Jason made his way through the basement levels of the Adventure Society complex until he reached the restricted areas. From there he was escorted to the Builder response unit’s area; a series of securely sealed rooms surrounded by powerful aura containment. His escorts led him to Liara’s office, where she was sitting behind her desk. She looked up from the report she was reading.
“You can leave him, thank you.”
The escorts left them alone, closing the door behind them. She looked Jason over.
“Still no wardrobe update?” she asked.
“Quality takes time. I needed a full wardrobe refresh, after all. Also, I don’t think Alejandro appreciated being used for Vesper’s games. I can sympathise with his position.”
“I was expecting you earlier, Mr Asano. When I ask people to attend me, I am used to them being prompt.”
“I’ll bet you are. You didn’t specify a time and I had work to do.”
“Work? You’ve already been to the jobs hall? There’s a contract is waiting for you, which is what I called you in to tell you.”
“No, not that,” Jason said with a dismissive gesture. “I’m a whole new part of a whole new world. Do you have any idea what it’s like trying to learn an entirely new spice palate? And that’s before you even look at magical ingredients.”
“Are you talking about cooking?”
“It’s kind of my thing, and I’ve been locked out for a while. There have been severe food shortages in my world.”
The mention of Jason's world arrested Liara's retort. On top of ordinary curiosity, whatever Jason had been involved in during his time away was clearly impacting events on his return. She knew that Soramir would not want her to miss any chance to learn more.
“Why were there food shortages?”
“I was looking at hosting a dinner party where we could talk all about my time away,” Jason said. “I can’t very well do that until I get a handle on the local ingredients, though. My cheese enchiladas went a bit wrong and they should have been nice and simple. But if I shouldn’t be wasting my time on that kind of thing, I guess it’ll have to wait.”
She gave him a thin-lipped smile.
“You’re very good at finding where to stick the dagger, aren’t you, Mr Asano?”
"I've found that I need to be, Princess. I was getting ready to come see you when I got your message, by the way. I thought I might be able to help with your interrogation of the Purity loyalists.”
“We will call on you at need. It’s too early to put you in a room with them.”
“You’re not torturing them, are you?”
“Torture is unreliable. Other methods take longer, but get to the actual truth.”
“We use alchemical methods and ritual magic to induce a trance-like state where they are more open to suggestion. It still takes time and care to get past wilful resistance, especially with zealots. It's a delicate process, which means no amateurs bumbling around. We'll only need you once we have what we want from trance interrogation and we're back to questioning them in their right minds.”
“You don’t get everything from this truth-hypnosis thing you’ve got going on?”
“The trance state is good for details, but not for interpretation. For that, it's just ordinary interrogation, which the trance questioning helps prepare for. That's when we can use you; to change things up. Unbalance them."
“I’m not looking to step on anyone’s toes,” Jason said. “Just let me know when you need me. I do have some information that I thought might be helpful, though.”
“Then please share.”
Liara gestured to a seat opposite her desk and Jason sat.
“I was just checking my own records about the restrictions the Builder was placed under in terms of having me killed off.”
“You have records?”
“A crystal recording left by a benefactor.”
“I don’t suppose…?”
“Worth a try. Checking the details is a good idea, though, and I appreciate it. There has been an order of the Purity church in this region for many years, but knowing everything we can about why your presence has made them active will no doubt be helpful.”
“That’s the thing,” Jason said. “I don’t think I am the reason they’re active. I know it seems like everything is about me, but that’s just a trap people fall into because of my wild charisma, rakish charm and dashing good looks.”
Liara gave him a flat look and he flashed an impish grin.
“I think when you leaked the information about my delivery run,” he continued, “I was just a target of opportunity. I think Purity’s henchfolk are up to something bigger than just handling me.”
“Why is that?”
“One of the requirements that have to be met before the Builder’s lackeys can come after me is that I have to interfere in their affairs before they’re allowed to take their shot.”
Liara leaned back in her chair, tapping her chin thoughtfully.
“But they ambushed you. Is it that they’re Purity followers and not the Builder’s own people, so the restrictions are lesser?”
“I don’t think the person that set the terms would leave that big a loophole. Otherwise, he'd just throw a squillion bucks at some gold-ranker with no scruples to come and off me. And you were there. The Purity people made a point of how they were adhering to the stipulations."
“They did,” Liara said, tapping her chin thoughtfully. “But they didn’t mention anything about this interference clause.”
