Commander Ajax and I stepped into the great Senate debate room. A wide open central floor had low marble seating arranged around it, and the tall ceiling being held up by stone pillars gave enough air and light for the room to be bright and sunny.


The Senate wasn’t currently in session, but a few men in poofy, impractical togas were quietly discussing in groups in various parts of the room. A few of them looked towards us with a variety of expressions, our entrance being the newest, most interesting thing that was going on. Well-dressed servants in the cleanest, neatest tunics were gracefully moving throughout, carrying mugs of delicate wine and tasty finger foods on trays. Guards were on every entrance, and a few more circled the room, looking bored in their fancy ceremonial armor.


The emperor himself was sitting on a low, backless chair in the center of the Senate floor. In some ways, he was the lowest person in the room, but his sheer presence made it impossible to miss him. Without a word, the entire room revolved around him.


He wore a purple tunic, with golden threads for the stitching. A crown of gilded oak leaves formed a laurel that he casually wore on his salt-and-pepper hair. A powerful build spoke to the soldier and general he’d been.


“Ah! Commander Ajax! Sentinel Dawn! Welcome, welcome.” He gestured us over, and we approached.


When I’d met then-general Augustus on the front lines initially, he’d given off a tightly-wound impression. Focused. Determined.


There was still much of that there, but he seemed more relaxed. Easy-going. While I had no desire to be [Empress], my job as Sentinel showed that life got kinda easy at the top. Especially when I had lots of money to throw at problems.


Then again, there were stresses…


“Ajax! My old friend, did I hear right? You’ve gotten another grandson?” Emperor Augustus got up from his chair, opening his arms as if to hug Ajax. The two of them thumped each other on the back.


“I did! Two weeks ago, my son welcomed another member of the family. Named him Aulus!”


“Aulus! That’s fantastic. May Aion bless him with long life!”


“Here’s hoping!”


Ajax could’ve told me he was friends with the blasted emperor before we got here!


“Sentinel Dawn! It’s so nice to see you again! Why, it feels like just yesterday you were standing in my tent, getting loaded up with Arcanite. Then in the blink of an eye, Sentinel! One of the youngest in history, and the first woman! And look at your level. 512. We’re going to have to throw a Triumph for you, it’s scheduled for two weeks from now. I’ve gotten reports of your adventures, but that’s old hat. Tell me, how’s your brother Themis? Doing well with the guards?”


“Themis’s training is going well, yes!” I immediately found myself swept up by Augustus’s pace. Not wanting to be entirely outdone, I thought about it a moment, and recalled an old name.


“How’s your daughter, Cornelia? Still have that pink hair?”


The emperor didn’t seem fazed at all.


“Ha! Not anymore, thank goodness. She never mentioned knowing you, but she’s a social one alright. Got married a few months back! Wonderful lad.”


One of the advisors made a little cough in the background, and the jovial look on the emperor’s face faded.


“Ah, down to business I suppose.” He sat down on his chair. We weren’t offered one.


“This shimagu business. I’ve got the general report, but there’s nothing quite like getting the specifics directly from a scout, someone who was there in person.”


He held out a hand, and one of the advisors standing around him immediately slapped a scroll into it. He unrolled it, and quickly scanned over it.


“You reported that it only took a few hundred points of mana to kill a shimagu. Is this unique to your personal skillset and class, or is this standard for healers?”


“Other healers are capable of getting to the same level with proper education, skills, and images, but the education required could take a few years.”


I’d been prepared for questions about myself. Ajax and I had worked on it, and I was ready to answer his questions without revealing too much about my abilities.


“Excellent. The report seems to conflict with itself in a few places. In one section, you mention that the shimagu, or their hosts, don’t use skills. In another, they clearly are. With the ‘pillar attack’, ‘clouds of ash’, and a ‘canceler’. Can you clarify?”


“Yes. Predominantly, the shimagu and the hosts don’t seem to cooperate that much, or at the very least, trust between them is low. There were a number of shimagu with classes that suggested they were at least friendly with their host, however, class name alone isn’t a great determiner for interpersonal relationships. The three Classers named in the report were different. Incredibly high level, and working together. Given the average level of the typical shimagu citizen, compared to the levels of the Classers, and extrapolating slightly from Remus, I believe they were the shimagu elites. However, I don’t believe they were elites in the same way Sentinels are elites, simply… the best town guards there.”


That got the people listening muttering, while Augustus simply looked thoughtful.


“Over level 600… as a city guard?”


“What does that mean for their true elites?”


“Could she have gotten the level wrong?”


“On a kill notification? Unlikely.”


One hanging-on senator just couldn’t help himself, and sneered at me.


“What do you know about fighting, girl?


I didn’t look, but Augustus slowly turned to look at the senator, making him the spotlight of everyone in the room.


“When you have a quarter of Sentinel Dawn’s combat experience, you may return to the Senate. Until then, you are dismissed.”


“But-” The senator tried to protest, and Emperor Augustus jerked his head. Four of the Praetorian guards - dad wasn’t included, thank goodness - came over, and politely, but firmly, escorted him out.


Augustus leaned over to one of his advisors.


