“Do you ever feel like you don’t measure up to being as important as you’re supposed to be?” Shayma asked Iniri. Since the Chiuxatli had showed up she’d taken to having meals with Iniri, which had also cheered Iniri up and gave Keri and Annit time to get acquainted with the Village.
“What do you mean?” Iniri cocked her head, setting down her teacup.
“Like when you’re on your throne being Queen Iniri. When I’m being Blue’s Voice, it’s like racing forward at a thousand miles an hour while balancing on a sword and I can’t show it. I love it, but does it ever feel normal?”
“I know what you mean,” Iniri admitted. “I don’t think it ever does feel normal, or that it should, though having proper trappings does help. The Palace is so obviously powerful and magical that it does half the work.”
“Yeah, Blue’s audience chamber is the same way. It’s just so clear that he’s powerful when you walk into it.”
“Oh, it absolutely is,” Iniri agreed. “But you know, it’s just not as impressive as the Caldera, or his [Contained Stars].”
“That is true…” Shayma said thoughtfully, the two of them sharing a glance before Shayma spoke again. “Blue, I think you need to upgrade your audience hall.”
“Oh? How so?” I took a moment to review their conversation, which I had only been paying partial attention to. In truth I was still getting used to having so many extra people wandering around inside my territory, especially now that I could understand them and they weren’t just color-flashing bird-people.
“It should be somewhere that has a full view of your Caldera, and uses your new Fields, like [Panopticon] and [Purgatory],” Iniri suggested.
“Hmm, yeah, that’s a really good point.” My old audience chamber reflected a version of me that didn’t even have Climates. I even had a perfect spot for it, one that was already obviously not part of the cliffs I’d given to the Chiuxatli: the summit site. It even had accommodations for Leviathans already, which my current one did not. “Thank you both! You’re absolutely right, I’ll work on it right now. Want to come watch?”
“Of course!” Shayma said. Iniri hesitated, then nodded. I teleported them both up to the summit, but out of the way of what I wanted to do.
First I swept the lake clear of the marble-type stone and considered exactly what I wanted. A view of the Caldera was a must, preferably from anywhere in the audience hall except maybe the petitioner’s dais itself, but I also wanted a bunch of interlinked Climates like near Ansae’s tower. Iniri’s suggestion reminded me that I wanted to have the effect of my pseudo-core hanging in endless nothingness. Putting [Panopticon] over everything wouldn’t be a problem, but satisfying my other criteria would be a little trickier.
Then I realized I was being stupid and there was no need for the entire approach to be in the same spot. I had portals, after all, and the final chamber could be anywhere. So, I just started landscaping the side of the terrace the lake was on, making a bunch of mini-terraces that I used for Climates. Very small ones, of course, since I didn’t want to sacrifice too much area to it, just enough to drive home what was going on.
I started with some small, smoldering cinder cones, some expanses of ice, desert, and forest, then blended them together, the various Climates mingling in strange ways. A thin arch went high above the entire Climate setup to hold one of my [Contained Stars] above it, and I cut a path straight through the middle with shallow stairs. I didn’t have much in the way of the same shock and awe for Leviathans, but I at least faced a good amount of the lakeside with quartz that I [Customized] to be transparent so they could see how high up they were.
The final approach for both air-breathers and Leviathans was blanketed in [Purgatory]. Above the water, they headed down through the Climates and out toward open air, so it was as if they were headed into a different world instead of off a cliff. For the Leviathans, it was a long tunnel heading upward until it faded into the moon pool surrounded by nothingness.
There were two chambers, since making faux cores was easy enough, and if other races appeared that needed different accommodations, I could make others. Both of them featured a glowing blue crystal with a platform for Shayma to stand or sit on, lording it above whomever thought they needed my attention. In truth it had hardly been used until recently but now that Tlulipechua was around it would be seeing more people.
Iniri and Shayma had suggestions throughout the process, like etching my fractals into the steps and using a very weak stellar-attuned [Greater Light] field to completely eliminate any shadows on the walkway. It wasn’t strictly necessary, but helped reinforce the otherness of the approach. Once it was finished they walked down the steps together, looking around at the Climates and the way [Purgatory] crept in.
