“I am a diplomat!” -says the man who wields a lot of complicated words
“I am the executioner.” -says the man who wields an axe
“So you are using us as bait!?” Zane bristles. “That strikes me as an exceptionally bad idea. Do you have no survival instincts? The longer I get to observe you from up close, the more I have to question your sanity. I understand that you have a goal, but you take exceptional risks in order to achieve it. You faced the Alliance’s council alone. You make enemies left and right. You allow a Mirai fleet right next to Illum. You use yourself as bait! How long will it be until one of your gambles fails and all your plots snowball out of your control?”
I chuckle. “You are still looking at this world as if it's your only chance to get things right. To me, this life is just another game in an endless row of games. Let's call it the game of life. Right now, you are only playing for survival.”
He coughs, startled. “What other goal could there be!?”
I don't answer immediately. Instead, I survey the Alliance's guest area. They didn't do anything genuine with their available space. There is a dance floor, food, and the various members of each race are touting their skills, showing off. Compared to Illum's area, it's pure chaos.
After a few seconds of silence, I decide to answer, “To win... to control the board.” Maybe even to topple it? I shrug. “A while ago, you mentioned that I am playing the game on a different scale than you. Is it so hard to imagine that I also have a different goal in mind?” I point at a man who is heading straight for us. “It seems like we'll have our first diplomatic encounter.”
The man, a well-fed beastman with grey, furry ears stops right in front of us and bows slightly. Not deep enough to show that we are his superiors, but deep enough to honour us. “My name is Granford Canbell. I am the Alliance's lead-diplomat.” His eyes focus on Zane. “I was informed that you harbour a traitor. We have to request for you to surrender him and his family to us.”
“Nope.” I smile cheerfully. “He belongs to me.”
If the man is startled by my reply, then he doesn't show it at all. “May I ask why you refuse to cooperate? Is he your prisoner? Slave?”
I can feel Zane stiffen next to me. “Employee,” he growls.
Reaching into my robe's pocket, I pull out a fat stack of documents which I prepared beforehand. “This is a complete report on how the Biralds entered my service. You will realize that the fault lies entirely with how the human king manages his subjects. Illum's point of view is that the Biralds don't owe the Alliance anything. Illum is glad to employ them as loyal subjects.”
I drop the pretence and show a neutral expression. “Should you have any problem with that, bring your complaints to me. Illum will respond according to my policies. I may bar your pupils from joining the academy. Though, I am sure that other nations will have a lot of interest in what we have to teach.”
Granford eyes the report with suspicion, but after a few silent moments, he takes the documents from me. He flips through them, clearly uncertain on how to proceed. I get the feeling that he wasn’t given all the necessary information to win this encounter. Not surprising. I expected that the human king isn’t eager to share his internal conflicts with the other races.
“I can't influence your decision on how to handle my report. Be assured that Illum will act as if it is true.” I chuckle.
“The Alliance won't be happy if you simply ignore the fact that we allowed you to come this far. Don't forget that we decided to treat you as an independent power. Your actions don't make you look very grateful,” Granford answers in a carefully controlled tone.
“And from my point of view, you only accepted my independence because you wanted Illum out of Union City. You were afraid and tried your best to make me leave, waiting for the chance to attack Illum far away from civilisation.” I point at him to emphasize my words.
His eyes narrow. “That's preposterous. Why should we be afraid of something like Illum?”
“Didn't you hear about Laos? I think that your council was perfectly aware of what could happen if you try to attack Illum. Of course, we didn't even get to address the little issue with your spy. Did you have fun with what you stole from me?”
The beastman pulls down the corners of his mouth, displeased. “Laos was just a small city.”
“Yet, large enough to have a gate,” I reply.
Granford raises the documents in front of his chest, almost as if he is trying to shield himself from me. It's a protective gesture, so I know that I have him. “I'll have to study your version of the story in more detail. I am a diplomat and a diplomatic agreement seems to be impossible at this point in time. We'll revive the discussion once I had the opportunity to study your side of the story.”
He forces himself to smile. “Have a nice day and make sure to make full use our hospitality.” He turns around and practically flees the scene.
“That's one issue addressed.” I turn and smirk at Zane while we continue on our path. “I don't think that they will be able to simply take you away from me since I clearly declared you as a citizen of Illum. It's doubtful that the Alliance will act against Illum as a whole. They will most likely decide to ignore the incident in order to preserve the status quo.”
Zane isn’t so sure of my opinion. “But the human king...”
I raise my hand to stop him. “Isn’t important in the grand scheme of things. We have to stay alert, but he is one voice among many within the Alliance.”
“Most likely,” Zane admits grudgingly. “Which doesn't mean that the human king will simply ignore someone like me. We practically defied him openly, showing everyone that he doesn't have his subjects as tightly under control as he wants them to believe.”
I huff and pull him forward. “You should have a little more hope for the future. Your pessimistic attitude doesn't serve a constructive purpose.”
