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An Amaryllis had taken up position next to the manor entrance, which was now a large, burnt hole in the building. They had been lucky that the long elevator was untouched, because it would have complicated descent into the complex if it had been turned to slag. Unfortunately, the dragonfire was a mar on the building, which was, to some of the citizens, a symbol. It would need to be repaired, and it was clear that there would be a lot of work to be done in terms of cosmetic changes to Necrolaborem. Amaryllis was hoping that external repairs could be completed inside a week, so that they could launch a public relations offensive that would tout this as a place transformed. Only one of her would be working on that though, because there were other problems that had more to do with ground truths.

This particular instance of her was idly talking with the tuung, who looked up to her no matter her missteps. Imposter syndrome had never been a particular problem for Amaryllis, which was good, because the culture that she had been the primary architect of placed a fair bit of importance on her. She hadn’t wanted anything like hero worship or a cult of personality, because those were unstable forms of leadership, but she had done her best to weave herself into the lessons that the tuung were given, and during stints in the time chamber, she had devoted a good deal of time to writing to them, mixing personal stories with civics lessons and life advice (though much of the life advice was, frankly, obvious stuff). Aerb didn’t have a term for parasocial relationship, but that was what she’d cultivated, trying her best to be as authentic as possible. She didn’t want to exploit or manipulate in any way that would come back to bite her later.

She had worried a lot about the tuung, given how little time she could devote to their upbringing. She had left them in the hands of people that Valencia had screened, but a devil’s insights were imperfect, and extrapolating how a group of people would work together for years at a time wasn’t something that Valencia had been terribly confident about, even with the check-ins they’d used. The tuung had an unexpected stress test at Li’o, emerging from their indoctrination and training much sooner than planned, all their half-finished training put to a much harsher reckoning than anticipated.

The tuung were, by far, the most successful project of their sort in the entire history of either Aerb or Earth.

This did not mean that they were without their flaws.

“I waited too long to read them,” said Monique. “They weren’t part of the canon, so I set them aside for free reading, and didn’t get to them until last year. But what you wrote in Meditations on Power really changed my perspective on a lot of things, particularly our sexual politics.”

Amaryllis nodded. She remembered Meditations on Power, which was a series of essays she’d written that were largely about power dynamics. They weren’t much more than a collection of pamphlets, and to some extent they repeated things that Amaryllis had read from other sources, a synthesis of Earth and Aerb, with a few thoughts that were likely original thrown in. Altogether, the collection had been the work of spare hours over the course of a week, and Amaryllis hadn’t been too happy with how it had turned out, which had meant that it was left out of ‘the canon’, the set of works that all tuung were expected to read, which expanded as they grew older. Part of how the culture had been structured was with a strong emphasis on community, and ‘the canon’ was a way of ensuring cohesion.

“The tuung are unique in many ways,” said Amaryllis. “There are power dynamics that are etched on your biology. It’s something that I’ve given a lot of thought to.” So far, there had been no un-sanctioned primings, and no sanctioned ones, for that matter, which would change with the second generation. Amaryllis had her fingers crossed that it would remain that way. The penalty for un-sanctioned priming was death, and was one of two crimes that automatically carried that penalty (the other being treason). “How have you been handling it?”

“Oh,” replied Monique. She seemed a bit flustered to have Amaryllis actually respond. “Like you say, there are things about our society that we might find upsetting, burdens we’re forced to shoulder. Inside, I struggled a bit.” ‘Inside’ was what they called their time in Bethel, which accounted for almost the entirety of their life until the last few months. “I thought about the ways that I would have structured society differently, so that the problems wouldn’t happen, but I never came up with anything that really resolved it, other than limiting the number of females in society, since we’re the ones that have most of the burden.”

