Out of the Ashes – Chapter 7

[A CLANSMAN CLAIMS TO HAVE KILLED ONE OF YOUR ORDER. WHAT WILL YOU DO?]

You look into his eyes and he stares back. Wariness flickers through his gaze for a moment and his hand twitches toward his belt, but you look deeper and see–

Revulsion. Rage. You should not exist, his gaze seems to say. You belong in hell, not on earth. And beneath that…

Sorrow. Pain. Loss.

“I’m sorry,” you say instinctively, and for a moment he looks surprised. Not the response he was expecting, you suppose. Anger, perhaps. Indignation or outrage, maybe. Not this. “It seems war has taken its toll on all of us. I would hear of your battle, if you are willing.”

There is a long moment of silence before he stares down at his boots. “It was not so glorious a deed,” he admits grudgingly.

“But it was done nonetheless,” you reply. “He had comrades. Friends, perhaps. Family. Knowing his fate will be good for them.”

“Will it truly?” The Plainsman looks up at you, a ragged edge in his voice.

“No,” you say. “But uncertainty is worse.”

“You may be right,” he says. “I will tell you–”

“It is time,” Ambassador Yesui cuts in as one of the courtiers beckons to her. “Come, Zhenjin.”

“–some other time, then.” The man – Zhenjin – bows to you and turns away, and you remember–

You remember wind howling across a cloud-darkened sea of dying grass. You remember the taste of tea, warm and rich – as foreign to you as kindness. You remember a father’s fondness, a warrior’s pride; a dying man’s resignation.

What a small world we live in, you think with a sigh. What a small, bloody, cruel world.

It’s not long before another courtier beckons to Lord Anselm. He steps forward, red coat swishing, and you and Adrian follow close behind.

~~
The palace doors swing open silently, several tons of perfectly-balanced steel pivoting on massive columns. You look around as you enter; the palace’s interior walls are painted to match the city at dusk – ten thousand buildings glowing by lamplight, roads and thoroughfares branching like the roots of some great tree.

A faux horizon calls to you in every direction, mist-shrouded peaks and moonlit lakes rendered with lifelike precision. As you look up, you see a night sky of black velvet studded with shining diamonds, each star a gleaming point of light in the darkness. And the floor–

The floor–

The floor is a painting of an underwater grotto filled with fantastic creatures and figures in bright finery, a riot of color captured in infinitesimal detail. You can’t help but wonder what kind of genius could have produced a work of such magnitude…

Then the figures move beneath you, a shoal of fish flickers by in an iridescent torrent, and you realize it’s real. A caldera filled with water, glass walls and ceiling cunningly placed for men and women to walk alongside the wonders of the sea…

The sheer cost of producing such a structure – acquiring the glass, setting it in place so snugly that not a drop of water could escape, capturing the aquarium’s inhabitants and keeping them fed…

Lord Anselm seems vaguely impressed, but Adrian is all but gaping at the sight. “It’s beautiful,” he whispers.

Lady Jin smiles at your expressions and steps forward, descending a great glass staircase mere feet from the entrance. “This way, Honored Guests,” she says, and you follow.

You’re surrounded by people when you step off the stairs – servants bearing platters, grave ministers in dark robes, scions of the Great Houses in fine silk seated at food-laden tables. A gilded dais sits at the far end of the hall, obscured by shimmering curtains.

The throne.

Soft strains of music mix with the hum of conversation as a herald glances down at his scroll.

“Ambassador Anselm of Imvarr,” he calls out. “Lady Jin Yuehai.” Every eye in the banquet hall turns to regard the four of you – a wave of polite applause washes across the room, nobles and ambassadors and ministers giving you their best courtly smiles.

You can’t help but remember your superior’s words: “He who smiles widest hides the sharpest knife…”

Lord Anselm grins then, his manner brisk and carefree. “Time to get down to business.”

~~

The Emperor is displeased. Influence rolls off him in waves, heating the surrounding air as you approach the dais. A mere suggestion of warmth soon turns into the relentless heat of the midday sun, but you ignore it.

You have been through worse.

Lord Anselm’s expression doesn’t change a whit as he strides through the furnace, but you spy a bead of moisture running down his forehead. Adrian and Lady Jin are not so lucky – the noblewoman’s face is flushed and drenched with sweat. Your colleague has it even worse, stumbling over his own feet and gasping for breath as he contends with smothering Influence.

First the torturer and now this, you think. Are all kings so desperate to prove their power?

The four of you stop at the base of the dais. Lady Jin falls to her knees, forehead to the ground, and the three of you take a knee beside her. “Long Live the Emperor,” the four you say in unison, but the suffocating presence does not recede.

Instead, there’s a rustle behind the curtains, and the Emperor of Reshan replies: “Welcome, ambassadors of Imvarr.”

Son of Heaven, Lord of Ten Thousand Years. The voice that emerges from the curtains is smooth and clear, but there is steel in it. This is the voice of absolute authority, every word bearing an almost unthinkable weight. “We are glad to have you in our courts. We trust our hospitality has been… sufficient?”

“Very much so, your Highness,” your superior replies, ignoring the scorching heat. “We have no complaints–”

Dark blood oozes from Adrian’s nostrils, and he pitches forward with an agonized groan. You catch him before he hits the ground, draping a protective cloak of Power over his form as concerned muttering breaks out amongst the onlookers, and anger rears its ugly head yet again.

