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A note from InadvisablyCompelled

1/1

Another timeskip.

Shayma was having no problems at all in the Wildwood. Her personal combat ability now was a far cry from where it had been when she first came through and saw the Retreat, and there was nothing within the first few miles of forest that posed even the slightest danger to her or her companions. Compared to how, back then, a few beasts barely more magical than regular wolves were a threat, it was night and day. Of course, it wasn’t a good idea to get careless. Not only would Annit have torn a strip off her hide if she did, but some of the more powerful things from far above would come down on occasion, and they all had to keep an eye on the sky to know when to retreat. Even if she could cut down stuff twice her size, with hide like stone and four-inch claws, it didn’t mean she could compete with birds the size of houses.

She stuck mostly to shapeshifting for fighting, rather than [Dungeon Weaponry] or the more classic armaments. Blue’s weapon tended to start fires, or failing that, do quite a lot of damage to the surrounding foliage. Admittedly, higher level Skills tended to do that too, but she didn’t want to accidentally fell a tree on top of them in the middle of a battle. The whisper-thin Firmament wire, which Blue called monofilament, was terribly dangerous to the point that Shayma wasn’t sure it was a good weapon at all. It certainly cut through anything, and it really did seem like anything, but she could only hold it with [Legerdemain] and it was nearly impossible to track it. If she dropped it, it’d simply be gone forever. Finally, ordinary swords or daggers just didn’t have the degree of precision and flexibility her shapeshifting offered.

Not that she was out hunting by herself. Working together with Keri and Annit really drove home how much a team made a difference, even with Annit’s issues. Having range and sustainability, as well as extra pairs of eyes, made everything easier. The [Shambling Vinebear] she was engaged with had steel-hard vines whipping around to snare and crush, keeping her busy slicing them with her harder-than-steel shape-shifted arms. But that meant that Annit was free to punch darts into its hide, boosted by Keri’s advancing Skills.

The thing roared, and immediately one of Annit’s darts flew into its toothy maw, causing it to choke as Keri’s [Weaponized Healing] suddenly necrotized its throat. With the higher mana density of the creatures they were fighting, directly applying the Skill to them at range was becoming more difficult, but packing an excess of mana into Annit’s darts and letting them carry the Skill along helped overcome that issue. That sort of Skill sharing wasn’t particularly common, but not unheard of either and if anyone was going to have the ability, it was going to be a healer. They acted on other people’s mana quite a lot anyway.

From there it was just a few minutes before the beast collapsed into lifelessness while still mostly intact. Then it was time to butcher and dress the enormous animal. Not everything that attacked them was useful to take apart, but they acted like good adventurers and scrutinized and salvaged what they could. It wasn’t that they needed the money, but it offended all their sensibilities to just leave corpses rotting — and with Keri’s magic, sometimes they rotted quite fast.

It was wasteful to not properly dismantle magical beasts, even if none of them actually needed the money. Besides, leather and bone were things Blue couldn’t make and Taelah absolutely could use the components. They were in the middle of slicing bits up when the liquid rush of Blue’s attention sounded in her mind, just a moment before his voice did.

“Shayma? I think Iniri may need you back at the palace.” The words were accompanied by flashes of imagery, something different from the intense sensation of Blue sharing his full and absurd perception. It was closer to the telepathy she’d felt through the circlet, something buffered and sustained by a Skill rather than raw senses piped into her mind. Blue’s practice was paying off.

In this case the imagery was that of a proud magical vessel, ornate and expensive, with the flag of Ir flying from a single pole. There were flashes of it nosing about one of the massive pillars Blue had raised, then following the brand-new canal inward toward Meil. A glimpse of an ornately dressed man with golden, curly hair followed, proceeding in a carriage that rolled off the deck and proceeding with great pomp toward the Glass Palace.

“Is that man making trouble?” Shayma asked, holding up a hand to let Annit and Keri know that she was talking to Blue. Though they’d mostly figured the signs of that out by now.

“I think he’s going to. I’m not liking the vibes he’s throwing off and Ir’s this big scary thing to everyone so maybe being around to emphasize my part in things is a good idea.” The phrasing was typically Blue, but she got the point. Anyone Ir might send would be no slouch in terms of level or clout and even if he professed quite often that he had no idea when it came to politics, he at least recognized when important things happened.