“This certainly feels ominous,” Iniri said, walking on the thin strip of visible floor and mounting the dais. “It’s going to turn away a good number of people, so I think you could call it a success. I have one suggestion, and that’s to leave the original audience chamber in the path from the island. Just have them walk through it. You never want to throw away your history.”
“Oooh, true. I will do that.” Rewiring portals was easy enough, and while it did mean the Leviathans didn’t get to see the original audience chamber, I’d just have to live with it. I took away the pseudo-core and dais and put in an archway that led to the top of the new approach. “Done. Anything else?”
“Not at the moment.” Iniri said after a moment of thought. Shayma shook her head.
“Fantastic. Thank you for the ideas, I hadn’t really considered how outdated my audience chamber was.”
“We all know you tend to have other things on your mind,” Shayma said with a smile.
“Like you, for example.”
“Like me,” she agreed shamelessly.
“Anything else I’m forgetting to do while we’re at it?”
“There are still a few dungeon-wives down in Invin you haven’t interviewed yet,” Iniri said, though the reminder was more for Shayma than myself. “Though I understand you haven’t had much luck with them.”
“If it’s anything like the last few sets, I’ll have to bring at least one to Dreams-Ahead.” Shayma’s lips pressed tight together in displeasure. “I’m not sure what made Tor Kot select the women that he did, but some of them were obviously dosed with something stronger than dungeon food. As if the dungeon food wasn’t bad enough.”
“Yeah, some of the things the dungeon system can do are kind of scary.”
“Says the one who can literally move mountains,” Iniri pointed out with a hint of a smile.
“Well, that’s a point,” I conceded. “Sometimes it makes me a little uncomfortable to think about how much damage I could actually do if I tried.”
“Oh, I’m quite comfortable with it, so long as that damage is pointed at our enemies.” Iniri said. She had an excellent point. I was glad I had the ability to level mountains when our opponents had actual weaponized mountains flying about. Now, my audience hall should reflect that amount of power. Just in time too, because a few hours later there was a visitor. Uilei-nktik had returned.
I’d actually completely forgotten that he’d agreed to bring me some coral samples as well as a bunch of stuff for Ansae, but he clearly hadn’t. The Leviathan towed a number of wooden sphere behind him as he made his way up the canal, ranging from small enough to be handled by human-kin to large enough to hold a house. The same weird sizing effect seemed to apply to them as he made his way toward Meil, though it made me decide I had to expand the size of the canal. Or maybe just put a portal down near the Leviathans so they could reach me directly.
“Hey Ansae, I think Uilei is bringing some of your stuff. I can’t imagine everything he’s carrying is for me, at least.”
“Possibly some people as well,” Ansae agreed, lazily tracing glowing runes in the air. With her mana approaching ten thousand she’d started using it a touch more freely. She still had hardly anything in the tank, relatively, but in absolute terms it was more than enough so that a few points made little difference. “I actually expected him earlier.”
“Probably took a while to get everything together. He has a goodly amount of luggage.” The Leviathan construction was actually pretty fascinating. He carried the small stuff with his forward whiskers, using wooden rings integral to the wooden balls themselves, while the larger stuff was on actual chains attached to what seemed to be stud piercings in the enormous trailing tentacles. Each of the wooden balls seemed to be neutrally buoyant, and there was enough water Affinity mana around them to make me think they were enchanted for easy transport. They certainly seemed to stay out of the way of each other no matter how the tentacles or whiskers swayed.
It would have been nice if I could have put a sign of some sort up to show where my portal was versus the entrance to Meil’s moon pool, but Uilei-nktik was observant enough not to need any guidance. He just skirted around the Meil and Palace platforms and headed into the new audience chamber. By the time he reached it, Shayma was waiting.
“My greetings,” Uilei-nktik said after breaching the moon pool. The [Purgatory] field didn’t seem to impress him overmuch, but I wasn’t much worried about intimidating him. I’d already done that with my [Contained Star]. “I have returned with what I promised Blue and the Great Lady, as well as pertinent news.”
“Blue welcomes both your gifts and your news. Once you have delivered them, he will send you to The Silver Woe as soon as she is ready to see you.”
I thought that the coral sample he said he’d get me was going to be in one of the smaller spheres, but instead he lifted one of his massive tentacles out of the water and detached one of the house-sized containers, holding it out to Shayma. She pulled on my mana to support it with her domain, holding it suspending in midair as she reached out to touch it so I could pull it through inventory and put it somewhere. Her pocket storage wasn’t anywhere near big enough for that size item.
