Jason took the sound recording crystal out of the projector, stopping the music. He then returned the projector to his inventory. Vesper stood on the other side of the large, wooden-floored room, looking slightly flushed. She stood with her back to him, looking out the window. They were in the lower-security area of the royal palace, close to the arrival lake, where minor affairs and less prominent guests were hosted.
“You can dance, I’ll give you that,” she said.
“I did tell you I’ve got the moves.”
“That thing you did, leading me with your aura. I’ve never seen aura control used like that.”
Jason walked across the room to stand next to her and looked out at the water. Boats shrouded in air bubbles were regularly surfacing, having risen to the sky island from the sea below.
“The trick is that it’s not just the aura,” he said. “It’s the music and how you lead with the body. Bring it all together and you can teach your partner a dance when they are already dancing it.”
“It’s delicate. Impressive.”
“That may be the first nice thing you’ve said about me.”
“I don’t hate you, Mr Asano. I hate the trouble you bring.”
Jason gave her a flat look.
“I know,” she said, not meeting his gaze. “We were the ones who brought you into this. But trouble clings to you like cat fur to a coat. You can’t deny that.”
“I’ve denied the Builder, Princess. I can deny you. Also, what do you know about coats? Who has a coat in the tropics?”
“Where did you learn to do that with your aura?” she asked, ignoring his question.
“As you’re aware, my aura is a little outside of the ordinary. I occasionally take the time to stop and rebuild my control techniques from the ground up, and one of those times I swapped aura control tips with a vampire.”
“His name’s Craig. He’s a friend.”
“Vampires should be killed on sight.”
“Not every vampire is a monster. Not in my world, anyway. Perhaps it’s the low magic that dampens their hunger and balances their minds, I don’t know.”
“Leaving vampires unchecked will cause grave problems down the line.”
“Oh, I’m aware. My friends from home brought word that as soon as I left, the vampires started a war.”
“Why would they wait until you leave?”
“Because people from my world have learned what it is to be my enemy, Princess.”
“This is not your world, Mr Asano.”
“I know. But my enemies here will learn too.”
She heard flint in his voice, reminding her of the cold, hard adventurer he had been on their expedition together. No one on their side had actually seen him fight, but the enemy survivors had been terrified of him. The Magic Society was still unsure what Jason had done to the member of their group who was still unconscious, weeks later. The church of the Healer said it was some kind of soul trauma and was sending a specialist. Anything that could be learned about how star seeds worked was a potential asset against the Builder.
Vesper took a note from her pocket and handed it to Jason.
“Go to that shop and buy the listed skill books,” she told him. “Once you’ve used them, we’ll go from there. Don’t just blindly think that what you learn from a skill book will be enough. I’ll work with you to integrate that knowledge. Make it your own.”
“I’m familiar with the process. It would be a little odd if I got to silver-rank without using my skill-book ability.”
“Using it and using it well are very different things.”
“True enough,” Jason acknowledged, tucking the note into his inventory. “Who am I going to run into this time? Another Irios? Some jealous admirer of Zara’s? The king?”
“I’ve already used that brush, Mr Asano. A good artist is versatile.”
Jason was about to leave when a system box popped up in front of him.
- Contact [Claire Adeah] has entered communication range.
- Contact [Rick Geller] has entered communication range.
- Contact [Hannah Adeah] has entered communication range.
- Contact [Dustin Kettering] has entered communication range.
Jason immediately sent a voice chat request.
- You have entered a voice chat with [Rick Geller].
“Jason?” Rick’s voice appeared in Jason’s head.
"G'day Rick," Jason responded mentally. “What are you doing in town?”
“What are you doing alive?”
“It turns out death isn’t for me. I gave it a couple of goes; did my due diligence, but nah. It turns out that coming back from the dead is kind of my thing.”
“Sounds like you haven’t changed.”
“You might be surprised,” Jason said.
"Really? If you're not standing next to some absurdly gorgeous woman right now, I might believe it."
Jason looked at Vesper, who was watching him and had realised something was happening.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Jason said.
“No? Cassandra Mercer? That silver-haired indenture? The damn Hurricane Princess? Is she why you’re in Rimaros?”