“It's just that I don't feel like I am in control of my fate since I met you,” he answers.
“What are you talking about? Nobody is ever in control of his fate. It's nothing more than an illusion. Even before you met me, your fate was in the hands of the human king, while his fate is in the hands of the Alliance.” I huff. “The only way to battle your own insecurities is to take action. Didn’t you learn anything from your memories after Janice unlocked them? By the way, don't try that again. It was stupid.”
He looks down at the floor while we walk. It takes him over a minute to come to a decision. “You may be right, but it will take time for me to accept my situation. If ever.” He pulls at my arm and tries to lead me off the marked path. “We should take a short cut through the neutral area.”
“We are approaching the area which is designated as the Empire's. There is no point in tempting fate.” He pulls, but I stay rooted in place.
“That's exactly the reason why I want to take a look. Our plan can't succeed if we don't execute it completely.”
He sighs and relents. “Gods in the heavens! What did I do to deserve this?”
“You were at the wrong place at the wrong time. Don't worry. It happens to all of us,” I console him while we walk into the area which he tried to avoid.
At a first glance, the Empire isn't any different from the Alliance. Oh, it's mostly represented by humans, but they didn't invent the wheel anew. Though, I have to admit that they didn't hold back with their expenses. The clothes are of the highest quality and everything is decorated with the finest materials. There is dancing, food, entertainers; the same things which everyone else also has.
Though, there is a small but distinct difference.
All of the servants and performers are slaves. Only the visitors and the Empire's representatives are free men. On the surface, this show is even more pompous than Illum's. I clench my teeth and fight the memories and my own feelings. There is no question that the Empire thinks that showing off their slaves is yet another way to show their wealth. What they don't understand is that their wealth wouldn't exist without their slaves.
I allow Zane to increase our speed, just to get quicker through this area.
We are almost on the other side of the Empire's area when a strange duo bars our path. One of them is a young man with freckles on his cheeks. Though the freckles don't do anything to betray his otherwise strict appearance. He is standing straight like a rod and has a grim expression on his face. The shortly cut brown hair makes him look like military in his dark uniform.
The other man is fat and small, wearing expensive red clothes. His round face shows distinct similarities with a marshmallow. My eyes narrow involuntarily as I try to remember why he seems so familiar.
“My name is Wisen, second prince of the Empire.” He gestures at the fat man who positioned himself next to him. “This is my advisor. I always wanted to meet with you, Joyce. There are many rumours about the eccentric talent who is terrorizing the Alliance and Sociocrathy.”
“Aha...” I reply with my attention still focused on the advisor. Why do I have this craving urge to pull my sword and hack him to little pieces?
The prince doesn't seem pleased at my lack of attention. His attitude turns a little frostier. “The Empire never says no to an ally. What do you think of an alliance with us? Of course, it would mean that you have to give up on whatever arrangements you made with the Mirai. We didn't fail to notice that Illum arrived together with their fleet. Everyone is speculating on the relationship between you and them.”
So the Empire has no clue that I am a Mirai princess, nor that I changed my name to Nova. The information is already out, but I suppose that the Alliance isn't inclined to share intelligence with the Empire.
It also seems like the Empire doesn't have a spy on Illum, or at least that the spy and the prince aren't stupid enough to expose the presence of a spy.
Not caring about how it makes me look, I crouch down a little. I really have to know why I know the fatty.
If he wasn't before, then the prince is now really irked. “What are you doing?”
“Could you tell me the name of your associate? I have the strong feeling that I know him from somewhere.” I crouch even deeper, changing the angle towards the fat man's face.
The prince raises an eyebrow and turns his attention to his companion. “Chancellor, Hesh? Well, I assume that it's possible? He is one of my father's most trusted advisers and well travelled.” The fat man is still wearing a bored expression, but it seems like he is slowly becoming aware that this isn't yet another normal confrontation with the representatives of a political power.
When my eye level is below Hesh's chin, it suddenly makes 'click' in my mind and the pieces of my blurred memories fall into place. A grin spreads on my face as I return to an upright position. “Now I remember you.”
Hesh furrows his forehead. His husky voice sparks yet another memory. “I don't know what you are talking about. And quit your strange behaviour. We are in the presence of royalty.”
I reach out and pinch the pig's cheek before he can object. “You gained a little weight since we last saw each other, but now I am sure. That voice. It's you! Don't worry. You will have a special place in my heart, forever.” I wink at him.
He slaps my hand away and turns his attention to Zane. “Is this woman mad!?”
Zane clears his throat. “I can't deny that. She is an exceptional talent who is powerful enough to levitate something like Illum. In military school, I learned that channelling large amounts of mana can damage the mind.” He pushes me past the pair. The urge to lunge forward and to peel Hesh layer by layer is incredibly strong, but I can't freak out right here and now. I have to stay calm until he is off the island.
Is it possible to ambush the Empire's fleet as soon as they leave?