“The gift is both a sample of raw coral from our coral chasms, and various devices demonstrating what we can do with the coral. One will allow you to speak with the colony offshore, one will project an air bubble for whomever carries it, negating the pressure of the depths. There are a number of smaller trinkets I will not completely spoil, but they can do things such as play music or aid sleep.”
“Oh, neat, thanks!” It was like a Leviathan gift basket. Not that I could use anything there personally, but it would give Shayma extra things to put in her beach house.
“The news I have to deliver is that the Blighted Archipelago, where the mage-kings reside, has expanded. Many Leviathans decided to relocate rather than risk being near spreading depletion and have taken up residence on the seafloor near Tarnil. Some have discussed petitioning you for residence directly and, should that be the case, I will be their representative.”
“Ah, so that’s what that Leviathan caravan was! Go ahead and fill him in about our end of it while I think about Leviathan habitats,” I told Shayma. So long as there were only a few of them, I wasn’t averse to Leviathans lurking about. I’d need to make a bunch more [Abyssal Water] if I wanted to get the pressures right, but I did have a big lake in the Caldera they could inhabit. Maybe. They might want something more enclosed, which also wouldn’t be difficult but not nearly as cool.
Leviathan bioluminescence seemed to have a little bit in common with colortongue, because I got the impression that Uilei-nktik was impressed by both the information we had on mage-kings losing containment and on my adoption of several million Chiuxatli. Not that he’d been anything but respectful before, to be fair. He was basically my favorite visitor so far.
“It is good to know the Chiuxatli will still be nearby,” he said after Shayma had finished describing the situation. “They were honorable, if sometimes difficult, trading partners. We were grieved to see them leave when their own lands became Blighted, so to find they have found themselves a home with Blue is excellent news. Would you be willing to provide for resumed trade when they have established themselves?”
“I’ve been thinking I need to open up a portal or something down by the Leviathan outpost anyway. So yes. It’s not like I’m stopping them from doing any normal civilization things or even leaving the Caldera, so long as they fulfill my Bargain.”
“We would be most grateful for the consideration,” Uilei-nktik said after Shayma rephrased that for him. “Though I would suggest not treating with any Leviathan not of a Wayfarer Class for now. They would be unlikely to understand the protocols involved and may inadvertently give offense.” His phrasing was careful, but I got the idea. Non-diplomat Leviathans probably had as much social grace as dragons did and I didn’t really want to try and chastise a kilometer-long cuttlefish-squid-person. Especially if it were actually a kid.
“Right, I can handle ignoring random people, not a problem.” I switched over to Ansae, checking in before I did any actual teleporting. “Are you ready to see Uilei-nktik, Ansae?”
“Certainly,” she said, stretching in a decidedly catlike manner and yawning toothily. “Teleport him over at your leisure.” Since Uilei didn’t have anything more to tell us and he’d already handed over the package, I opened another portal to Ansae’s underwater audience chamber.
I actually couldn’t really follow most of what they discussed, since seaspeak was mostly subsonic thrumming with some bioluminescence thrown in, but Ansae was pretty obviously interested in the packages as she accepted each one in turn and shoved it back through the portal behind her into her own area. Beyond the package delivery, though, they didn’t seem to have much to talk about, and soon enough Uilei-nktik was on his way again.
He did stop by the Meil moon pool on the way out with one last package. I had to hastily inform Iniri of that since there weren’t yet any enchantments or pages stationed there to let her know there were visitors waiting. Still, I got word to her quickly enough that he didn’t have to wait long before Iniri and her Queensguard appeared.
“This device will allow you to contact the Ancient of the colony off of Tarnil’s coast,” he told her, passing a melon-sized wooden ball to one of Iniri’s guards. “If he wishes to talk to you, the coral will begin to glow. It’s quite unmistakable.”
“An honor,” Iniri said, completely sincerely. “Tarnil looks forward to working with Leviathans in the future.”
“As we do you,” Uilei-nktik said politely. “I look forward to strong ties with an ascendant Tarnil.” There were more diplomatic niceties, but I was distracted from them as Ansae called for my attention.