“Make sure he knows I’m serious about the combat experience. I don’t want to see him back in the senate, let alone voting, until he has it.”


The advisor nodded, and briskly walked off.


Oookayyy. I was no politician, and my social knowledge could fill a thimble, but that looked like a master stroke to my eyes. Get on my good side - because yeah, I was pretty happy he ejected the dude - flex his authority as the emperor, probably get rid of a political rival - did an emperor even have those? - and there were probably a dozen more subtle nuances that I was totally missing.


“Right. Commander Ajax, I believe you have a request?”


“Yes. With the looming threat of the shimagu, would like to requisition a number of army healers to be assigned to the Rangers. While initially it’ll be more expensive, we believe the costs will be recouped within a decade, as fatalities decrease. This will allow us to be more selective at Ranger Academy, permitting smaller class sizes, better Rangers, and critically, preserving experienced Rangers.”


Augustus held up his hand.


“Enough.” He ordered, and Ajax shut up. “Proposal.”


Ajax promptly handed over the scroll he’d prepared ahead of time to one of the advisors who shuffled forwards. I had no idea if him only letting Ajax briefly speak before requesting the proposal was good, or bad.


“Excellent. I should have an answer to you by the end of the week. Now, about the shimagu…”


Emperor Augustus had a lot of questions about them. Their cities. Defenses. Dinosaurs. Every bit of information he could possibly squeeze out of me, teasing out knowledge and details I didn’t even know I had. Questions on the Ranger’s capabilities, and how Ajax’s plan would interact with shimagu, were occasionally directed towards Ajax himself. All in all, a military-minded leader, which sent the occasional cold shivers down my spine.


I had thousands of years of history of how military dictatorships ended.


At last, his curiosity seemed to be sated.


“Thank you, Commander Ajax.”


Commander Ajax knew when he’d been dismissed. He saluted, then crisply turned and… went to mingle with the rest of the senators.


Right. I knew him as Commander Ajax, and he’d been here in that capacity. Fundamentally, he was a senator though, one of the two assigned to Ranger Command, and this, not Ranger HQ, was his home turf.


Augustus studied me for a moment, then got up.


“Walk with me.” Augustus’s tone brooked no doubt that I would follow his commands. I followed him, and a squad of guards fell in behind us. A subtle hand gesture from Augustus kept his advisors from following.


So much for a ‘private conversation.’ Yes, just me, the emperor, and a half-dozen of his closest guards.


“A little bird told me that you are capable of making a person young again.” He stated as a fact.


I’d wonder how it leaked, but nah. It was probably Ranger Command. One of the senators. Sad to know that I couldn’t totally trust my bosses.


I was already in the deep. Might as well see what he wanted.


“Correct. It’s a bit hit or miss at the moment on how well it works. Could reverse someone by only a few years, could reverse them all the way back to childhood. You know how inaccurate low level skills can be. There’s also the issue that you’ll end up cursed, and there’s no telling what it’ll be.”


“Interesting. I would like to see the skill for myself. Naturally, I would compensate you generously. A million rods, citizenship, and elevating your father to senator is my opening offer. I’d normally also offer a member of my family’s hand in marriage, but I understand that you lean more towards women.”


Well. To say I was thrown off balance would be putting it lightly.


I wasn’t just going to roll over and say yes, especially as he mentioned that was his opening offer. At the same time, an outright refusal would be a terrible idea.


Neptune’s words about trading the skill for the otherwise unobtainable came back to me. Which gave me an idea. Hopefully a good idea.


I suspected I had some bargaining chips here. I had something Emperor Augustus wanted, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted from Emperor Augustus. So… he wanted to make a deal, and I could probably push him a bit on it.


“Your offer is most interesting. I’ve got a bit of a funny story from my childhood.” I sort of sidetracked things, my thoughts racing as I tried to organize and collect them. “When I unlocked, my dad took me on a round through town. He had me meet with a dozen different people, all trying to show me how to get various skills.”


“A most wise man.” Augustus commented. “Every parent should strive to be as diligent, and to help their children reach their full potential.”


“One of the skills he tried to get me was [Bartering], given the amount of negotiations and purchases he anticipated I’d need to make in life.”


“A vital skill for the matriarch of any household.”


“For all his efforts, I was entirely unable to unlock the skill. We must’ve spent six months on it, before he eventually gave up.”


“That’s somewhat unusual.” I thought I might be testing the dude’s patience, and I had a healthy amount of fear for the power he wielded. He could possibly try to end me and my family with a word. So unfair. I cut straight to the chase.


“All this to say. You have the advantage of me, knowing what skill I have. I’d like the chance to consult with my merchant friends, Sentinel Night, and a few others, and have them advise me on the best deal I can make. I hope you understand.”


He gave me a rueful grin.


“Ah, you can’t blame me for trying. Of course, by all means, work out what you want, and come back to me. Thank you for your time, Dawn. I have a meeting with Senator Saturio now.”


With that, he made a sharp turn down a hallway, and left me standing there in the halls of the senate.


Well shit.


Was it just me, or had the emperor handed me a blank fucking check?


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