“I think that’s a good idea,” she agreed. She hadn’t spent much time with Iniri of late anyway, busy as everyone had been. Not that this would be a casual affair, but at least she’d have enough time to say hello. “Hey, so, Blue needs me back at the palace. Did you want to return there or just go back to the Retreat?”

“We’ll stay at the Retreat,” Annit said, gesturing to the sled with some of the fruits of their prior successes, floating casually above the ground. Blue never had found a use for it himself, other than giving it to them. “Sell off some of this.” Shayma nodded and stretched her hand into a narrow frame. Blue had linked a portal in the Retreat for her, which made it much easier to return from a day adventuring outside its walls. Of course, she still had to be recalled through Blue’s ability, but that didn’t take much time at all. Keri and Annit hauled the sled through the portal, and Shayma reformed her hand, shaking it slightly. It always felt really strange to stretch herself so thin.

“I’m ready, Blue,” she said, and felt the familiar tug of Blue’s summons before she appeared in the core room. “Is he already at the Palace?”

“Yes, but Iniri isn’t in session just yet. She’s holding off for some reason. Let me just put you over there.”

The feel of magic came and went yet again, and she found herself in Iniri’s tower. There was actually a dedicated spatial room, with a circle for teleports and an arch for portals, so she could stop alarming the Queensguard by popping into existence in the middle of things. Even without Blue’s directions she had an idea where Iniri was, and strolled out into the front room to wait for her. She was expecting to see Iniri come down the stairs but instead she appeared out of nowhere, hand touching one of the luminous silver threads that wound through the walls.

“Oh? I could tell Blue wanted to say something.”

“He just thinks I should be around for the guy from Ir. He’s coming in super official and given that it’s Ir, Blue figured it would be better for me to be here in case he starts using threats or something.” Iniri made a face at that.

“Yes, I’m not very impressed with him so far. He sent a flower and a poet!” She rolled her eyes to show what she thought of that. “It’s not an actual marriage proposal yet, but I feel vaguely insulted. There’s no effort in it.” She sighed. “But I might have to think about it, if he’s willing to get Ir to recognize and negotiate with Blue. Oblige them to send us aid and defend us when the mage-kings return. If he’s willing.

“Ick.” Shayma shook her head. Her immediate reaction was to protest, but Iniri had a point and she had duties and responsibilities. She’d never been to Ir herself, but she knew they had a number of fourth-tiers, and their fifth tier in Emperor Wright, so they had plenty of force to bring. Whether it was more than the mage-kings was another question.

“If he does press too much about Blue, I will appreciate having you there to refer matters to immediately. Though I’ll ask you not to get involved unless I request it.”

“I’ll just watch,” Shayma agreed. “I’ve never really seen what goes on at a palace before.”

“Tedium,” Iniri assured her. “But necessary tedium. We’re still putting Tarnil back together and getting back in touch with our old allies. People need assurances, ideas…” She waved a dismissive hand. “I won’t go into it.” She glanced at the grandfather clock placed against the wall, a purely mechanical thing, and ran her hands over the court dress she was wearing. “Time to start things, I suppose. You’ll be on the balcony?” Shayma nodded, and Iniri stepped over to give her a brief hug before touching one of the silver threads again and vanishing.

Shayma followed suit with [Phantasmal Path], bounding through palace walls and popping out on her balcony. Since it wasn’t like anyone else was going to use it, there were no entrances or exits other than teleports, and that was easy enough for her, between Blue and her own skills. The moment she arrived there was a little bit of a stir even if she wasn’t actively channeling Blue’s presence, because there was always a touch of it about her. It was more than a little flattering that no matter where she went people instantly noticed her, though occasionally she wished she weren’t quite so obvious.

She had a good view of the court from there and was surprised by how many people were already in the throne room, albeit closer toward the entrance. The front half was reserved for actual petitioners, and she spotted the Ir representative among the others who were waiting to see Iniri.

Other than the curly golden hair and beard, she didn’t see much remarkable about him. Square jaw, broad shoulders, dressed in fanciful silks that were probably popular in Ir but looked overdone to her. Too many frills and ruffles. He wasn’t quite looking down his nose at people, but he definitely acted as if he owned the place. The one odd thing she did notice was that it seemed like he had a sunbeam shining on him, even though that was clearly not the case. His features were supernaturally clear and well-lit.

“Who is he?” She muttered to Blue. Though she could have been louder, having gotten in the habit of using illusion to shroud her voice when she was in public and needed to talk to him.

