrible, but I really need to know who is behind this rebellion. Slaves don't free themselves. Someone gave you the order to rebel.”
The man starts shaking as conflicting interests and the collar's influence battle for superiority. I would love to take the slave collar off and free him, but previous attempts showed that the slaves don't survive it. Whoever gave them the order to rebel also showed them how to modify the slave collars. My knowledge on how to remove the collars is useless.
The new safety mechanism is very crafty and sophisticated. The spell uses several complicated tricks and layered enchantments to safeguard itself against manipulation. It reminds me of a certain dagger, but accusing Joyce based only on such a flimsy clue is a long leap in logic. Still. Gregor bought the chests from her organization. Even if she isn't directly involved, who says that she didn't sell her expertise to whoever is behind all of this?
So far, I noticed that the slaves work with a clear modus operandi. They free those who can be freed, and use those who are already a little too far gone. They also enslave the slavers who get caught. So, since this man is still relatively aware of himself, I assume that he is a slaver.
“Old man...” he croaks. “Leader...” His eyes turn upwards in their sockets.
I grip his knee tighter and use my ability with every ounce of power that’s available to me. “Where!?”
“Amitesh...” His spasms cease and his whole body slackens.
I reach for his throat and search for a pulse, but I find none. “Amitesh” At least that's something to use. I get up and leave the cellar in order to return to my ship.
Once I am there, I spend the rest of the day with studying my maps. The result doesn't sound too bad. Amitesh is a little village in the mountains between the Empire and the Sociocrathy.
A perfect place for smugglers and elements who want to hide from the authorities. And also a good base for a rebellious group which operates in both countries.
“And you are simply going to believe her story?” I ask, astounded that Joyce is going along with this unreasonable request. She just announced to us that we are now in a friendly relationship with the Mirai, which makes us enemies of almost everyone.
Tristen and I guessed most of what was about to happen when we saw Janice for the first time. She is clearly related to Joyce. There is no way to deny it, even without a test.
“I have to... For now. There are no inconsistencies with my own story. In fact, it explains everything,” Joyce explains.
“Don't get this wrong. I am happy that you managed to get a few answers about your past. But do you think that it's wise to allow Janice to stay on Illum? I am not happy with the tactical situation. Her fleet is surrounding us.” Tristen shakes his head. He, Brian, Kiara and I were called to an urgent meeting in Joyce's office right after Janice left.
Joyce closes her eyes. “We can't do anything about that. And don't worry. I am not trusting her just because she appears out of nowhere and claims to be my grandmother. Though that part seems to be true. I am more interested in the fact that she offered to teach me soul magic if this alliance works out.”
“Are you sure that you want to learn soul magic?” Kiara complains. “It's so creepy. And the Mirai are known for being religious fanatics.”
Joyce huffs. “Have you ever talked to a Mirai?”
She interrupts Kiara. “I can't claim that I know the Mirai. But I have talked to two of them. For several hours in fact. They seemed very reasonable. So, until I learn the hard way, I prefer to trust in my own experiences, rather than what the rumours tell me. Rumours which are spread by the enemies of the Mirai. Enemies who haven't treated me very well. In fact, the Sovereign is the first national leader who actually talked to me. All the others relied on messengers and tried to use me for their games.”
She interlaces her fingers and leans forward. “Which doesn’t mean that Janice doesn’t have her own motives, but I must admit that I feel much better about her than the elven King, the Empire, or the Sociocrathy.”
I press my lips together. The newest developments aren't to my liking. Illum is distancing itself further and further from my homeland and the Sociocrathy. It's not Joyce's fault. She is right that the Mirai offered us a good deal, especially if the part about Joyce's origins is true. I admit that I didn't quite believe it until Janice confirmed the story.
Talk about a conflict of interests.
But I knew that this could happen when I joined this endeavour. Joyce never made a secret out of her plans or the fact that she won't yield to another power. “I don't think that talking about the Sovereign will get us anywhere. We have to wait and judge your grandmother by her actions. What's the other thing which you wanted to talk about?”
Joyce's face lights up and she reaches into her robe's breast pocket, pulling out the little fairy, Willow. “I had a little discussion with Willow and learned about her reason for becoming an assassin. Her family is being held hostage, so we're going and getting ourselves a few fairies!”