“Exactly, which is why I went and double-checked. I think they were able to come after me because I was interfering with their business.”
“You were on a delivery contract. How is that interfering in their business?”
“There’s been some attrition with the adventurers on supply contracts, right? The non-guild adventurers are competitive, but they also look out for one another. I’m new at this and I’ve already heard the talk.”
“Everything is stretched thin,” Liara said. “People, assets, resources. We’ve been in a state of semi-readiness for so long that it’s all strained. Plus, this monster surge is already showing itself to be heavier than normal. The whole region will usually see one, maybe two diamond-rank monsters in an entire surge. The first week we had one attack Rimaros and another to the south, just inland of the Storm Kingdom’s borders.”
“I thought the same thing,” Jason said. “Not enough people, too much danger. But what if that’s not all there is? What if Purity is using the fact that things are slipping through the cracks to enact some plot? If they were already intercepting adventurers on delivery contracts, then ambushing me wasn’t a violation of the restrictions. It was me getting involved in what they were already up to.”
Liara frowned and Jason waited in silence while she considered what he’d told her. Then she opened a drawer in her desk and took out a file, setting it in front of Jason.
“Your team,” she said, “is apparently just as good at locating themselves in the middle of a huge mess as you. They also had a run-in with the Purity church.”
Jason took the file and started reading it over while Liara waited. He finished, setting the file back on the desk.
“Messengers, outworlders… the Adventure Society is going to want me to go there.”
“The Adventure Society branches in Vitesse and Cyrion have already requested you be sent, yes,” Liara said. “The Adventure Society Director here has declined, instead requesting that your team be brought to you. Along with Miss Hurin's parents, as a courtesy.”
“Why bring all them here when events are taking place there? Please tell me it isn’t just because of the politics.”
“His ancestral majesty feels that–”
“Are you talking about Soramir?”
“I am speaking of him, yes. With respect.”
"It's a funny thing, respect. It's a word that a lot of people – people on the higher end of the social strata – use because it sounds better than subservience. Even when you're talking about actual respect, why do you get to tell me what's respectful? I come from a whole other world and a much lower social class. In my culture, friendliness is respectful and being impersonal is cold and hostile. I get it; this is your town, so your rules. But if you and Soramir came to my town, would you follow my rules? My etiquette?”
“He is a diamond-ranker, Mr Asano. He was a king. The first king of this nation and founder of the Rimaros dynasty.”
“And I’m a child of farmers and immigrants. Does that make me any less worthy of respect? Anecdotal evidence says yes because your family has not treated me with respect. You've used me and exploited me. You act like Zara's actions were an embarrassment but you've treated me the exact same way she did, and at least she thought she wasn't hurting anyone. Your family dragged me into this, and what have you done since? Dangled me like a fish on a hook, leaving me oblivious. Calling me to heel? Telling me how to act and how to dress? I'm not your child, I'm not your dog and I'm not your bait, Princess.”
Jason stood up from his chair.
“Perhaps you should calm down, Mr Asano, before you say something you regret.”
“Remember that time you sold me out to the Purity church and I told you that I’d get some rest and then say something stupid? Well, this is it, Princess, so buckle in. What did I do to deserve the way I’ve been treated by you and yours? Not be powerful enough to tell you all to bugger off? I met one of you once, so now you get to own me? Unless I’m not making it clear, if I get one more of you royal pricks making off-hand comments about respect while showing me none at all, then you are going to find out exactly why there are diamond-rankers, gods and great astral beings on my big list of enemies, yet I’m still here. The Builder came for my soul, then he killed me, in person, but I’m still here and he’s still trying. You think I’m scared of royalty? You’ve got it arse-backwards, Princess. You should be scared of me.”
“You’re a silver ranker threatening one of the greatest powers in the world. You sound like a child throwing a tantrum. Is that how you think you’ll get respect?”
“I am a child, by your standards and I’m way past anticipating respect from the likes of you. Why would it suddenly start now? All I ever seem to deal with are people more powerful than me and I can count the ones who showed me respect without running out of fingers. Why are you the one asking for respect when I’m the one pulled into this mess by your family? All you’ve ever treated me as is a tool. A tool that you need to handle. Well, guess what, Princess? The handle on this tool just got very slippery, so you need to be careful next time you go to grab it.”