“Definitely not,” Jason said. “I arrived here when the monster surge started, that’s all. I’m just a no-name adventurer.”
“Where are you right now?” Rick asked.
“The royal palace.”
“Of course you are.”
“I assume you are too, since my chat isn’t blocked.”
“Just got here. I have to deliver an important report, but meet up after?”
“Absolutely. I’m here with a princess, so she can probably help me track you down.”
“Oh, come on, Jason.”
“I’ve told you before Rick: what I have can’t be taught.”
Jason and Vesper were walking down a long hallway. It was filled with portraits of men and women looking stern and regal, all with blue hair and the same circlet of gold set with a large sapphire. At the end of the hallway, it opened into a waiting room outside of some large impressive doors. The line of portraits ended opposite the doors with a picture of Soramir.
There was a palace official present, acting as escort for Rick Geller and his team, most of whom Jason had trained with in Greenstone. Aside from Rick, there were the elven sisters, Hannah and Claire. Dustin Kettering was a friend of Neil's, from their time suffering together in Thadwick Mercer's team. There was someone he didn’t recognise with them; a woman of the runic people with their iconic dark skin lit up with glowing, tattoo-like sigils.
“Jason,” Rick hissed. “What are you doing here?”
At the same time, the palace official was bowing to Vesper.
“Your Highness,” he greeted.
“G’day Rick. Ladies. Dustin. This is Vesper; she’s a local tour guide.”
The palace official flashed an unhappy expression at Jason but it smoothed as Vesper made a subtle, restraining gesture. Before anyone else could speak the doors were opened from the other side by another official.
“Princess Vesper, Richard Geller and Jason Asano. Please enter and stand before the king.”
The rest of Rick’s team stayed behind with the official that had already been with them as Vesper led Jason and Rick in following the official into the palace throne room. It was large and long, with a central carpet of rich blue running down to a raised throne. The ceiling was a massive skylight made up of irregular glass fragments, as if they’d been shattered. Each was tinted in shades of blue that varied ever so slightly from fragment to fragment. The result was that the room felt like it was underwater, washed in shifting blues. Jason craned his neck like a tourist, not hiding the degree to which he was impressed.
The vast chamber was all the more cavernous for only having a few people in it as the official led them towards the throne at the far end. Sitting on it was a man with blue hair wearing the simple gold circlet from all the portraits outside. Flanking him to one side was Soramir and the other was Zila Rimaros. Dawn was also present, standing off to the side from the throne.
When they reached the end of the hall, the official bowed and left via a discreet side door. Vesper and Rick both kneeled as the Storm King looked sternly at Jason.
“So,” he said. “You’re Asano.”
“And your Zara’s dad. G’day, Your Kingness.”
Next to Jason, Rick made a muffled noise. Soramir took on a wry smile while Dawn shook her head.
“Is it true that you once gave the Mirror King a speech on why you wouldn’t kneel?” the Storm King asked.
“I wouldn’t call it a speech,” Jason said. “We were just chatting. I have some strong feelings on mandatory demonstrations of respect.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“That being said, I’ll take a scuffed knee over a slit throat, so if you’re going to have me executed if I don’t kneel, I’d appreciate you letting me know so I can get to it.”
“I think we both know that moment has passed, Mr Asano. What will you do if I decide to have you executed for your insolence?”
“Die on my feet. I’ve done it before.”
“But can you again? Word is, you’re all out of resurrections.”
"You're listening to the Builder, now? That's not what I'd call a reputable source, Your Majesty."
The king stood up, took the three steps down from the throne and moved to stand in front of Jason. He was much taller, looking down as they met eye to eye.
"I can see why my daughter picked you," he said. "She has a penchant for reckless choices, and I imagine reckless choices would be the theme of your epitaph, if you'd ever stay dead."
"She picked me because I had the convenient double feature of being dead and on the far side of the world."
"My daughter might make a hash of the big choices, Mr Asano, but she's very good about the little ones. As you might expect, I had you looked into very thoroughly after she made her little mess."
"And you've been running around acting like a gold-ranker since you were iron. I'd wonder how you survived like that, but you didn't, did you? Why not act with a little decorum when meeting me?"
“Because you told me not to.”