Why is she carrying the fairy in her pocket? No, forget that… She wants more fairies...
Tristen becomes interested. “Held hostage by whom?”
Seriously, Tristen!? That's what you ask? Don't you have a problem with the way she phrased it? Everyone else would say that we're going to 'rescue' them, but Joyce seems to think of the fairies as something that’s free to take!
Joyce smiles. “In an assassin training camp! Willow provided me with their location. Three days from here.”
Brian joins the discussion. “Why are you so happy about that? The assassin guild is not to be messed with!”
Willow nods. “He is right. Don't risk hurting my people. They are fine as long as they don't disobey the assassins!” She turns to face Joyce. “Nova, don't do anything unnecessary!”
Why did she call her Nova?
Joyce ignores Willow. “Oh, it's just that this situation is so black and white. For once, I don't have to think about consequences.”
Hah! I bet that you just like the fact that you get a chance to kill people without holding back! I saw your face when you fought those paladins! Oh, I am so glad that I didn't say that aloud. “Why did you call her Nova?”
Willow crosses her arms in front of her tiny chest. “Because that's her name. Nova Mirai, seventh in line to the Mirai throne. Given names are very important for us fairies. Especially if they were given by your parents. I refuse to call her anything else as long as I don't get better treatment.”
Joyce glares at the fairy who is standing on her office table. “Be glad that you aren't in my dungeon or getting taken apart to see how your magic works, little assassin! The fact that you are still alive is only thanks to your usefulness as a spy.”
I am not happy about this 'almost-slavery-thing' that's going on between Joyce and Willow, but what else can we do with her? We can't let her go without punishment.
There is a knock on the door and a guard looks into the office. “The Sovereign is here.”
“What now? It's been just a few hours since she went back to her ship,” Joyce grumbles. “Let her in.”
The guard steps aside and the Sovereign enters the office. She is cupping something in her hands and smiling. “I have something for you, Nova, since you accepted the situation so well. See it as a gift to celebrate our alliance.”
The guard closes the door behind the Sovereign and Joyce glares at her. “I told you not to call me Nova.”
“What does it matter to you? You chose Joyce for yourself. Aren't you glad to know your given name? Once I start teaching you, you will learn that names are important.” She walks to the office table and places a small, white furball on the table in front of Joyce. “I performed the ritual to create another ghost cat for you. It will be your familiar.”
Joyce doesn't reach for the little kitten. She even shoves her chair back a little to gain some distance. “It looks like a hamster.”
Could it be that Joyce is bad with animals?
“As a necromancer, you need a familiar,” Janice insists.
The little furball crawls towards Joyce. “Meow!”
“I am not comfortable with this... Ah! I already have a pet!” Joyce reaches for Willow, but the fairy does the hundred metre dash, relative to her current size, and jumps off the table. It takes just a few moments for her to grow to full human size and turn around. “I am not a pet!” She grabs Joyce's hand, takes the kitten and places it on Joyce's palm. “There you have your pet!”
The little kitten is immediately happy and curls up, going to sleep. She studies the kitten in her hand and looks at the Sovereign. “I am too old for this. And you made this with a ritual? Did you magically force your cat to go into labour? Or did you kill some poor, living cat to harness her energies?”
The Sovereign huffs. “Didn't we already talk about it? Minx is an ethereal energy construct. She isn't a real animal and doesn't get pregnant. I fed her enough energy to reproduce by splitting off a part of herself. Like a bacteria. It's infinitely easier than creating a completely new familiar. It’s the perfect pet. Technically immortal and all it needs is energy!”
Joyce returns her attention to the kitten. “So what can it do?”
“Be your eyes and ears. Help you in casting spells. Identify you as a member of the Dynasty...”
The Sovereign goes on and on about the benefits of having a ghost cat, but I have no idea what they are talking about. They lost me after the third point. Why am I here? Why do I have to listen to this bullshit!? Oh, I think that I am having an existential crisis.
Joyce nods after listening to everything. “So until it’s grown up, it’s essentially just a leech. Well, at least it’s soft and fluffy.”