Liara didn't say anything, knowing it would just provoke another tirade. She waited in silence for his mood to calm as they stared at each other over the desk. There were undulations in his aura as it radiated pent-up fury. She could sense the festering nature of it, long-predating his arrival in Rimaros. She could tell that his eruption had been building up for some time and he needed to get it out. If anything, the release would make him easier to work with for having vented his frustration, so long as she let his outburst slide and didn't provoke him further.
“You’re right, Mr Asano. My family has not treated you with the respect due to an innocent person drawn into our problems through no fault of their own. I apologise for that. Perhaps, if you sit back down, we can discuss rectifying that.”
Jason stared at her a long time before retaking his seat.
"That… wasn't entirely directed at you," Jason said softly. "Don't get me wrong; some of it definitely was, but that ship had a lot of momentum. You just happened to be in the way."
“I don’t know what you’ve been through, Mr Asano. You do deserve respect, if for no better reason than I’m certain that one day you are going to be gold rank, perhaps even diamond. His ancestral… Soramir believes that you have spent your entire adventuring career up against forces that you have no business facing, but perhaps had no choice but to face. I don’t know what he saw in your aura because he does respect your privacy enough to not tell me.”
“But not enough to not take a look. Your family is just one more in a long line of enemies.”
“We aren’t your enemies, Mr Asano, and we don’t want to be.”
“You’re not the first enemy to tell me that. You’re not the first group to screw me over and then say ‘hey, that was just a few bad apples, not the whole organisation.’ Then they shaft me again. And again. It never goes quite the way they want and they always say the same thing, over and over. I know who you are. You're the reasonable person standing at the front while the people behind you sharpen their knives.”
“What can we do to earn your trust, Mr Asano?”
“Try a big wooden horse full of soldiers.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It means that it doesn’t matter what you do. Even if it’s an earnest gesture, all I’ll ever see is another attempt to manipulate me. I’ve been burned too many times to find new people to trust. You want to do something for me, Princess, then do what Soramir said he would in the first place. Bring the people I already trust to here or send me to them.”
“If you want to go to Vitesse or Cyrion, you can. We’ll make that happen for you. But, as I was saying, his ancestral majesty believes that it’s better for you and us if you’re free and active. If you go, you’ll be put in a room with the Magic Society’s astral researchers and spend your days answering questions about outworlders. Danielle Geller has already snatched up the outworlders and spirited them off to one of the Geller estates, so her political capital is spent right now. She can't protect you from that. But here, you’ll be given the freedom to act.”
“Within the bounds set by your family.”
"My family rule this kingdom. What do you want, Asano? To be above the law?"
"The walls around me may be different from the ones around you, but they are no less real. Don't pretend you're too stupid to know that's true."
Jason nodded, acknowledging the point.
“You’re saying that if I leave the Storm Kingdom, I’ll still have powerful people jerking me around. But here I have some leverage because you need my active participation.”
“Exactly. If you can’t trust us, trust that we’ll act in our own best interests. Right now, our interests require your cooperation, not your capitulation.”
“And here I thought Vesper was the politically adroit one.”
“I was raised with the same tutoring she was. It’s just that she actually likes politics. I don’t like the compromises. I don’t like looking someone in the eye and telling them a lie that will hurt them. I like knowing who the bad people are and that it’s not me.”
Jason nodded again, and then spoke, his voice soft and gentle.
“It doesn’t feel good to be great at something you don’t want to do, but have to.”
“No, it doesn’t,” she agreed. “How about this, Mr Asano? I’ll try to do more asking and less telling. I’ll talk to Vesper, but no promises, there. It’s not much, but perhaps it can be a start. The first step on a path towards mutual respect.”
He tapped the file on the desk in front of him.
“I have questions.”
“You requested my team be sent here. Was that approved?”
“The request is pending. The actions of the Geller family have complicated things.”
“The outworlders. They’re all from my world?”
“That appears to be the case. They all seem to know you.”
“Do I know any of them?”
“I believe so. We’re trying to get a list of names to answer that exact question, but things are complicated with the Geller family placing them under protection. It seems there is some contention between your team and the Magic Society. The Gellers intervened to prevent the outworlders being used for research.”
“Good. I heard how the Magic Society treated one of my team members from Rufus Remore, although maybe the whole organisation isn’t so bad. Maybe it was just a few bad apples.”
“I suggest reaching out to the Geller family here in Rimaros. Perhaps they might provide a better line to the outworlders.”
“There are Gellers here in Rimaros?”
“There are Gellers everywhere, Mr Asano. You'd have to ask the church of Fertility about that.”