“I did think about that,” said Amaryllis. Obviously. “But there’s variability in terms of tuung biology, much more than there is in humans, and the spread we chose was based on a crude analysis of the roles we would need to fill. The second generation project is underway, and while I’m a bit worried about changing things too much, we have a better idea of what the ideal social construction looks like given the data we’ve already gathered.”

Monique had been nodding along the whole time, and seemed ready to give a contribution, but before she could, she must have heard something.

“Incoming,” she called out, and the twin fireteams that formed Amaryllis’ guard boxed her in to protect her.

Two seconds later, with a zwrish, six people stepped into being not far from the manor.

Amaryllis dismissed the tuung with a hand signal, and they fanned back out, taking up the most strategically sound positions around her.

“Greetings,” said Amaryllis, stepping forward. She recognized three of the six, and at best guess, all of them were from the empire. “I’ve been waiting for your arrival, there are a number of things we’ll need to discuss in terms of situation management.”

“You’re damned right,” said Elias Satyr, the Captain of the Officer of Imperial Disaster Relief. He looked distinctly unhappy, as did most of the others. It was only the shortest of them, a gnome, that had a grin: Figaro Finch had come along, and he seemed delighted that this was a mess he probably wouldn’t have to clean up.

“Introductions first,” said Alcida Divona, Head of Uniquities. “You obviously know myself, Figaro, and Elias.” She gestured at them with blue hands. She was dressed down from what Amaryllis had seen her wearing before, perhaps because she’d had less time to put on something striking. A broad hat covered her bald head. “I don’t know if you’ve had the pleasure of the others that are joining us, this is Ragusa Allron, Head of Special Threats, Tangli Ferst, from the Accountability Office, and Foster Bragg, who is on loan from the Kingdom of Tern. It’s thought that he’ll be our logistics head, though we’re still working that out.”

They were a motley crew, made of different species and wearing wildly different outfits, with a suit for the gnome, Figaro, a plain, austere dress for the vitric, Alcida, and traditional garb for Ferst and Bragg (Ferst with a sweeping neo-traditionalist dress in orange and white, Bragg with a gray suit which prominently featured a thick wrap around the waist): they were both sharp-beaked likoni. Satyr was wearing entad armor with shifting blue waves on it, and Ragusa Allron, an orc, had on an entad of his own, a long robe studded with twinkling, multi-colored stars.

“And I’m Amaryllis Smith nee Penndraig,” said Amaryllis, when it was clear that she would get no introduction of her own. “I’m a princess of Anglecynn, on several committees there, and Advisor on Industry to the Republic of Miunun.” She was accruing responsibilities and power at a rate that anyone with a brain would find frightening. In Anglecynn, her power was close to unchecked, and it felt like with another month behind her, she would be the de facto ruler.

“Did you kill Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle?” asked Alcida.

“No,” said Amaryllis, hoping that was still true, because, after all, Juniper was down there, and it was very possible that the plot was progressing without her. “Elisha Blue is still alive. He has ceded the entirety of his authority to us and peaceably handed over control of Necrolaborem.”

“Peaceably?” asked Ragusa Allron, looking at the burnt manor.

“The damage there was an unrelated incident,” said Amaryllis.

“I’ll be plain,” said Ragusa, his voice grumbling slightly. “This is a problem.”

“How so?” asked Amaryllis, raising an eyebrow.

“The Empire is stretched thin,” said Satyr. “I mean that in both a material sense and a psychic one. The exclusion in Li’o was a blow, not just because of the disaster and the refugee crisis, but because of how it has impacted people. Since getting word of what’s happened here, we’ve been working together on the broader implications of the fall of Necrolaborem, and there is general agreement that the bad news is coming too fast.”

“By rights, the people of Aerb should rally,” said Amaryllis. “The exclusion is weeks away from being cleared. Within the next twenty-four hours, the zombies he’s held captive as assurance against threats will be defused, leaving only those that are currently vital to the functioning of this society. Within a month, even those will be gone.” That was an extremely optimistic timeline, but the situation seemed to call for optimism.