“Your Highness,” you say quietly; Lord Anselm winces but doesn’t intervene. “Don’t you think it’s a little warm in here?”

The heat doubles in intensity as the Emperor brings the full weight of his Influence down, but you stand firm. “Offer the Reshanese all the respect they are due,” you remember Lord Anselm saying, “but accept no insult. We are here as equals.” You envelop your companions in an aegis of Power, turning the worst of the magic aside, but it will not hold forever–

Then the murderous heat dissipates, and the Son of Heaven laughs long and loud. “Our presence tends to overpower those of… lesser strength,” he says. “We will keep your companions’ frailty in mind, next we meet.”

“Thank you, your Highness,” you say.

“Of course,” he replies. “Rise, then, and enjoy the festivities.”

~~

The four of you get to your feet and retreat into the crowd. The dignitaries give you a wide berth, not wishing to risk the Emperor’s displeasure, and you take a seat at one of the tables. Adrian collapses into a chair and lays his head on the wood, eyes closed.

“That was close,” Lord Anselm says. “I know I told you not to take any insult lying down, but…”

“I think my life just flashed past my eyes,” Lady Jin murmurs, snagging a glass of wine from a passing servant’s tray and downing it in a single gulp. “Please never do that again.”

You lower your head. “I apologize.” I was operating at peak capacity before we arrived in Reshan, you think. But now my judgement is lapsing. “It–”

Adrian cuts you off. “He’s so strong,” he groans. “God. I gave it everything I had, but he crushed me without even trying.”

“It will not happen again,” you say to nobody in particular.

~~

It’s not long before Lady Jin leads Lord Anselm away to confer with the Minister of Finance, an especially grave looking man in dark robes. You listen in on their conversation for a few moments, but it’s nothing but pleasantries and honeyed words.

“How are you feeling?” You ask Adrian after a moment.

“Like shit,” he says, giving you a wobbly grin. “But it’s getting better. Thanks for the help.”

“Think nothing of it,” you say, as a servant loads up your table with food – a rainbow of spiced meats and pickled fish and dozens of other dishes you cannot identify. “You should eat.”

“Maybe,” he replies, eyeing the luxurious spread. “There’s so much of it,” he says. “Where do I even start?”

“Wherever you like,” you say after a moment’s thought. “It’s not going to disappear.”

Adrian heaps his plate with a morsel from each dish before digging in, hesitantly at first and then with the haste of a starving man. You raise an eyebrow, and your colleague freezes with his chopsticks in his mouth when he finally notices. “Magic is hungry work,” he says defensively, and you can’t help but laugh…

Then you hear footsteps over the murmuring and music. You look up to see Ambassador Yesui approach your table cautiously, her bodyguards not far behind. “May I sit?” She asks in the language of her people.

“Please,” you reply in kind. “Lord Anselm is busy at the moment, but you are welcome to wait with us.” Adrian nods in agreement.

Yesui inclines her head and beckons to Zhenjin, and the two of them sit down. “You speak our tongue well,” she says after a short silence.

“You are too kind, Ambassador,” you reply. “How may I be of service?”

“Zhenjin is recollecting the tale he promised you,” she says, “and I simply wish to talk.”

“Ah,” you reply. “Did you have any particular topic in mind?”

“Well,” Yesui begins, “I cannot help but notice that Lord Anselm is thirty feet away from your person…”

“He is well-protected,” you reply. “No harm will befall him while I am alive.”

“You seem awfully confident in your abilities,” she goes on. “Defying the Emperor was counterproductive at best; suicidal at worst.”

“It had to be done,” you say, angling your head toward the Prime Minister. The delegates of Reshan’s conquered territories descend upon him in a gaggle of ostentation, bowing and scraping and proffering gifts. “Imvarr is no vassal state. We are equals.”

Yesui’s eyes gleam in the lamplight. “I suppose,” she murmurs with wry amusement. “They remind me of dogs, baring throat and belly for scraps from their master’s table.”

You shrug. “An obedient hound will always have food, warmth, and shelter.”

“You should know,” Yesui replies, but there is neither heat nor venom in her voice. “Have you ever been free to choose your own path, Knight?”

“Have you?” you ask in return. “A wolf chooses to hunt; a dog chooses to serve. But they are both slaves to hunger, are they not?”

“True,” Yesui says, and you see something that looks like respect in her eyes. “But a dog depends on the kindness of its master; a wolf depends on speed, cunning and the cooperation of its pack. They are beholden to none but their equals.”

“In the lean winter, a dog can count on its owner,” you counter. “But the wolf must find larger quarry or perish, and a bear – even tired from its long sleep – is no easy prey.”

“I cannot dispute that,” Yesui whispers, and for a moment you worry that you have gone too far. Then she smiles warmly and says: “But that is why I am here, yes? Perhaps the time has come for the wolf to find a master.”

~~

WHAT IS YOUR REPLY?
1. [Critical. “For all your talk about freedom, it seems you are more dog than wolf.”]
2. [Neutral. “Perhaps. Good luck, Ambassador – you’ll need it.”]
3. [Supportive. “There is no shame in survival. I wish you all the best, Ambassador.”]

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