“Blue,” she said absently as she reformed herself into her classical dragon shape. “You should expect a Leviathan, a [High Priest of the Silver Temple], to arrive within the next week or so. I would appreciate it if you would let her through to me — and I will want to buy some [Abyssal Water] from you before then.”
“Sure thing,” I told her. “You’ll probably want deepwater chrystheniums too, since they help with pressure.”
“Yes,” Ansae replied. “Thank you, Blue.” She put her claw against one of the other house-sized balls of wood, and I was actually curious how to open it properly. It wasn’t obvious to me and while I could brute force mine I didn’t want to. The answer was simple and obvious and something I couldn’t do. Which it was. She simply ran mana into it, through some channels that were obvious in hindsight. The wood unfolded away from the contents, moving smoothly and silently to reveal what was within.
“This may be dramatic,” she warned me, looking down at the contents. There was a large apparatus holding two small rooms, clearly design to keep them level when bobbing around in the water. In each of the rooms was a number of supplies and a chair holding a very, very elderly wolf-kin man, both of them in the upper nineties with the class of [Wandering Knight of Solundon]. Despite their level they were clearly not in the best health, bent under the weight of sheer age. Ansae flicked a claw and the walls disappeared as well, startling the men out of sleep.
“Great Lady,” one of them wheezed out, and Ansae lowered her head, looking at them almost fondly.
“The last Heirs of Solundon,” she said softly. “I am here to relieve you of your burden.”
“My Great Lady,” rasped the other. “The Bargain is completed.” There was a bright flash of mana and he sagged back in his chair, his last breath rattling his throat as he closed his eyes and was gone.
“The Bargain is finally ended,” said the first wolf-kin, with that same flash of mana, and he, too, died instantly. Not just that, but their corpses seemed to age and desiccate even as I watched.
“They were kept alive long past mortal limits by the Bargain,” Ansae said, flicking her claws briefly. A pale white fire consumed the corpses, burning down until there was nothing left. “They could not die without breaking it or passing their experience onto me.”
“That’s damn impressive.” Admittedly, it didn’t look like they’d really enjoyed their artificially extended lifespan, but it was still a fascinating demonstration of what a Bargain could do. “So is the experience from two high fourth-tiers a lot?”
“Yes, but considering what I need to advance at all, it doesn’t do much for me.” She closed her eyes briefly. “It does fill in some of the time I’ve been away, though. Not on Orn, but it’s more than I knew before.”
“So not just level experience, but what they did all their lives?”
“Oh, yes. Seeing the decisions and choices and troubles of people firsthand is worth at least as much as whatever inroads they made on their mana density.” Ansae chuckled. “In that sense, very few people have anything useful to offer. I did get more from this Bargain the first few generations, but I’ll never turn down more insight into how people think.”
Ansae surprised me sometimes. Much of the time she was absolutely the arrogant dragon, egotistical and selfish. But she was actually humble in odd ways, like whenever she encountered something new and unexpected. I had to think that attitude was how she had lived so long; she actually was more knowledgeable and powerful than anyone else in the world, but she never assumed that meant she was all knowing or all powerful. It kept her from overextending herself — for the most part, anyway. The depletion numbers in her Status showed that she wasn’t entirely immune to the tendency.
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. The Bargain I made with the Chiuxatli kind of does the same thing.”
“It really is a fascinating Bargain. I’ve never really had the opportunity to see many up close that I didn’t offer myself. Nor have I seen anything that reacts to Bargains like that tree.”
“Yeah, it’s a little weird actually.” The [Tree of Eschaton] had actually grown once I made my Bargain with the Chiuxatli, the leaves acquiring the faintest hint of color so when the wind blew through them there was a shimmering like colortongue. It made me think the massive initial growth had something to do with reflecting Bargains already made or the like.
I left Ansae to open her own packages while I asked Shayma to open mine. Considering the size of it, and the contents, I’d put it next to her beach house, which really emphasized the scale of the thing. It was staggering to think that Uilei-nktik had carried something that weighed a couple tons without any apparent effort. True, someone like Giorn might be able to do the same thing but not on the scale of a kilometer-long sea creature.
Shayma put her hands on the wooden shell and after a moment figured out how to push mana into it. I watched the shell unfold again, since it was amazing to see it swivel and contort to turn into a much smaller ball next to the revealed frame. Presumably it could be redeployed somehow.
