Morning came too soon. Over thirty years without coffee and I still miss it dearly. Not the taste, mind you, black coffee to me is basically a punishment game, but I ran on caffeine and I would take it however I could get it. On the other hand, unlike my previous life, I didn’t actually have to do much to get up. Aj and Sere more or less hauled my mostly asleep form over to help me bathe and then to help me dress.
I have to confess that when presented with the power and riches of an [Imperial Princess] I wasn’t the type of girl to live modestly. I somewhat felt bad about it, but on the other hand, I looked stunning. In particular, I had commissioned a few pieces of jewelry based on a certain theme: the ouroboros. I don’t actually remember much about the symbol, I just knew that was the name for the symbol of two snakes devouring each other’s tails.
I had a couple of bracelets like that, with the eyes of one snake being rubies and the eyes of the other snake being onyx. The dark onyx represented Podi and the rubies represented me, although after I had it made I started worrying about what Podi - or who or whatever had set this system up - got out of it from me. Considering that I didn’t really have a choice, I shelved that existential crisis for now and just enjoyed the bracelets.
They didn’t have anything like ouroboros in this world. Not that I had seen so far anyway, so it sparked something of a minor trend after I had it made. The poor reputation of snakes and the somewhat sinister look of the ouroboros stopped it from becoming very popular outside of certain [Priests] though. Which was fine by me, it allowed me to keep it to myself.
I wore a pure white linen dress - there really wasn’t any variety of clothing - but was practically draped in gold and jewels. I had gold bands woven into my hair again - that was simply a part of my daily routine - and reflected on the fact that gold was really damn heavy. I suppose it was easier to keep in shape when I more or less had weights attached to all my limbs.
There were other pieces of my own design in my ensemble. In particular, anklets with small bells on them that would chime as I walked. I also had small bells woven into my hair and as earrings. This was, however, not a fashion choice but rather a practical point. My [Muse] Class was geared towards combining forms of art and expression, and I had evolved it in part from my [Musician] Class that involved the use of instruments. I could hardly carry around a harp with me and I can’t sing and use a flute at the same time, but bells counted as an instrument and could be small enough to pass for simple decorations.
And of course, what was a dance? What was a song? Dancing, at the end of the day, was artistic movement. Who is to say that someone could not walk artfully? Who is to say I couldn’t treat walking and turning corners as a dance? And singing? Artful vocalizations. If I tried to tread the line between singing my works and speaking them, who is to say that my speech wasn’t a song?
I had little reason to use my Skills before now. What need have I to use [Imperial Decree] or [Inspiring Voice]? Even if someone was rude to me, in the end they would have to give me what I want. Such was the nature of power, those beneath me had no choice and no recourse save an appeal to my family. Anyways, showing off my Skills would just make my siblings more wary of me.
Now though, I had work to do. Once I was sufficiently awake, I was guided to breakfast with the [Governor]. My bells rang with every step and my Skills were perpetually active. If I had brought attendants of sufficient rank, I might have been having this meal with his family as well. As it was, as a point of etiquette to make sure I did not feel outnumbered or threatened, the [Governor] and I ate alone together. The table set by the [Servants] showed off the wealth of Al’a’xeria, the strength of its trade, and the bounty of its location. Sea caught fish brought fresh from the harbor, fruits from the orchards that were watered by the delta, wine from the lands across the small sea.
I would have enjoyed it much more if there was not business to discuss, but needs must.
“[Governor], while I will deny this if I am ever asked, I do apologize for last night.” I opened, knowing that a good relationship with the [Governor] would make my life far easier. “As you well know from our former meetings and my reputation, I do not care much for propriety or slights. I prefer to be relaxed and casual with those around me whenever I can, and from that I am sure you can understand that this is a time when I can’t.”
“You need not apologize to me Princess,” the [Governor] bows his head slightly. “I was in the wrong, but I will accept your apology and thank you for offering it. From our… Conversation, last night I am quite interested to hear what you have to say.”
I gave a bright smile at that, leaning forward in a way that just so happened to cause the bells in my hair to chime. It should be easy to sell this Amalek, given the gains he stood to make.
“I am sure you have heard of my arguments for peace with the Hin’Tye Empire,” I took a sip of wine, letting him speculate for a few seconds with just that piece of information before going on. “My Great Father has agreed, may he reign in the sun’s glory. As the [Governor] of a port city, as a [Governor] of THE port city at the entrance to Sharon’An, I don’t think I have to tell you what that might mean.”
