Gil picked up his fruit from the floor, lamenting that he'd been too startled to catch it when, normally, his gold-rank reflexes would have no trouble doing so. Then he realised that Soramir could also have caught them even more easily but quickly quashed his annoyance at that. He looked up sheepishly, knowing that the diamond-ranker would have certainly sensed the emotion and where it was directed.
“Don’t concern yourself, Mr Vinaros. I’m not here to make things harder for you.”
Gil looked down at the bowl of fruit slices now covered in carpet fluff. He absently considered that he should have picked a carpet that handled the humidity better.
“Of course not, ancestral majesty.”
Gil moved to his desk and sat the bowl down. Soramir stopped leaning on the desk and took one of the seats as Gil moved behind the desk before doing likewise.
“To what do I owe the honour?” Gil asked. “Is this related to the Builder city? Her highness, Princess Zila, informed me that you were monitoring it.”
“Several of my peers are currently watching it in rotation,” Soramir said. “We diamond-rankers are taking a more active role in current events, although we are keeping our activities quiet for the moment. Your position makes you one of the few with whom we are sharing our activities. Some of them, in any case.”
“What can I do for you, ancestral majesty?”
“I need for you to arrange to have some people portalled here from Vitesse. Six silver-rankers and two bronze.”
“Obviously, you're aware of how tightly regulated high-rank portal personnel are right now. While I respect the royal family - and you, in particular - I can't ask the Vitesse branch to make that kind of allocation without a valid reason."
Gil opened a drawer and took out a sheet of paper.
“Curiously,” he said, “I just received a similar request from Vitesse. They want two silver-rankers portalled in the other direction. Normally I would suggest that we could save on resources by using the same portal specialist to send one group across and then the other back. I cannot help but feel, however, that these two requests share a connection."
Gil handed the paper over the table to Soramir, who glanced it over.
“Jason Asano and Farrah Hurin,” he read. “Why am I not surprised? Your assumption is quite accurate.”
Soramir put the paper on the desk, tapping it with his finger.
“This does not state the reason for the request.”
“It’s related to events taking place in the northern regions of Estercost. The Vitesse branch sent out an expedition to attack a Purity church stronghold and got more than they bargained for. It’s quite a mess right now, but somehow this Asano is involved. I’m having the analytical office prepare a full report for me to look at before I respond to the request.”
“Asano cannot be allowed to leave the Sea of Storms right now. You need to deny the request.”
“With respect, ancestral majesty, while I am open to any request you wish to make of this office, it’s just that: a request. You don’t tell this office what it can and cannot do.”
Soramir raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“I respect that, Mr Vinaros–”
“Director Vinaros, your majesty. For this conversation, it’s Director Vinaros.”
“Of course. Director, let me share my reasoning. During my time away, I became aware of preparations being made for the invasion of our world and returned to help the Storm Kingdom weather those events. Since my return to Rimaros, I have been investigating the activities of the Builder cult. I’ve even discretely been throwing some assistance to the Adventure Society’s Builder response unit.”
“This was not reported to me.”
“They don’t know I’ve been assisting them. I’ve recently contacted one of their leaders, my descendent, Liara. I will be working more closely with them going forward, so you can anticipate reports on the activities in question.”
“That is much appreciated.”
“One of the things I discovered was that several months ago, the Builder cult undertook some kind of infrastructure project, buried underneath an uninhabited island. They then abandoned the island entirely, so that their work couldn’t be found unless you knew to look.”
“Which you did, I assume.”
“Yes. It was some manner of astral beacon. Like other astral magic being used by the cult, it was very advanced, by the standards of this world. My initial thought was that it was a launch point for the coming invasion.”
“Did you destroy it?”
“I decided not to. The advantage in knowing where the enemy would arrive is considerable, as you can no doubt imagine. However, it was not an invasion force that came through but two silver-rankers, both of whom were listed as having died fighting the Builder cult several years ago.”
“The Builder resurrected them?”
"No, Asano is an outworlder and was resurrected on his own world. I believe he had an object called a World-Phoenix token that revived him and sent him back where he came from. As for his companion, she seems to have become an outworlder after her death by likewise resurrecting in Asano's homeworld. As for the specifics, I have no idea."
“There must be quite a story there.”
“Yes, although they have chosen to share very little, thus far.”
“They’re silver-rankers. That isn’t a choice they get to make. I’ll have them brought in and–”
“I would hold off on that, Director Vinaros. If Asano has the backing that I suspect, he needs to be treated carefully. Not only will that mean there are powerful forces behind him but also that he has an important role to play.”
“Then perhaps you should go to him personally. The attention of a diamond-ranker, especially one as prestigious as you will be flattering and get him onside.”
“I have already met Mr Asano, but it turns out that he’s grown tired of dealing with people far more powerful than he. Rather than impressed, he was annoyed and angry. Because of the way he seems to have been treated in the past, I believe that he will respond very positively to forthright honesty and plain dealing.”
“Is that what your portal request is related to?”
“Yes. I want his team brought here to join him.”
“Vitesse wants him there.”
“We need him here. My understanding is that Asano himself found the means to return to our world, but the Builder had his people use the beacon to determine his arrival point. As for why they weren’t waiting for them, I’m not sure.”
“If the Builder wants him here, isn’t sending his out of the Storm Kingdom the best option?”
“I believe the Builder’s intention in bringing him here was to have him killed. The Builder has apparently agreed to some kind of restriction on how he attempts to do so and so has made concessions to his church of Purity allies to have them do it instead. One attempt has already been made. The Builder response unit is already working to interrogate the Purity loyalists we captured in the process.”
“One of the church’s more extreme orders has been operating in this part of the world for many years,” Gil said. “It’s unsurprising that they remained loyal. But what makes Asano worth all this attention?”
