"You sure this is the place?" I ask The Voice as the SUV comes to a stop before a low rise residential complex.
Located in a cozy nook behind a row of stores in Six Trees District, the development comprises of a set of squat red brick apartment blocks that surround a void deck. The place is not serviced by the main road and to reach it, The Voice had to take the SUV down the maze of side streets. The residences and grounds are well maintained, but there is an overwhelming air of general grimness about the place. Much like a council estate back home.
"Yes." The Voice confirms, "It matches the address you had retrieved from the Registry. Why do you ask?"
"Celeste got into the Academy as a rich kid." I remark as I holster the revolver and baton underneath my trench coat, "This is not a place where a rich kid would stay."
The neighborhood isn't poor per se, and its certainly far from being a slum, but if I had money, I certainly wouldn't be staying here. Not much in the way of beautification and the design of the buildings are strictly functional, as if they had been built off a template. Most likely an affordable housing project for lower income residents of The City.
Which explains why the residents signed up to get the URI expanded to Six Trees. If the Host bought them out, the value the residents would get from the acquisition would make them rich overnight. The Matsuis and ORPO stood in the way of these guys becoming instant millionaires. Good thing I'm not wearing the ORPO uniform then. I would probably get mobbed and beaten to death if I was spotted here in that getup.
"Perhaps the servant's choice of residence is a matter of personal taste?" The Voice suggests, "There is a concept of certain people being born slaves by nature after all."
As I disembark from the SUV, I consider ragging on The Voice for being prejudiced, but then think better of it. Although I hate to admit it, The Voice is right. The Incarnates are literally born as slaves to Fate. The Hero and the Heroines are just the other side of the coin, born to serve The Voice.
"Must be nice to be the big gorilla," I grumble while checking my gear one more time, "manufacturing slaves for your own use."
The Voice snorts, "Heavy is the head that wears the crown, Transmigrator. With great power comes great responsibility. At the end of the day, the born slaves are the most fortunate of all."
"Are you for real?" I shoot back completely dumbfounded while disembarking from the SUV.
"Take the Incarnates for instance." The Voice warms to the topic, "They do not need to earn their powers as it is freely given to them at birth. Fate arranges a suitably prosperous lifestyle for them. No need to even think about their futures. How is such a life undesirable?"
"They're slaves." I point out, "The Incarnates are not free to do what they want. Remember Castiel? The moment he wanted to break with Fate's plan, the chain got yanked."
"As it should." The Voice rasps, "Castiel was happy to accept servitude when it suited him but chafed under it when it was no longer convenient. Freedom is not a fundamental right, Transmigrator. To be free would require you trampling over the freedom of someone else."
"That's nonsense. I don't accept that." I rebut, "Everyone should be free to be what they want."
The Voice laughs at my declaration, "I wonder how your co-workers back home would react to that statement. Whether they would allow you the freedom to be, as you say, what you want."
I chill runs up my spine as my mouth goes dry, "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Of course not." The Voice sniggers unpleasantly, "Though as a hypothetical, I daresay that most people would disagree that a middle manager has the 'freedom' to steal company secrets to barter a better future for himself."
"Look, things are more complicated than that, OK?" I hotly deny.
"Of course they are." The Voice replies, "Nevertheless, the point stands. You want to be free to be whatever you want, and you are willing to trample the freedom of others to achieve it."
I remain silent as I trudge up the pavement towards the residential blocks, my ears burning at The Voice's sarcasm.
"I do what I need to do. Period." I say with a tone of finality. How did this become a discussion about me anyway?
"This is not meant as a critique of you." The Voice says, "As the people in your world would say, freedom is not free. Still, there are ways to make it more affordable."
"Which are?" I huff in annoyance.
"Getting someone else to foot the bill." The Voice concludes smugly.
Like any council estate, the void deck before me is home to several idle men and women. But what you don't see at home are the idlers dressed up in cosplay. Instead of lounging about, the idlers are assembled in parade formation kitted out in various mismatched outfits. Most of them are dressed in costumes that look more at home in a low budget school play. The wealthier looking ones wear renfaire style outfits that completely clash with their surroundings. And a few oddballs are standing at attention in worn out military uniform, most likely surplus.
