Alasvir, or the Floating City as it was popularly known, did not believe in the superiority of one person above all others. Or rather, that was what its staunchest supporters would say. The reality was a bit simpler than that — and much less idealistic.
The truth was, the Floating City was a pot with too many fingers in it. There was nobody powerful enough, politically or otherwise, to call themselves its lord and master. Were anyone to try, the other major powers would simply form a coalition and put the hapless idiot into their place.
As such, the Floating City was ruled by a council made of its more powerful citizens, and representatives of the most influential groups. Adventurers, merchants, mages — even the temples had a few seats.
And so, the council found itself hastily assembled on what should have been ordinary day, with a single, shocking item on its agenda.
“He must be expelled from the city at once!” a tall man, with tan skin and slanted eyes thundered, spit flying out of his mouth as he yelled his piece for what must have been the millionth time in the last ten minutes.
A priest, by the looks of his garb — and by the irritating self-righteousness that he was currently demonstrating. His name was… Joe, maybe? Joseph? Jaime? Raina couldn’t recall — not that she’d ever bothered to learn the names of her fellow councilors. Most of them were little more than insects to her. And like any insects, they brought along their horrible, endless buzzing.
She had been done with his tantrum one minute in, and the only reason she was still toying with the knife in her hand instead of embedding it in his skull was that she’d have to deal with the political fallout of such a move — and that was much, much too bothersome. And so, the annoying worm lived for another day.
“He hasn’t broken any laws,” a woman said, her face severe. This one Raina knew, and knew well — the short-cropped hair of the Captain of the Guard was hard to forget. Now, Petra Allevia was a woman who Raina absolutely loved — she didn’t have a pinky’s worth of politician in her, and no patience for political maneuvering in general. Often a spoilsport, by Raina’s reckoning, but at least one she could respect.
“No mortal laws, perhaps! But his transgressions against the gods are crime enough — either the Dark Lord is expelled from the city, or all of the faithful will be summoned to kick him out ourselves,” Joe said as he spluttered in outrage. His face had turned to a very tomato-like shade of red, and Raina’s urge to see it pop grew by the moment.
“Ah, yes, transgressions against the gods. That’s part of the Alasviran Criminal Code, chapter — oh wait, no, it’s not. How odd. It’s almost as if this city doesn’t have laws against heresy, now isn’t that weird?” a new voice quipped, and Raina wished she had some snacks to munch on. Archmage Vidrin did not attend council meetings very often, but every time he did, it was a treat.
“Don’t play coy, Vidrin,” Joe said. “You don’t want to be branded a heretic, now, do you?”
“Oh no, I’m trembling in my boots,” Vidrin shot back. “The Temples’ little cast-off will call me a bad man. What ever will I do?” His voice quivered theatrically, but the grin on his face told another story.
“Please refrain from threatening members of the council,” Petra said, frowning at Joe. “And please do not mock your fellow councilpeople,” she said towards Vidrin.
Vidrin raised his hands. “Consider me chastised. I did not mean to make light of Prelate Jeun’s—” Raina still thought he looked more like a Joe “—tenuous status.” He blinked several times, frowning, then tilted his head in faux confusion. “Why is he even on this council? I could have sworn he wasn’t, last time I attended. The temples have barely any pull here.”
“Because they threatened to make the faithful boycott all of our trade,” a short, redheaded woman said, but she couldn’t hide the humor in her voice. “You’d have known if you showed your face here more than every once in a blue moon.” The dwarf, Elspeth, was the current president of the Merchants’ Guild, and another one of Raina’s favorite councilors. Oh, if only all of them were like these three…
“And you’d do well to remember that,” Jeun said, face twisted into a self-important smirk. Someone really needed to stick a dagger in that man, Raina thought.
Suddenly, the man paled, and Petra gave Raina a concerned glance.
“Miss Raina?” she asked hesitantly.
Raina blinked, confused, then she connected the dots several seconds later. “Oops,” she said sheepishly. “Did I say that out loud?”
“You did,” Petra nodded, completely deadpan.
Raina shrugged. “Well, I’m not taking it back. Someone needs to stick that guy. Could even be me. I’ll offer a discount if anyone wants to hire me.” She wouldn’t have been surprised if Captain Allevia herself hired her for this.
Jeun spluttered in outrage, yelling things about heretics, and punishment, and divine wrath, but Raina tuned him out. Instead, she focused on the rest of the room’s reactions. Of the twenty-odd councilors, only a dozen were present, and most have already had a turn at trying to pacify the irate priest.
Because the Floating City was already being pulled in many different directions by the councilors, and there was no room for gods in that equation. That the temples’ had a seat on the council was already a reach, given how the city had distanced itself from anything having to do with religion.
That wasn’t to say Jeun was alone in wanting the Dark Lord out of the city — in fact, the opinions were mixed. While some, like Captain Allevia, were of the opinion that since the Dark Lord hadn’t actually broken any Alasvirian laws, there was no reason to kick him out, there were many who wanted him gone — either for religious reasons, or simply because of pragmatism.
Similarly, Raina wanted him to stick around, if only because of all the drama he’d brought with him. He’d only been on the island for less than a day, and the council was already the most entertaining it had ever been. What even would happen given more time?
Of course, the fact that she knew the Dark Lord — no, Jules — personally had no bearing on her opinion. None whatsoever.