“You can fit a lot of people in this room, but the only ones here are friends and family, and some of those friends are mine. You don’t have Dawn in this room if you’re genuinely looking for trouble. You chose intimate and wanted to see if I’d notice because you’re looking to take my measure. Plus, you’re Zara’s father.”
“That girl never does the things I tell her.”
“No, Your Majesty,” Jason said. “But I’ll bet she does the things you do.”
The king chuckled.
“You know, Soramir wants me to marry one of our impressive young women off to you.”
“I guessed as much. How do you feel about that?”
“That remains to be seen. Do you think you’re worthy of them?”
“No. But worthy isn’t what I’m looking for in a relationship.”
“And what are you looking for?”
“Nothing. I need to work on myself for a while.”
The king nodded.
“I have to say, Mr Asano, you’re exactly what I expected.”
Jason blinked in surprise.
“I don’t think anyone has ever said that to me before.”
The king chuckled again as he turned and wandered out of Jason’s personal space.
“Vesper, Young Master Geller, please rise.”
The people next to Jason got to their feet. Vesper was shooting daggers at Jason from the corner of her eye while Rick glanced at him with a familiar mix of apprehension and disbelief. The king turned back to the three with a warm expression.
“Vesper, we’ve had you doing a difficult job with difficult people under difficult circumstances. We’re very happy with the results, thus far. Please continue knowing that you have our full confidence.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
“And you, Young Master Geller. You’re a friend of Mr Asano?”
“We did some training together, Your Majesty.”
“And how was that?”
Rick looked unsure of himself for a moment before answering.
“Horrifying, Your Majesty.”
The king chuckled.
“Alright,” he said. "That's enough fun for me. Now there is the unfortunate matter at hand. You have a report to make, Young Master Geller."
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Then you have the floor.”
Rick nodded, pulling a crystal recording projector from his dimensional satchel. He set it on the floor, inserted a crystal and an image was projected into the room. At first, all it showed was a massive cloud of dust, moving through the desert. Based on the size of the visible landmarks, it was the size of a sandstorm. After a short time, something moved out of the dust, although it took time as the great moving thing threw up more dust as it went. Slowly they made out a shape so large it occupied the vast majority of the dust cloud.
“Are those buildings?” Zila asked. “This is one of the Builder’s dimensional cities?”
“It is,” Rick said. “This one is a ground city, but it moves. There appear to be thousands of thick legs underneath that move it forward along with some kind of traction system. You should have received reports when it started moving south several weeks ago.”
“We did,” Soramir said. Rick looked at him, his face seeming familiar, although he couldn’t sense an aura from the man. Then he realised he’s seen his face outside the throne room, in the very first portrait. Soramir had a wry smile at Rick’s expression. “Please continue, young man.”
“My team was one of many assigned as outriding scouts, maintaining a distant perimeter as the city moved south. It went through the arid lands and the Arkivahl Desert, which are sparsely populated. The City of Glass was thankfully not in its path. As it neared the coast and Storm Kingdom’s northern border, there were two cities in its path. Small ones, but heavily populated. Especially during a surge. Forces were mobilised to attack the city, but the attack failed. The city has two diamond-rank essence users and some kind of diamond rank flesh abomination. I haven’t seen it, but reports describe it as a dragon of flesh and steel. Not a match for a diamond-rank essence user, but a highly destructive threat.”
“What happened to the cities?” Jason asked.
“They have already fallen,” the king said, his earlier joviality gone. “We received word several days ago.”
“The assessment,” Rick said, “is that between the defences built into the city and its defenders, a minimum of four diamond-rankers will be required to successfully attack it. Five or more would be better.”
“We have one more diamond-ranker,” Zila said. “He is currently monitoring the underwater city already here in the kingdom, which is also on the move. We can only assume that it presents a level of danger equivalent to what was just described to us. The two cities are converging on the northern reaches of the kingdom. There are two more cities in the kingdom with diamond-rankers we can call on. That will be five. Enough for one of the Builder's cities. Maybe.”
“I don’t imagine that the Builder will be so kind as to leave us to one battle at a time,” the King said.
Soramir looked at Jason, then followed Jason’s gaze to Dawn, standing unobtrusively back from the others. She looked back at Jason.
“No,” she told him.