“And the people?” asked Alcida. “What of them?”

“They’ll be free,” said Amaryllis. “They can form their own society here, their own polity that will initially exist within the footprint of this place. My industries have need for labor at the moment, and in the interim period, while they find their footing, they can add value in that way, which will help to offset the costs of bringing their standard of living up.”

“The optics are bad,” said Ragusa. “Reporters are sure to come, and the radio waves will be filled with talk of the horrors here.”

“Horrors that have come to an end,” said Amaryllis, looking between them. “You cannot honestly be suggesting that the world would have been better off not solving this problem.”

“That’s the feeling,” said Figaro Finch. He pulled a cigarette case and began going through the process of lighting up.

“Well, it’s done,” said Amaryllis. “We’re not leaving and telling Blue that we’re fine with him continuing operations after all.”

“We’re not suggesting that,” replied Ragusa. “But you have no authority here.”

“I do,” said Amaryllis, staring him down.

“You do not,” replied Ragusa.

“Very well,” said Amaryllis, spreading her stance slightly. She took a breath. “In 511 FE, the Empire of Common Cause entered into negotiations with Elisha Blue, granting him status-in-fact authority over the exclusion zone per extant case law, especially with regards to Bolkin. By right of conquest, and his own submission, the Republic of Miunun claims transfer of status-in-fact from Elisha Blue, in accordance with extant case law, especially with regards to Livingston, Coase, and Braithe. Following that, I hereby declare this to be our colonial territory, pursuant to section 409 of the EIC, and grant myself full power as colonial governor. Necrolaborem is now a formal part of the Republic of Miunun, which is an imperial non-member, and it is you who has no authority here, except on my say so. I will grant you permission to stay, and would welcome discussion of the problems that face our colony.”

“Can she do that?” asked Ferst, leaning over slightly to speak with Bragg. “I wasn’t sure that I followed it in its entirety.”

“Special Threats has authority over exclusion zones through the full force of imperial law,” said Ragusa. “You cannot wave that away.”

“We are not a part of the Empire,” said Amaryllis. “And you’re simply incorrect, because for Special Threats to have authority over a polity which has been recognized by the Empire, member or otherwise, requires formal approval by the full legislature.”

“The Empire has formally recognized Miunun,” said Ragusa, shaking his head. “The same cannot be said for this — whatever this is.”

“I gave specific case law,” said Amaryllis, folding her arms. “The only reason that I’m continuing this conversation is because I have dozens of myself working on the actual problems. If you’d like, we can go through the legislature, but as the Republic of Miunun is only a recognized polity, not a member polity, it’s you that has no authority.”

“Let’s be calm here,” said Alcida. Amaryllis had no problem with that, she had only been changing her tone to match the aggression she was seeing. Because of her age, and sometimes also her gender, there was some expectation that she would be deferential. “Can we agree that for the rule of law to work, we cannot have independent parties coming into exclusion zones and taking them over with a show of force?”

“No one else has the capacity to do what we do,” said Amaryllis. “And if they did, I argue it would be a net good for all those involved. We’re saving millions from the hells. We’re removing people from under the thumb of an insane dictator who planned to torture them even after their deaths.”

“There was no discussion with the Empire,” said Satyr. Amaryllis didn’t look at the two people from Uniquities when he said that, because they had definitely known something, and clearly hadn’t communicated it, not that she’d wanted them to. “We cannot absorb half a million people. Given a month’s lead, it might have been possible to build the framework, but as it stands, we don’t have anything in place, especially not after events in Li’o, which are still ongoing.”

“Two things,” said Amaryllis. “First, you can still have a month, if you’d like. Elias Blue is under our thumb. There is no pressing need for intervention at the moment, so far as we can assess that, aside from the general poor conditions. Second, he set up a number of cities beneath the EZ, with a total population somewhere in the range of eight million, most of them children.”

That was met with a moment of silence.