“Asano has already foiled the Builder’s plans more than once, and I believe is now affiliated with the Builder’s greater antagonist. What part Asano has left to play is unclear, but even before his death, he demonstrated an effect on those who wield the Builder’s power. He is, in fact, responsible for the very first live capture of someone with a star seed.”
“That’s all well and good,” Gil said, “but I’m not sure that my Vitesse counterpart will be willing to accommodate you. The information I’m getting is still unclear but they’ve had some unusual events that somehow this Asano is connected to.”
“I would appreciate that report, Director, once your people have completed it.”
“They should have it to me within the day, depending on what information we can get out of Vitesse. I think the best solution, for the moment, is to wait for more information before making any firm decisions. There may be something you are overlooking, however.”
“Oh?” Soramir asked.
“Asano himself. We can ask him to go to Vitesse, not tell him. While the Adventure Society can ask quite firmly, he always has the option to refuse. If you can convince him to stay, my office will support the decision. We can make him available to the Vitesse branch via water link, which is exactly why we monopolise the links in the first place.”
Soramir nodded, stood up and offered his hand to Gil over the desk.
“Thank you, Director Vinaros.”
Gil shook Soramir’s hand a little nervously.
“I’ll do my best to accommodate you, your majesty, but my first loyalty must be to my position.”
Jason returned to Sensual Attire for the Sensual Gentleman, Alejandro Albericci’s tailor shop. Rufus was sitting in the café courtyard, sipping on a cup of tea.
“You took your time,” Rufus said as Jason sat down. “You didn’t kill the boy and bury him in the jungle did you?”
“What had Farrah been telling you?”
“Just wanted to make sure.”
“We just had a little talk,” Jason said. “I told him to go home and not make any trouble. That’s the only thing I did. I definitely didn’t stop for shopping on the way back.”
Rufus looked at him from under raised eyebrows.
“I mean, there was a whole shop for skill books. How could I not buy some for cooking magic? I don’t have time to learn all about the magical ingredients and how to handle them without diverting time from training. You know how often people try to kill me.”
“Have you heard anything about the people who were caught making the last attempt?”
"I've been told I'll be kept updated, although how reliable that assurance is remains to be seen. Liara said they'll probably want to involve me in the questioning.”
“You really know how to get caught up in messes, don't you?"
“You said it was normal for outworlders to get caught up in stuff. You told me that the day we met.”
“There’s caught up and then there’s you, Jason. I don’t suppose you’d like to explain what this latest thing is? If that was Kasper Irios, then is this about–”
“Yeah, but no details, here. Back home, with Farrah. No point explaining it twice.”
“Did Alejandro set you up with some good clothes?”
“He measured me up while you were off on your latest debacle. I didn’t have any good hot weather clothes, so once my new outfits are finished I’ll be appreciative.”
“Haven’t you been living in Greenstone? That place is half desert, half sweltering delta. How did you not pick up any warm-weather outfits?”
“You know what the clothes are like there. It’s as if someone threw up a rainbow of loose fabric and people just draped it over themselves. You know, Gary still dresses like that. Although, given what most leonids wear, anything is a step up.”
“I didn’t realise you were such a slave to fashion.”
“The problem with Mr Remore,” Alejandro said, approaching their table “is that for him, fashion is pointless. Look at the man: you could put him in a brown sack and he’d still be a work of art.”
“Tell me about it,” Jason said, standing to shake Alejandro’s hand.
“Mr Asano, I apologise for my part in whatever political imbroglio you have been caught up in.”
“You get used to it,” Jason said. “At least with politics they only stab you in the back. It’s a nice change from being stabbed in the everything.”
They left Rufus to his tea and Alejandro led Jason to his measuring room.
"I have been directed to take your outfits in a certain direction," Alejandro explained as they walked. "That puts me in a slightly complicated position as while I always strive to meet the needs of my client, the person wearing the clothes and the person paying for them is usually the same."
“Wait, she already paid you?”
“Payment has been promised in full.”
“Forget that,” Jason said. “I’m the client, I’m paying you and the only needs you have to meet are mine.”
Alejandro opened a door, ushered Jason inside and then followed, closing it behind them.
“That simplifies things for me a great deal,” Alejandro said. “I especially do not like serving a client that attempts to employ me as a means to scheme against my clientele.”
“It won’t be an issue to push back against the royal family?”
"Political favour is for today, Mr Asano. Integrity is forever. If you would be so kind as to go into the measuring stall."
There was what looked like a changing room that Jason stepped into, closing the door behind him.
“Please disrobe down to your underwear for the most accurate measurements,” Alejandro said through the door. “Do you have any shape or size-changing powers we need to accommodate?”
“Just some conjured shadow arms,” Jason said. “Nothing a normal fit can’t handle.”
“Excellent. We will have a full range of fabric and cut selection, then. Just let me know when you are ready for measurement, Mr Asano.”
“Go ahead, Mr Albericci.”
“Please do call me Al.”
“Only if you call me Jason.”
“It’s a deal. You’re going to experience some slight tingling.”
Light started emitting from the walls of the stall around Jason, starting with cool green, going through blue, purple and then into warm red, yellow and orange before fading away.
“All done, Mr Asano. Jason. Please put your clothes on and come back out."
A few moments later, Jason was back out in the room, which was lined in wall-to-ceiling fabric racks.
“Now there is the matter of what you are looking for,” Alejandro said. “What can I do for you today?”
“I’m looking for a full silver-rank wardrobe refresh. I need everything, with plenty of options across the board. Formal, casual, the lot.”
“And what kind of budget are we looking at?”
“Whatever it costs.”
“Jason, I think you and I are going to get on very well.”