The frame itself was mostly taken up by an enormous lump of blue-green coral, brimming with impressive amounts of water, nature, and earth mana. It was slowly flowing, too, obviously indicating a living thing, rather than a simple piece of enchanted material. That, I displaced down to the bottom of my salt shore Climate before any harm could come to it from being out in the open.
I wasn’t entirely surprised when I didn’t unlock the ability to grow coral myself. I could infiltrate it, make it part of me, but only the exoskeletons. I could sense the actual creatures inside and it was actually rather weird. After a little consideration I pulled out of the coral, just making sure the bottom was rooted to the ground. Though it wasn’t like nearly a ton of coral was going to go anywhere. I would need to get Taelah to adapt it, though even with that it wasn’t like I’d be able to shape it quite as well as my plants.
The remainder of the frame was full of containers with various harvested corals. One of the containers held a chunk that looked identical to the one handed off to Iniri, and I filled Shayma in on what it was and how it worked. The music one looked like a cube with the top twisted halfway around, creating a smooth spiral from bottom to top, and played a rather haunting tune.
“That’s really neat. I mean, it’s probably not complicated but it’s still nice.”
“It is,” Shayma agreed, setting it aside as she went through other packages. “Just this wood stuff is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it!” She took a moment to play with one of the smaller spherical packages that had been nested inside the large one, expanding it into a full, hollow sphere from its small form.
“Trust the cat to be more interested in the box than the contents.”
“I am not a cat-kin!” Shayma scowled adorably. “I am a fox!”
“You say that, but I’m pretty sure I’ve made you purr.”
“That doesn’t count,” she said, blushing. “Anyway,” she continued, blatantly changing the subject. “I was just thinking these will make for great midwinter presents.”
“Oh? Is that soon? I guess it is snowing out in Tarnil…”
“In less than a month,” Shayma confirmed. That seemed about right. I was pretty sure that I’d appeared sometime in spring, but I hadn’t really paid too much attention to the calendar. It was hard to believe that it hadn’t even been a year yet, but the months had certainly been extraordinarily busy.
“I’ll have to figure out my own midwinter gifts!” Considering my Companions had free rein to take anything they needed, and I needed them to make anything advanced, it would be a challenge. That was assuming Powers actually could do midwinter gifts without invoking fate Affinity mana issues. I thought that didn’t really matter for my Companions, but it would leave out Ansae, which didn’t feel right. Then again, what could I get the dragon who had everything?
“It’s still fairly nice here in the Caldera though. Do you think I should match the weather here to the weather outside?” I asked Shayma, then widened my question to include Taelah since she was the one it would affect the most.
“Not this year, I think,” Taelah said. “We’ll want the extra time to build up our infrastructure and food stores. But perhaps next year a mild one would be nice.” Suddenly she laughed. “This is absurd, a farming community being able to ask for whatever weather they like. I’m certainly not going to complain, but it really drives home what an amazing place this is.”
“I think the Chiuxatli wouldn’t appreciate snow either,” Shayma added, clearly hearing Taelah’s reply over [Companion Concord]. “They’re still setting up their farms and ranches and building their houses.”
I wasn’t sure if I’d call the mostly fabric open-air dwellings the Chiuxatli were putting together houses exactly, but it was true only a fraction of them had been completed. The flying platforms that had towed so many of them were being cannibalized and tens of thousands of them were busily mining and tunneling to provide a steady stream of stone and metal, to say nothing of mass deforestation efforts.
Even with millions of them, the sheer scale of the Caldera cliffs meant that their digging and chopping and planting still left vast swaths of it completely undisturbed. I was happy to let them go about setting up, partly because I didn’t want anyone starving or something just because I was impatient, and partly because the Bargain was in full effect and [Craft Hall] was getting all the techniques they were using. Though a lot of the quarrying, for example, was just done with wind blade Skills and nothing that would be particularly useful to any of my Companions.
Soon I’d be calling on them to bring their specialists, though. It was obvious I needed huge amounts of advanced magical work done, and I needed people to tell me what work needed to be done. I’d only just found out the reason Tlulipechua hadn’t messaged ahead was that my warding effects were too good. I needed a divination sink so if people tried sending messages they’d get drawn to a specific item, instead of just bouncing off my jamming field. That was just one thing which was sort of obvious in retrospect, but I had no idea it was an issue or how to solve it.