“Eight million?” asked Ragusa.

“As best we can currently tell, yes,” said Amaryllis. “This obviously represents an enormous failure on the part of Special Threats.” Ragusa was the head of Special Threats, and she was making an enemy of him, the better to serve up a head on a platter for the rest of the EoCC. In reality, Ragusa’s hands had probably been tied, and gaining access to top tier surveillance entads had probably not been a priority for his tenure, especially not for something like the NLEZ, which had been somewhat quietly not bothering anyone for many decades. Institutions like Special Threats tended to rot over time, and that couldn’t necessarily be blamed on the person sitting at the head. Perhaps if Amaryllis had been in charge of the department, she would have noticed how old their knowledge was and called for it to be updated, or if not that, she would have hired or trained someone directly in charge of the NLEZ, who could have seen the problem.

Either way, if they were ignorant of the true conditions in the NLEZ, that fell on Ragusa, and if the EoCC needed an institutional villain, rather than just the actual villain, Ragusa was the logical choice.

“I need to speak with those on the ground,” said Ragusa, going slightly pale.

“Of course,” said Amaryllis with a nod. “I’ve been in conversation with them for the past day or so, and have kept them informed. If they didn’t keep you abreast of the facts, I would put that down to the problems inherent in cross-continental communication.” There hadn’t been any manipulation on her part, though she hadn’t offered any advice to the group from Special Threats.

It was at that moment that I arrived on the scene, ignorant of pretty much everything, including the identities of everyone that Amaryllis was talking to. I’d gotten, at most, the last few sentences, and didn’t have enough context. I wasn’t floating, as much as I wanted to be, and I had shifted my armor to be a non-threatening steel.

The gnome has the gold. Get it from him.

I looked at Figaro Finch, who was looking at me with a faint grin.

“Sorry,” I said, walking over. “Figaro, can I talk to you?”

“Who is this?” asked the same man who’d been arguing with Amaryllis.

“Ragusa Allron, this is Juniper Smith, husband to Amaryllis,” said Alcida, stepping forward slightly. “Juniper, this is Ragusa. He’s the head of Special Threats.

Get the gold from the gnome.

“Pleasure to meet you,” I said. “I don’t think I really need to be a part of this conversation though. Figaro?” I raised an expectant eyebrow at him.

“Oh, did you want this?” he asked, pulling a thick gold coin from his pocket. It was comically big in his hands, and clearly had enough sheer weight that he couldn’t hold it casually. “I strongly suspect that Juniper is a gold mage,” he told the crowd.

“That’s dangerous,” said Alcida, frowning.

“And illegal,” said another voice from among them, a tall lodona woman who was chewing something idly.

“The legality is complicated,” said Amaryllis. “We spoke with our lawyers before making the decision. But if we’re speaking of jurisdiction, then surely you have to acknowledge that the only person here with any authority to arrest Juniper is Figaro Finch.”

Take the gold, now.

“I decline to attempt the arrest,” said Figaro Finch. “Here, you’re looking pale.” He tossed the coin to me, and I caught it. My heart was thumping. I’d been pretty nervous about just taking the gold from him. I had no clue why he’d brought a gold coin with, and assumed that he’d kept it in extradimensional storage until the time was right. If it was to out me as a gold mage, then it was a dick move.

“How much gold does he have?” asked Alcida, looking at me.

I looked to Amaryllis, and she gave me a nod.

“Roughly a hundred million obols worth,” I replied.

There were two reactions to that, the first being confusion, because it was probably difficult to figure out what that meant in terms of raw power, and the second being astonishment at the sheer cost and power.

“Why?” asked Alcida.

I looked at Amaryllis again, and she hesitated a moment before nodding. “I had to kill some dragons.”

“I was going to get to that,” said Amaryllis. “But to be fair, if you had adequate intelligence networks, you would have known by now.”

“Multiple dragons?” asked Alcida.