So Raina scanned the room, her face a pleasant smile, as if she hadn’t just threatened to murder a sitting councilor in front of his face. She was surprised to see more than a few thoughtful faces — even among those who supported Jeun’s stance. The annoying little rat must have gotten to them too.
“Miss Raina, please,” Petra said, her voice pained, and Raina realized she’d said the last thought out loud, again.
Raina gave the other woman a tight smile and mimed sewing her own mouth shut. At the same time, Jeun’s tirade seemed to come to a halt, as the red-faced — almost like a volcano, now — priest stood up and marched out of the room.
The sound of the door being slammed echoed through the council room, and silence reigned for a few seconds after — and then, a councilor who’d been quiet until now cleared her voice, prompting all eyes to focus on her.
“As much as I loathe to admit it, Prelate Jeun has a point,” the woman said. There was nobody on the council younger than fifty, and while most of those present showed their age, Feodrin was one of the handful who did not. As one of the five Archmages on the council, she was one of the more influential voices among them. After all, at six centuries of age, she was older than all but one of her peers, and yet like all those who practiced magic, she looked no older than she’d been sometime in her late twenties. Her eyes, though, told of a different tale, and
“We invite disaster by hosting the Dark Lord in our city,” Feodrin continued speaking slowly, enunciating each word clearly, as if she was dictating to a class of particularly slow students.
“If they cared that much about him, they’d have smitten him already,” Vidrin said, waving a hand dismissively.
“You know well enough that they do not act directly. They send us their Heroes, but it is our duty to repel him, even so,” Feodrin said, staring pointedly at the much younger Vidrin.
“I know nothing of the sort. Didn’t the Rhinians make quick work of his army, anyway? Clearly, he’s no threat.”
A susurration passed through the council chamber as those assembled discussed the facts in quiet tones — and Feodrin must have realized the other Archmage’s words were swaying the council in his favor, as she closed her eyes with a pained expression. She opened her mouth, ready to speak, when another voice pierced through the whispers.
“It would be disingenuous to not consider him a threat. He might have failed against Rhinia, but he’s still one of our peers,” the last of the Archmagi in the room spoke. Beorn. Raina’s eyebrows shot up in surprise — the spellslingers rarely ever contributed to these meetings. And three of them in the same session? That was almost unheard of.
Vidrin snorted. “He’s not even a century old, is he? The Mages’ Guilds on the continent will give that title to anyone. That whelp, an Archmage? I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Beorn frowned, but didn’t contradict his colleague. There was a well-known rivalry between the Mages’ Guild on the continent and the one in the Archipelago — and the disdain the island mages held for their continental brethren was perhaps not unjustified.
Feodrin, however, decided to exploit the doubt Beorn had created. “Whether or not he deserves the title is not germane to this conversation. None of you here have lived through a Villain,” she said, sweeping the room with her gaze. Raina met her eyes, but just barely — the weight behind them could have crushed a lesser person. “I have. I’ve witnessed the rise of two Villain, and lost my family to the first. They all started small. They were all dismissed by rulers, considered too weak to pose a threat.” She paused, bringing her hands together. “They all choked on those words. Some of them even literally.”
More than a few councilors shivered as Feodrin pinned them each with her gaze again. Again, Raina resisted, but just barely.
“And yet,” Captain Petra Allevia said, rising from her seat and meeting Feodrin’s eyes, “he has not broken any of our laws. The gods do not rule here. If they want him, they can apply for extradition like anyone else.”
Gasps resounded through the chamber, along with a few accusations of blasphemy and heresy. Raina, too, couldn’t help but chuckle at Petra’s audacity — if a god descended down to the Floating City, Raina had no doubt Petra would be the first to try to fine them for unauthorized entry, champion of the letter of the law that she was.
“Well said,” Raina quipped, giving the other woman a playful salute.
Petra’s eyebrows shot up, but she tilted her head in acknowledgment. “Does anyone else have anything to add before we vote?” she asked, scanning the room from her place at the center. “No? Very well. All those in favor of expelling the Dark Lord from Alasvir, please raise your hands.”
Feodrin’s hand was the first to go up, followed swiftly by two more who were seated next to her — her faction, as it were. Two more stray hands went up on the other side of the chamber, but Vidrin, Beorn, Elspeth and Petra’s did not. Raina’s hand naturally remained down.
“Five in favor, of ten currently present. As the motion does not pass the threshold of half the votes plus one, the Dark Lord will not be expelled from Alasvir,” Petra concluded.
Raina smiled. That had been a close. If the priestling hadn’t left…
But he had, and Raina could congratulate herself on a job well done. Making her way out of the council building, she made a short gesture towards a distant rooftop as she walked briskly. A few breaths later, a figure stepped out of the shadows, falling in step.
“Guildmistress,” the shrouded man greeted with a slight bow.
Raina acknowledged him with a nod. “Did you find out where he’s staying?”
“Yes, guildmistress. An inn called the Cranky Kraken, down in the Docks District.”
“Ah, perfect,” she said. She was familiar with the inn — oddly enough, she’d killed more than one target in that very same place. “You’re dismissed.”
The figure bowed, and slunk back into the shadows as they passed by the next alleyway. Raina sped up her pace as she homed in on the Cranky Kraken — and for once, she wasn’t going there to kill someone.