“Derin Andis, level 58 [Charming Prince].” Blue told her, sounding amused. Her ears perked, but he didn’t explain what about that tickled his fancy, so she’d have to wrestle it out of him later. “I snooped on his ship a little bit but all I can see is he’s really rich. He hasn’t said anything bad about Iniri, but neither has he been extraordinarily overjoyed to visit her. Before he got off the ship he said ‘Why couldn’t Jorn convince her to visit me in Ir, instead of having to travel all the way to this backwater?’ So I doubt he has Tarnil’s best interests in mind.”

“It’s not a promising start,” Shayma agreed, frowning at Andis until he looked her way, at which point she smoothed her face back to neutral. She could have put an illusion over herself, even to the point of being invisible, but that got tedious quite quickly. Still, she at least obscured her Status just in case he had some form of divination. “Strange sounding Class, too. Can you tell what his Affinity is?”

“Um, looks like light, maybe? Hard to tell, I can’t see most of his Skills.” She nodded. Blue’s ability to appraise people was a bit hit or miss, with higher level people being more opaque. That seemed strange, considering all his power, but there didn’t seem to be any way to block or even notice the scry, so it was probably fair.

“Queen Iniri of Tarnil!” The steward announced. He was kirin-kin like Iniri was, apparently a many-times-removed cousin or something who’d been in Khiral Town. So far as she could tell he was doing a good job, but she honestly didn’t know what a steward did other than announce people. Iniri simply appeared on her throne after the announcement, manifesting through [Swiftray]. Shayma could only tell it was the Skill rather than Blue’s teleports because she knew from her own experience Blue wouldn’t be able to get Iniri seated properly and elegantly on the first try.

Some of the regular attendees were already used to the display, so the newcomers were easy enough to pick out by the wide eyes and murmurs. Even Andis needed a doubletake to recognize what had just happened. Everyone turned to the throne and knelt, except for the visiting prince who merely proffered a shallow bow. Of course, Shayma didn’t bow either and, while she wasn’t completely familiar with the protocol for meetings between royalty, she was pretty sure they weren’t supposed to kneel to each other. It still seemed a little strange to her, though. Iniri made a small gesture with one hand, not keeping them waiting.

“You may rise,” she announced, and the rustle of fabric followed as everyone followed her instruction. “I see we have some visitors from out of the kingdom,” she added, giving Derin a nod. “Steward?”

“Announcing Prince Derin Andis of the Princedom of Kelors, Empire of Ir.”

Andis swept forward, offering Iniri a brilliant smile. Literally brilliant, as light that didn’t come from anywhere in the room glinted off his teeth and made his eyes sparkle. It was so far different from Iniri’s light magic that it was hard to believe it was the same Affinity, and Shayma had to grudgingly admit it was effective. Not that she had eyes for anyone but Blue, but he was managing to strike a fairly good figure.

“Thank you for receiving me, Queen Iniri.” He gestured to one of his retinue, who came forward with a gold-leafed box. “I am here to see about strengthening the ties between Ir and Tarnil. As a token of my regard, I have brought a gift from the many riches of Kelors.” The box-carrier opened the lid, revealing a clear glass bottle with a lustrous golden glow inside. “This distilled Elixir of Gleampetal will permanently increase the quality of your Affinity. It may grant you additional mana, health, or even make your next breakthrough easier.”

The lid was closed and handed to the Steward. Even a prince’s gift wouldn’t be directly received by a Queen. Shayma was finding the formality of the court somewhat alien after so much informality on her own part, and Blue’s. But it was a good reminder, far better than the few lessons on statecraft Iniri had managed to give her between one crisis and another.

“I am also here in order to negotiate certain matters directly on behalf of Emperor Wright. I’m sure you can understand that His Imperial Majesty would prefer not to take certain things on faith.”

“The gift is a princely one indeed,” Iniri said, somehow straight-faced despite the fact that the Primal gems and Blue’s other gifts had made Andis’ superfluous or at the very least far less enticing. “Tarnil would welcome closer relations with our neighbors to the south.” Shayma wasn’t sure exactly where Kelors was, but it wasn’t anywhere close enough to be called a neighbor.

“Insofar as the other matters go, I can well understand that the Empire of Ir may be dubious toward any claims of a Power rising here, let alone one that has political intentions. But certainly you noticed the immense weather pillars, the extravagant spatial working over the canal, and the unusual density of mana when you entered Tarnil.”