“We need to bring External Affairs into this,” said the lodona woman.

“It was actually just two dragons,” I said. “Multiple dragons makes it sound more impressive than it was.”

“How is he going to sustain that level of power?” asked Alcida.

“I’m not,” I replied.

“Where is the gold?” asked Figaro Finch.

“Nunya,” I replied.

“Nunya?” he asked, that fool, that absolute moron.

“Nunya business,” I continued.

“It’s beside the point,” said Amaryllis, after a moment had passed. “It has virtually nothing to do with the situation at Necrolaborem.” She said that with a straight face, despite the burnt manor behind us.

“I don’t mean to be a bother,” I said. I was intruding on politics, and aside from being outed as a gold mage by Figaro Finch, for whatever asinine reason, I didn’t feel like I had all that much to contribute.

“Stay for a moment,” said Amaryllis. She turned to the others. “Your main force is arriving by train shortly. When does everyone else come? We watched the portal that brought in OIDR, when can that be activated again?”

“Three days,” replied Satyr. “But it’s not clear at this point that we’ll be able to provide much assistance. I could pull my best men off Li’o to lead, but the manpower just isn’t there.”

“And if we can handle that?” asked Amaryllis.

“There would still be the problem of who would be in charge,” said Satyr. “Having a non-member polity command OIDR, or even just set the agenda, would be a dangerous precedent. That’s especially the case because you and your husband are only agreed upon as agents of a non-member polity through a legal fiction. To have Anglecynn commandeer imperial forces in contravention of imperial law is, to put it mildly, troubling.”

Alcida had been nodding along. “Yet I think there are arguments to be made,” she replied. “It was no mistake that Uniquities was included in this working group. When circumstances are unique, we are the ones who have dispensation to do what must be done. However this intervention is structured, we would serve as intermediaries.”

“That leaves the question of manpower,” said Satyr.

“We’ll have one hundred thousand trained tuung,” said Amaryllis.

“When?” asked Ragusa. “How? Our estimates of your population there were much lower.”

“We’re scaling up,” said Amaryllis. “We’ll still be outnumbered eighty to one, but that will at least be manageable, assuming that we can deputize some fraction of the population.”

“And Blue himself?” asked Ragusa.

“We keep him alive,” said Amaryllis. “Ideally, we would kill him, but I’m perfectly fine with his survival in perpetuity if that will ensure his cooperation.”

“I don’t believe that will be palatable to the people of the Empire,” said Ragusa. “Though I should note that you have no authority to kill the man.”

“That’s beyond the scope of discussion,” Amaryllis replied. “I know that you’re beholden to the legislature, who are in turn beholden to the people, but what matters is helping everyone down there. It’s going to be ugly either way. Clemency for Blue is one of the key ways to make it as pretty as possible.”

I didn’t like that. I also didn’t know whether she was telling the truth. Obviously granting Blue eternal life was a carrot we could dangle in front of him, but actually giving him that carrot at the end of it … blegh. Better not to lie, better not to break your contracts, in part just due to following sensible rules for life, but also because other people might see that you were perfectly willing to go back on your word.

Interrogate Amaryllis on the location of Perisev’s vault. The call of the gold in my head was unwelcome. There were too many requests, coming too fast. I had hoped that I would get a few days between errands, but it didn’t seem like that was going to happen.

I caught Amaryllis’ eye, and began signing to her in Gimb. She signed back before I was even finished with the sentence; apparently, she’d anticipated this and already had a clone at the site, which was four hours' flight away.

“I need to get going,” I said.

“Good seeing you,” said Figaro Finch with a wave.

I nodded, but didn’t make a big deal of my departure, instead floating high up, gathering speed as I went, until I was far enough above that I wouldn’t be splitting eardrums when I applied my full power. Once I was at what I judged was a safe height, I blasted away, using vibration magic to sculpt the shockwave away from the people that were standing down below.

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Alexander Wales

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