I could practically see the greed in his eyes. A real peace with the Hin’Tyes? Trade would increase massively between our empires. Goods that we have never seen before will flow through Al’a’xeria and Almalek will be able to pocket a slice of all of it.
It was certainly true that trade between Ra’Sharon and the Hin’Tye did occur already. If we were honest, and the Royal family would never be on this, we depended on the Hin’Tye. The southern reaches of our empire were thick with gold and copper, but tin? Not a single source in our entire empire. Obviously, you can’t have bronze - an alloy of tin and copper - without tin and that meant trade, and all of our tools for farming and building were made of bronze. There was a bit of a catch though.
See, our weapons were made of bronze as well, and there was friction on our border with the Hin’Tyes. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that our supply of tin was choked, we would lose the ability to repair or make weapons. We would be fighting with stone against armies of metal, and our armies would have trouble feeding themselves as we suddenly had trouble finding tools for our farmers.
We could always trade through the civilization to the north. The fortress palaces across the sea were epicenters of commerce and industry, but that was ultimately a lot more distance to go and far more costly. Consistent direct trade would be far better for our pocketbooks, and there were a number of goods that were difficult to get secondhand. Like monster parts harvested from the Chasms of Hell.
“And he has sent me to prepare the way for the [First Prince] of the Hin’Tyes who will be visiting the capital Kaire itself.” I continued, “I hope, in view of the profits our empire stands to make, that we can put last night behind us and look towards the future together.”
[Governor] Almalek snapped out of whatever daydream of wealth he was having, suspicion entering his eyes. The problem for him was that it sounded too good to be true. The fact that I had not been involved in politics before did not change the fact that I was an [Imperial Princess] and that my Class was known for its plots and intrigues. I had just given him a glimpse of a huge pile of gold, and now he was wandering around it wondering what devious trap would spring when he reached his hand out to take it. Now to show him just a hint of a dagger.
“I was thinking that Al’a’xeria would be host to a free trade district in the harbor,” I said as I leaned back, my bells chiming again. “Administered and garrisoned by Imperial troops from Kaire to guarantee your safety of course. A special tax free zone to facilitate trade between our empires, I think offering such a deal to the Hin’Tyes will be a wonderful gift and sign of our goodwill, no?”
Where of course, Almalek would only get the barest scraps from the trade that would go on. Oh, it would still be even more wealth in his pocket, but it wouldn’t be but the smallest fraction of what he could have gotten and now that he had seen the jackpot, he didn’t want to settle for the chump change. It might seem odd to be essentially threatening someone who I wanted to work with me of their own will, but it was all part of the game. I had to have a knife to his throat in order for him to feel safe. Because if he could see the knife and bribe me to take it away, he wouldn’t have to worry about a knife in the back in the dark.
“Unrelatedly, you know how much I try to avoid the politics of the court,” I say with an obviously fake sigh of regret. “Unfortunately, I worry that some of my more principled arguments may have ruffled the feathers of a few of my siblings. I was thinking that there might be a space in the delta where I could take a long vacation from the court in the luxury of these green lands. You wouldn’t happen to know a place like that, would you?”
And finally, the bribe he could offer me to pull the knife away. A way out of the bloodbath the court would erupt into as my Father aged. Retiring to a countryside villa here in the delta would be viewed as my “surrender” in this situation. My siblings would view this peace treaty as my move for power - which I suppose it could have been if I had secured support from the Hin’Tyes - and they would view this villa, which would put me squarely under the influence of my eldest brother, as an admission that I had overstepped myself and removed myself from power.
[Governor] Almalek smiled, raising his cup to me as he said, “I actually know quite a few places that you might find particularly pleasing. Truly, the Sharon’An Delta is a place of wonder, as close to paradise as the gods will allow.”
“Oh, but that raises a bit of a problem,” I say in fake surprise at a fake realisation. “A free trade zone would be a magnet for pirates, and as an [Imperial Princess] I cannot be exposed to such barbarism. I suppose that I will have to propose the free trade zone after my vacation is over.”
Translated out of political side speak, I had basically said: “Put me up in a nice villa somewhere and that free trade zone will never happen.”
“True, the Flower of Sharon’An could never be exposed to such a thing,” his smile widened. “It is a shame, but after this, who would blame you for a vacation? A little delay won’t matter at all.”
“Indeed, I am glad to have found an understanding man like yourself [Governor] Almalek,” I said with the chime of bells. “Now, let us discuss how we can make this happen.”