The Leviathan contact items were very similar to divination sinks, which meant that frankly they needed to be treated as if they were little spy devices. Iniri had hers placed in an alcove of the throne room, where it would be noticeable but if someone were peering through it wouldn’t let them see anything private. I didn’t really have any good place to put mine, but then again, Iniri was kind of my contact point anyway.
“Iniri, the Leviathans gave me a device for direct contact as well. Maybe I can put it by Shayma’s balcony so it will get noticed if they’re trying to raise me?”
“Certainly,” Iniri replied. “It is a little amusing to have two Leviathan devices across from each other, but it will balance the hall. Watching two is just the same as watching one.”
“Fantastic, thank you. I don’t think I could handle this without you.” Iniri blushed faintly at the compliment and ducked her head.
“How are the Chiuxatli coming along? Is there anything I can do there? Some of the people I sent for are still traveling but should be here soon to consult with their experts.” I could tell Iniri was excited to get the benefit of the Chiuxatli mages and artificers. Frankly, I was too.
“I think just keeping you in the loop when Shayma is discussing things with them is enough. The Bargain pretty much covers everything, but there’s probably going to be some idiot who tries something. That’s really when I’m going to need your insight.”
“Mmm. The trick is going to be balancing your own prerogatives with Tlulipechua’s. He should be keeping his people under control, but if someone moves against you, that has to be dealt with immediately. I know you didn’t want to rule over people but you’re effectively an emperor now, with Tarnil and Chiuxatlan under you. Not to mention your dragons.”
“Oh, dang it. Am I the first accidental emperor on the planet?”
“Possibly,” Iniri said, laughing at my tone. “I’m sure stranger things have happened, but not often. Maybe you should ask Wright for advice.”
“You know that may not be a bad idea. I mean, everyone is supposed to be self-governing and kind of separate from each other but there’s probably things I can set it up to make it easier to deal with.”
“I’ll make some discreet inquiries,” she said, waving at the paired book that Wright had left her. “It wouldn’t do for you to ask Wright directly. Not yet, anyway.”
“I would appreciate it.”
Several fox-kin reclined on chairs of fine wood and soft pillows, resting on a veranda looking out over a sprawling complex of gilt stone and jade. In the far distance the sun glinted off the ocean, and the specks of ships as they went about their business, each of them bearing the crest of House Anell. That selfsame crest was blazoned large on the side of the complex, picked out in crystal and gold, the very simplicity of it driving home the power.
“Which brings us to Orn,” said Toreq Anell. “Tarnil clearly has something to offer or Ir wouldn’t dare to freeze us out. Not that Orn is much of a market, but the yearly net is still tens of thousands of drams. Ir assured us that The Silver Woe isn’t backing Tarnil, and even they would not dare to lie about such a thing. So, the question remains whether this Blue is worth consideration or not.”
“Regardless of who is backing them we cannot stand for the insults and threats. Killing our Agents, seizing our vessels, and worst of all, convincing other countries to ignore our embargo. Just on the face of it we need to punish Tarnil. Punish Orn as a whole.” Molen Anell replied firmly. “We can’t just let this go. It’s bad enough that Tarnil flaunts having a runaway Void Agent without these further indignities.”
“We could send another Void Agent,” suggested Risu Anell, taking a long draw on her kiseru before puffing out smoke rings. “Envil wasn’t exactly our best.”
“He was still a Void Agent, and according to eyewitnesses the Queen neutralized him by herself. I doubt more Agents will be useful there. However, not all countries in Orn are quite so protected. We will have to deal with Tarnil and Blue eventually, but we can deal with others now. Punish them, break them from their unity with Tarnil. Maybe even get one of them to move against the rogue Ell directly.” Molen waved a hand in lazy unconcern. “It’s easy enough to hurt Tarnil without ever entering it.”
“Our nearest Void Agent is in Nivir,” Toreq said, consulting a small notebook at his side. “Girul Ell.” He looked over to Risu. “I’ll let you decide on the details, but send them a message.”
“It would be my pleasure,” Risu said, mouth curving upward in a cruel smile.