“These things are quite impressive,” Andis admitted. “I will be interested in knowing more about the provenance of these changes, if you could perhaps grant me a private audience later on.”

“I will be happy to grant you a more private audience, but I will be busy for some time,” Iniri told him. “Fortunately, Blue’s representative is here today, and she is the more appropriate person to petition if you wish to discuss Blue’s business.” This with a gesture to the balcony, and Andis looked at Shayma again.

“Hah, she’s going to pawn him off on us.”

“Blue leaves Tarnil to me, and I leave the issues of Powers to him.” A smile played about Iniri’s lips. “I would warn you not to waste his time, however. Since Ir has yet to recognize Blue as a polity, he has no need to recognize your status in return.”

“I see,” Andis said, glancing between Iniri and Shayma. “I look forward to that private audience, and I will seek further clarification from Blue.” He offered Iniri another bow and she nodded back, letting him withdraw. The steward waited until he was at a reasonable distance and then called the next petitioner. Andis himself approached the balcony, clearly not certain how to proceed.

“Sounds to me like Iniri just said we don’t have to be diplomatic and she’ll take care of things if he gets annoyed.”

“That’s what I heard too,” Shayma said, more than a little amused by how relieved Blue sounded. “Do you just want to teleport him to the audience chamber?”

“Works for me!” Blue said, and Andis vanished mid-step, along with his retainers. A moment later the surroundings changed as Blue moved her from the balcony in the palace to the overlook by the faux core.

Unsurprisingly, Andis and his two companions were not particularly happy. The prince had golden light gathered into his hands, while one of his men had conjured a flaming spear and the other was clad in some green shadow, the three of them in defensive positions as they surveyed the audience chamber. Shayma called on [Promise] by reflex, tapping into the ring to channel some of Blue’s authority. That immediately got their attention, though it certainly didn’t reassure them any.

They stared up at her for a long moment, and she simply raised her eyebrows. She wasn’t as nonchalant as she looked; even with [Body Reinforcement] and Blue’s mana pool she didn’t want to try and block an attack from a third tier whose Skills she didn’t know. Let alone three of them. She still found it hard to believe she’d managed to fend off an elite monster.

Finally, Andis lowered his hands, the glow going out as he relaxed. His companions didn’t follow suit, maintaining vigilance as if expecting attack at any moment. She didn’t entirely blame them, since getting teleported without warning was a disorienting experience, but she did have to admit that it was a little fun to watch other people deal with it.

“You brought us here?” He asked, calling from where he stood, not yet coming closer or mounting the dais meant for petitioners. In response she simply glanced down at the dais and back up at him, calling on some of the expressions she’d seen Iniri wear when dealing with people she really didn’t want to. Blue laughed quietly in the back of her mind, obviously enjoying the show but not having any further direction for her.

Andis almost frowned, but caught himself and stepped forward slowly, flanked by his retainers. After that first mistake, he hid whatever he was feeling fairly well, betraying nothing other than calm as he climbed up the steps and looked at her.

“Blue brought you here,” she told him, answering his earlier question. “You wanted to talk to him. This is his audience chamber and I speak for him.” The prince hesitated briefly.

“He won’t see us himself?”

“He already sees you.” Shayma smiled. Apparently he hadn’t much though about what Blue was. “He saw you when you sailed his shores, when you were at the palace. Blue is a dungeon, and he is Tarnil. He’s the stone under your feet and the air you breathe. When he speaks, he speaks through me.”

“Laying it on a little thick there, Shayma,” Blue said with amusement. “Making it sound like I’m some kind of god. It is pretty awesome though. Keep doing it.” Sometimes she wondered whether he’d ever start acting with the dignity his power implied, but most of the time she was glad he didn’t. Being the silly, goofy, generally pleasant person he was made some of the absurd and terrifying things he could do less disturbing. Knowing he had terrible weaponry and ideas for more was less of an issue when he could hardly be less interested in conquest.

Her words had the desired effect, as Andis’ eyes widened and he glanced around reflexively. His retainers looked even more uncomfortable, likely realizing the threat they were looking for was so large it was entirely invisible. Even she had trouble really getting a handle on it at times, realizing that for Blue there wasn’t a here or a there when it came to Tarnil. It was all just him.

“We are grateful that Blue would see us,” Andis said at length, recovering his diplomacy and waving for his retainers to stand down. “Though I admit I am rather surprised about his methods.”