Armor, in the loose sense of the word, is worn by the ragtag group over their bizarre outfits. Motorcycle helmets, football gear, wooden planks cut into slats, it all looks very ad hoc and DIY. The group turns to me with glazed eyes and one of the members, a young brat dressed like peter pan, marches towards me, the slats of his plywood armor clacking.
"Halt!" the brat says, one hand on the hilt of a machete tied to his belt and the other wrapped around a plastic trash can lid modified into a makeshift shield.
Something is wrong. These guys should be avoiding me. As my thoughts whirl, the brat continues flapping his gums.
"Stranger, what is your business in the Kingdom of Love?" the brat asks.
"Uh, Kingdom of what?" I answer, "Who are you anyway?"
"Kingdom of Love!" the brat continues, puffing his chest up, "We are the royal guard, protecting the kingdom. Now declare yourself!"
More like retard guard. I don't say that out loud of course.
"I'm just here to visit someone." I say and try to walk past the brat.
The brat nods, "I will take you to the Commander. He will decide what to do with you."
I don't have time for this shit. Mind blast.
Let me pass. Now.
My mental command slams into what feels like a brick wall and the brat's glazed eyes blink for a brief moment. But there's an invisible push back from deep within the brat's mind and my command is completely rejected. The backlash almost sends me reeling backwards and my eyes begin to water. Thankfully, the brat doesn't seem to notice what had happened and he continues leading me towards his ragtag group of weirdos.
A tall, slightly overweight man steps forward to meet us. Dressed in red suit one size too small for him, this so called Commander wears a ratty powdered wig on his head and has his face done up with garish make up. A bush hook rests against one shoulder like a musket and a pair of riding boots polished to the point of near distraction completes the ensemble.
"Greetings visitor!" the 'Commander' cheerfully says, "Sorry for the frosty welcome, but we have to be watchful of strangers these days. Too many dangers about."
"Commander, the stranger claims he is here to visit someone." the brat announces with a crisp salute and a stomp of the right foot.
That would look more impressive if you sent the military LARPers to meet me, instead of Peter Pan here, but never mind. I just nod in agreement and wait for the Commander to continue.
"Wonderful! Not an enemy then?" the Commander grins. Once more I nod in silence, bewildered by the spectacle before me. No questioning, no body search? You're a pretty shitty commander you know?
"What is going on here?" I finally ask, "What enemy are you talking about?"
"Of course! Introductions right?" the Commander says, slapping his forehead with his palm, "I am the Commander of the royal guard, at your service."
"Your name," I say, literally underlining the word with emphasis, "Please tell me your name, Commander."
"I am the Commander of the royal guard." the Commander repeats, a strained smile on his face.
"Uh, OK." I sigh, "And the enemy you're looking out for?"
"The enemy is the enemy of course!" the Commander happily responds. How totally unhelpful.
"Sure. Whatever you say." I mutter, "Can I go now? I just want to visit a friend."
"Naturally!" the Commander cheers, "All you need to do is prove you're not the enemy!"
"And how do I do that?" I query, a sinking feeling in my gut.
"The crossing of the customs!" the Commander pronounces jovially.
"The crossing of the customs!" peter pan repeats like a dumb muppet. The phrase is taken up by the entire retard guard until the void deck echoes with their voices.
"Raise your hand and swear!" the Commander continues, "Swear that you hold love as the highest virtue! Swear that you bring no evil to the Kingdom of Love!"
"Pardon?" I mumble while taking a step back. The unhinged enthusiasm of the Commander is really starting to unnerve me.
The Commander turns serious, "It is custom for visitors to obey the laws of the land they are visiting. You must perform the crossing before we can allow you to pass."
"Fine. Fine. Let's do this and get it over with." I grumble.
"Good." the Commander sighs with relief.
However just as I am about to begin the oath, I notice something just under the collar of the Commander's shirt. A single red thread, looped around his neck like a noose.
"Swear! Swear!" the Commander encourages, the red thread tightening savagely all the while. The Commander's eyes bug out from the pressure and his voice becomes shrill. His lips curl upwards, revealing the gums of his teeth. And all the while, he keeps repeating himself, urging me to swear the oath.
"Swear and be welcome to the Kingdom of Love!"