I had learned two things after finishing breakfast and beginning to plan with Almalek. First, he let out a few hints that my eldest brother had put him up to his show last night as a way to gauge my plans. In return, I intimated that I welcomed him passing the information on to my brother. If I played my cards right, my eldest brother would help keep me safe with the presumption that he had me in his back pocket if he needed me. I can’t really see a reason why he would, but if he did, I was there.
The second thing I learned was something I had known all the way back in my first life. But there is a difference between learning something in a textbook and experiencing it, worlds of difference in fact. I am being punny to prevent myself from shredding these very valuable maps to pieces, because they were less an accurate representation of the area and more of a vague set of guidelines.
I had imagined, in the back of my head, that Classes and Skills would make up for the lack of technology in this sector. I was very wrong. Being a [Mapmaker] or a [Cartographer] helped you make maps, sure. But they actually had to go to the places and travel to make the maps, and between the desert and monsters that wasn’t as easy as it sounded at first.
Regardless, with the [Governor’s] backing, I had the resources I needed for the journey. Of course, the palace would reimburse him the cost of anything I needed but there were things that could not be purchased outright. Namely, the support of the [Governor’s] staff. Probably anyway, I haven’t actually tried bribing them, I would feel kind of awkward doing it. It was a lot less awkward taking a bribe than offering one, to me anyway.
I would be going out with a caravan, visiting the two towns between Al’a’xeria and the border fort and the border fort itself. It would be a week there and a week back, burning a third of my time away in the desert sun. Not to mention, I had to leave enough time to get back to the fort again to meet the [Prince], which was eight days from Kaire. If I did my math right, despite my head spinning from the maps, I would have eighteen days in Kaire to arrange everything on that end. I had to hope that would be enough.
“And your [Messengers] can truly make the journey so fast?” I ask skeptically, as we talk about the supply plan. “I mean no offense, but surely they can’t be such high level as to make the entire journey in a mere two days.”
“Their levels are particularly high,” Almalek responded with pride. “Away from Sharon’An, messages can only travel by land, so they get plenty of practice. Additionally, for this I will have them supplied with stamina potions.”
“Truly? Are you not worried they will simply run away with them and sell them?” I was shocked, stamina potions are worth many times their weight in gold. The ingredients for them could not be grown in Ra’Sharon and they were supposedly very difficult to make. Trusting any single person, let alone one who could outrun anyone sent to pursue them, with such a treasure was madness.
“As much as I dislike the practice, I will have their families held hostage at the time,” Almalek replied calmly, inadvertently reminding me that there were few problems that couldn’t be solved by the application of violence and suffering. “If they do their job, they will be well paid for their work. If not…”
“Try not to choose any [Messengers] with marital problems,” I manage to joke, if barely. As long as the [Messengers] do their jobs, nothing bad will happen to anyone. “Still, before I leave from Al’a’xeria allow me to meet with them. I have some Skills which might help prevent any problems, although by the time the [Messengers] are traveling the effect will not be terribly great.”
“And, with so much depending on it, I would be amenable to loaning some of the army’s chariots to make certain everyone stays in line,” I finish, pained to say such a thing. I had originally planned to order some of our most powerful force, our [Charioteers], to be in the area as a deterrence to bandits. I would have to get Father’s permission, but a force of fifty was a paltry sum. If I asked nicely, he might give that much to me as a simple gift instead of a loan. However, the idea of them chasing down deserting [Messengers] was making me feel sick. Ideally, however, with all of that to keep people in line, none of it would actually have to be used.
“Princess, I hesitate to ask but have you ever travelled through the desert before?” Almalek asked rather hesitantly.
“Yes, but never a journey like this.” I answered, thinking of the uncomfortable “day trips” I had taken to various religious sites that were further away from Sharon’An. Why anyone would do anything away from the river, I could not fathom.
“Then you should take this,” he said, handing me a jar of something. “It will help prevent your skin from tanning and burning during your travels.”
“Thank you, you are most kind.” I accepted the… Sunscreen? Aj and Sere probably had some… Actually, the lotion they applied to me after the bath probably included this in it. It would explain a lot about why my skin was slightly lighter than most peasants. It wouldn’t do for them to realise that the blood of the gods could get burned by the representative of Emre after all!
I would not, of course, be using the [Governor’s] gift. For all I knew, it was an addictive drug of some kind. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had given a cosmetic gift with such a trap in it in the court, and I might work with Almalek, but I would never be able to completely trust him. He was the kind of man who would always want more insurance in addition to more wealth and power.
For now though, I was heading out into the desert to visit the villages on the way to the fort.
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