“Blue is a Power, not a king.” She debated adding more to that, but left the statement there. It was hard to couch the sentiment that Blue didn’t care too much about diplomacy, diplomatically.

“Forgive me, but it is difficult to believe in a Dungeon Power, let alone one arising here in Tarnil, so far from the densest mana and so near a Great Dungeon.”

“Yet you see it with your own eyes.”

“You could probably go round and round on this,” Blue added. “We don’t need to deal with the whole dancing around the point. I’m not going to go out of my way to prove anything to him, but at this point he ought to be convinced of something. I’d think anyway.”

“Blue wishes for you to get to the point,” she translated. “If you had any doubts as to his veracity, surely they’ve been satisfied by now.” Andis didn’t reply right away, so she pressed on with an idea that had suddenly occurred to her. “Or have you come for a Bargain?” She asked and watched him twitch.

“No, I have not come for that,” he said.

“Then?”

“Emperor Wright would not wish to make deals with an entity he has never met and isn’t certain exists. Now that I have met you – as it were – I can certainly report your qualities to him.”

“Not mine. I am not Blue, no matter that it is easy to think of it that way.”

“Yes, certainly,” Andis said, and with all apparent honesty. “Then, may I ask, on behalf of Ir, what Blue intends?”

“Ummm. At the moment I’m trying to put out all the fires that are cropping up but he doesn’t need to know that. If he means expanding beyond Tarnil, no. I’m perfectly happy to sit here and do trades and figure things out and fulfill my Bargain by keeping Tarnil safe. Do have to deal with the mage-kings though, both them attacking and the whole Blight thing. Which maybe Wright doesn’t know about? Should probably inform him.” It took her a moment to condense Blue’s rambling and rephrase it, but she was used to that by now.

“Blue intends to maintain Tarnil’s safety. As I’m sure you’re aware, the mage-kings were driven from our shores not long ago, and they will be returning in force. There is also a crisis in the Underneath that may require his attention – an expanding blight – that we suspect is linked with the mage-kings. If your Emperor does not know of this, he should make inquiries.”

The glowing spotlight that picked out Andis’ features had gone, replaced by a more hard-eyed and hard-edged individual. Someone more dangerous than the kind of dandy he’d made himself out to be. Which wasn’t much of a surprise, since it wasn’t likely the Emperor of Ir would send an idiot to investigate a Power.

“To be clear, Blue does not have further designs on nearby countries or resources?”

“I didn’t even really want Tarnil, but it worked out that way. Anyway, no, though I guess if people…eh, that’d worry him more. Just say no.”

“He does not.”

“Even to prosecute your war with the mage-kings?” Andis pressed.

“Hmkay, serious-face time for that one. I will not bind myself by oaths or agreements or even speculation when it comes to my safety or that of Tarnil. I intend to be reasonable when possible.” She repeated that part word for word, but what followed took more thinking. “Also, if Ir is allied with them I advise them to rethink things. Some of them might be marginally reasonable but a lot of them look like they’re completely power-mad.”

“Of course, I cannot comment on my liege’s alliances,” Andis answered warily. “But I will relay your responses to him. All your responses.”

“I would have liked something more definite but I guess the guy’s only got so much authority. Then again, why would you send someone who couldn’t close a deal? I dunno, maybe he needs to call home with divinations or something. Oh! I’m not sure what his intentions are about Iniri but maybe warn him I’m not going to take too kindly to him harassing her.” That was a suggestion she had absolutely no trouble putting into practice.

“Now that we have addressed your concerns, Blue has a message specifically for you. He is rather fond of Queen Iniri. She can certainly make her own decisions, but you should be quite careful that you don’t upset her with whatever sort of interactions you have planned.”

“I shall keep that in mind,” Andis replied, not having much choice but to acquiesce. Ir’s representatives at least seemed more mindful than Nivir’s, lacking the bluster of the Esox men.

“Hmm, can you think of anything else before I send them back?” Blue pondered to her.

“I think he’s gotten the point,” she murmured back, masking her voice from Andis and his companions.

“Okay, I’ll send them off.”

“Then Blue will return you to the Glass Palace.” Shayma told them, and a moment later they blinked out of sight.

“So, I think that went as well as could be expected. Do you think he’ll actually listen to anything we said?” Shayma considered it, but ultimately she only had one conclusion.

“I think that depends on Emperor Wright.”

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A note from InadvisablyCompelled

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