“We have ignored your impudence much longer than necessary, child. Do not test our patience.”
I felt cold steel on the back of my neck, even though I hadn’t sensed any motion in the room.
The feeling of cold moved from the back to the front, and a scimitar with a golden hilt came into view. But not the person wielding it.
It was floating.
The unperturbed trails of smoke around the handle confirmed it. And I believed I would have been able to perceive a person holding it if they were under some sort of invisibility.
But two things were for sure.
They are testing me... and the situation isn’t as bad as I thought.
It was obvious that if they simply wanted to cause me physical harm, it could have been done much sooner. There would have been no need to even bring me here.
And if all they required from me was information... I doubted they were devoid of efficient means of torture.
Of course, all of this was nothing more than an educated guess. A sort of gamble. But gambling in that place seemed fitting.
Not that it was a gamble I could logically afford to make. Death meant much more for me than for the regular person. But I had a feeling that it was all part of a dance that had started when I first put a foot in the room.
Assuming a neutral expression, I looked at the woman who had been ignoring me until now.
“I believe that you’re the ones overestimating my patience.”
She didn’t move. Only glanced at me. But when her emerald gaze met mine, a gust of scorching heat crashed on me. Burning my clothes, burning my skin, burning everything.
But I knew it wasn’t real. I knew it was all in my head, and that knowledge alone allowed me to withstand it.
“Oh?” I heard one of the old men utter with surprise.
“Senior,” Bokwen said with an apologetic tone. “Please stop teasing him. I am sure you can understand his lack of respect, considering he has not received the education of the clans.”
The woman’s eyes went back to the fight and the pain disappeared with none of it even lingering. The sword flew away and gently landed on the one-legged man's lap.
“Impressive,” said an old woman on Bokwen's right. “He shows more promise than some of the current clans’ heirs. No more than the one from the Green Lotus, of course.”
Those last words seemed to have an effect on the others.
“Oh?” said one of them. “Then why don’t you enlighten us and say which clan heirs you believe to be inferior to the Lotus’?”
Ignoring their quarreling, I raised a shaky hand in front of me and studied it, half expecting for there to be traces of damage.
My left eye halved the effects of any "awareness altering" skill on my person... but I had felt the scalding heat as if it had been real. If it hadn’t been for my “affinity” with fire, I might have even reacted differently.
Which means that either “awareness” and “perception” are different concepts... or the illusion was originally supposed to cause me an ungodly amount of pain.
“With this,” I said as I let my hand fall back to my side, “you’ve assured that I will not cooperate with whatever you wanted me here for.”
Bokwen gave me a strange look as he twirled his mustache.
“You seem to be under the impression that you were brought here for my own interests,” he said. “And while I can’t deny that it’s partly true, I can assure you that you need us more than we need you.”
I raised a brow.
“Well, first of all, the incense you have been inhaling until now is a medicine against the effects of the ether stuffing you suffer from... though I have to admit you seem to be suffering a lot less from it than I had anticipated. I had given orders for you to be carried if needed.”
There was a chance that Respite of the Undead would negate the effect of the incense, depending on whether it just made me unable to feel the sickness or delayed it...
So many damn things to clarify...
“Second,” Bokwen continued, “your nocturnal escapade of the other day has earned you Genoneva’s interest.”
He made a pause, probably expecting me to react.
“And she is...?”
“She is the leader of more than a half of all the warriors in the city,” he said with a smirk.
“Warriors...” mumbled the old woman by the balcony with a snort.
“More than half?” I said.
I had been told that he was one of the city’s leaders himself, but what he was saying was contradictory.
The number of warriors in the city should be in the thousands. And from what I had seen of their headquarters the Red Crosses didn’t have nearly enough men to compete with those numbers. Even if I assumed some of them lived somewhere else.
Bokwen’s smirk became a genuine smile as if he was following my train of thoughts.
Unless the people in this very room are worth a thousand of those warriors.
I tried to control my rising heart rate and ignore the goosebumps on my neck.
“Hmm, a very perceptive child,” said the last man on the left, before going back to his book.
“Genoneva has... twisted tastes, to say the least,” Bokwen said. “You do not want to be in any type of relationship with her. And she also has a habit to push for what she wants until she gets it. By any means necessary.”
That doesn’t tell me what he want’s from me. But I’ll bite.
“And how exactly are you different from her?” I asked.
There were a few snorts and chuckles.
“The difference,” Bokwen said, “is that, even if I advise you against it, you are free to leave through this door at any moment. She wouldn’t allow you that much freedom.”
“I see. Well, thank you for the incense. I will surely find a way to repay you.”
“Oh, there is no need,” Bokwen said. “Turning the terminal in Laure’s bar into a guild terminal really put us in your debt. In fact, Tabu will give you a small package of the thing on your way back.”
I gave them a slight nod and headed for the door.
“Tell him,” someone said.
“Why? He’ll find out soon enough.”
I put my hand on the handle on paused.
I was willing to concede that these people were possibly more powerful than I could wrap my head around. But they were currently playing with me instead of simply getting to the point. If I had been any younger I might have left out of spite.
I turned around and faced the irritating bear.
“What?” I simply asked.
“Genoneva sent some of her men to the temple to look for you, which is why you couldn’t find Ardos when you woke up. Considering she has been interested in that place for a long time, she would have probably launched a full attack if it wasn’t for a rumor that you were part of the Red Cross. Of course, we will make sure to deny said rumor as soon as you leave.”
“I do not know her, but from what you’ve said I doubt her men can do much damage to the temple.”
If her regular minions could, there wouldn’t be any equilibrium. She would flat out own the shard.
Ardos was there with the other fighting instructors. And I had a hunch that Royin wasn’t defenseless either.
“Oh, I agree,” he said. “The temple on the hill should indeed be safe. But that doesn’t mean that all of its members will be.”
The children. So this is what it all came down to.
I could either listen to what these people wanted or be indirectly responsible for whatever would happen to the orphans.
But it didn’t make sense. Not fully. This place, this shard, was obviously not devoid of laws. If she was now willing to ignore them, what could these people do about it? They couldn’t be saying that they would protect every single one of the children who came to Bunker every morning.
“Of course, this is just conjecture. Genoneva is insane after all, there is no saying what goes through her mind.”
I went back to the center of the room and sat down on the carpet covered floor.
“Tell me what you want and how the Red Cross can protect them,” I said.
“That name again,” Bokwen said in a pensive tone. “Red Cross. It is how people refer to us, but it is not a name we have chosen. Nor do we need a name. We are exiles, chained by traditions and rules set to assure the perenniality of our birthplace. One of those rules forbids us from killing unless it’s in retaliation for something done to one of ours.”
“That means that I would be safe if I join you,” I said. “But I don’t think that you’d be willing to include every member of the temple in your elitist group.”
“No, I would not be. But there would not be any need for it. After all, all we need is a deterrent strong enough for her to behave.”
“In a lordless shard, delvers police each other according to their code. If one of them falls out of line, the rest has the ability to vote that particular individual out of the ability to use a terminal. Unfortunately, excluding you, the people in this room are not allowed to participate in such a vote. Which means that there were only two effective titled delvers in this city. Genoneva and Maru, who is Maboru’s daughter.”
“...But now there’s me.”
“Yes, now there is you. And once it will be known that you are with us, she will not dare to do anything that would cost her the control she has over the merchants of the city and her miners.”
And she wouldn’t be able to remove me since it would give them a valid reason to destroy her.
“I understand, and I see what’s in it for me,” I said. “Now I would like to know what’s in it for you.”
They all shifted from one position to another on their big pillows. Apparently, they still had some shame left regarding how they were acquiring the assistance of a kid.
Except for Bokwen. He looked at me with a grave expression and took a ring out of his pocket. He studied it for a moment before speaking.
“We are exiles. Undeserving of aspirations and glory. Disallowed to ever leave the land of our ancestors. Forbidden to even pass on our knowledge... But we have made our peace with it. The day the Mist will come to take what it was promised, is the day we shall die.”
He paused as if searching for the correct words.
“But our families,” he continued. “Our children. Their only crimes were to be depending on us. We cannot allow them to lose their lives in such a wasteful manner. Without even having seen more of the world. You are young... but can you understand? Can you understand the urge one has to protect their kin?”
I didn’t agree with his methods or with going so far as to use someone else’s child for his own interest... But I could very well understand.
However, I stayed silent and listened.
“The only way for them to be granted entry into the pearl would be for a representative to defeat someone of the same age group. But the scions of Nashran are all sword dancers gifted with the most powerful styles and groomed by famed teachers. It is a shame to admit it, but our young ones wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“Only because they weren’t taught!” vehemently exclaimed one of the old men who had stayed silent until now. “With his innate talent, my grandson...”
The rest was lost in frustrated mumbles, as he seemed to remember what was going on. He sheepishly waved at Bokwen to continue.
But I had pretty much gotten the gist of it.
“So you want me to represent them and fight in their stead,” I told him.
“Yes,” he said. "We have no need for your origin and your other secrets. As I have said, you being a sword dancer is why we are having this discussion. A sword dancer who was gifted a style."
So that was the reason for their interest. They probably wouldn’t have cared this much about me if it wasn’t for the Sunken Dance. Without it, I would have had to deal with this “Genoneva” all by myself.
Did they know what it was? Where it came from?
... Or are they just able to sense its potential?
I knew that long ago there had been a kingdom with the Sunken City as its capital. Depending on how important sword dancers were to that kingdom, it seemed plausible that parts of that culture had survived until today in the form of Nashran and its clans.
Had words of the Blade Priest of the Deep and Ikun Omi lived to this day? Because if that was the case, there was a chance that these people had kept an eye on the Sunken City... and already had a strong idea of my class.
Unless they just considered it one of their legends.
I was also curious about the different styles. What did they look like in practice? How different were they from each other? What emotions did they create in the hearts of the viewers?
But those thoughts were irrelevant to the situation at hand... And there was a better way to make these people happy without inconveniencing myself to the point of taking part in what was shaping out to be a deathmatch..
I really don't have time for that.