Iniri found Gavin to be warm enough, but Denise was rather withdrawn and formal. That didn’t bother her much; they only needed to get along, not be best of friends. They wouldn’t be seeing each other overmuch anyway, so Iniri was content with merely positive relations with the cat-kin. Jaguar-kin, really, but Blue said Denise’s Status read cat-kin and she felt it was rude to enquire further.
The betrothal agreements were straightforward, exactly what she’d discussed with Adrian over the bound books. Not that she thought they’d dare try to sneak something in. It wasn’t like this was an actual alliance or some deal between warring factions. Cooperation between Tarnil and Ir was relatively straightforward, and it was rather fortunate she still had sixteen years or so until some of the conditions activated. Her ability to lend military strength at the moment was rather limited.
“So none of us have ever met Tor Kot,” Gavin said, once the agreements were signed. Blue had done her the favor of putting her copy back in the Palace, with their magical signatures attached. “What should we expect?”
“I actually never met him myself,” Iniri said. “He only ever sent messengers. The only person who’s seen him in person is Shayma, and even then those weren’t extended conversations. The impression that I got from her was that he was odd, and the messages bore that out. It was like he was completely detached from the actual conflict.”
“That does seem rather odd.” Gavin frowned. “Nobody declares war for fun. Nobody sane, anyway.”
“Tor Kot seems to think it’s a means to an end. He obviously wants to deal with the depletion rift, and doesn’t care about who he hurts to do so.” Blue whispered to her, the voice seeming to echo this far away from Tarnil.
“When I consulted Blue, he suggested that Tor Kot’s goal is just the depletion rift, and everything else is collateral.” Iniri sighed. “A fanatic. I don’t know how useful this meeting will be but we have to try.”
“Then I suppose there isn’t much we can do to prepare for it.” Denise frowned. “Though Gavin and I won’t be involved in the negotiations. We’re supposed to leave tomorrow morning before he gets here.”
“That’s probably for the best,” Iniri agreed. “Shayma can block depletion from anyone near her, but I don’t think she can shield the entire retreat at the same time.”
“Yes, I do not want to deal with that,” Denise agreed. She hesitated for a moment, glancing at Gavin, then looked back to Iniri. “I didn’t want to mention this before we signed the agreements, but Tarnil is trading a number of Sources provided by Blue. The list didn’t show any sound Affinity Sources available, so I’d like to ask about them directly.”
“Oh, I don’t have any of those yet. But Taelah might be able to get one out of illusion Affinity, the same way she extracted gravity. I’ll ask her to work on it.”
“Not at the moment, but it may be available in the future.” Iniri wasn’t entirely comfortable admitting that she could hear Blue almost as well as Shayma. There weren’t too many ways that the revelation could be held against her, but it was better if people treated her as separate from Blue. It made them more honest.
“Thank you,” Denise said. “The Forest of Silence doesn’t provide them anymore, so it’s hard to find any. Not that sound Affinity is common to begin with.”
Iniri simply nodded. Sound Affinity wasn’t considered a particularly powerful Affinity either, though having a Power nearby associated with that Affinity probably changed that particular calculation. Iniri was well aware of how Blue changed the landscape. Both literally and figuratively.
“On another note, how did you manage to convince an Esox healer to work for you?” Gavin said, changing topics completely. “A fourth-tier’s protégé is quite the steal.”
“It is more politically fraught than that, I’m afraid. Keri is currently somewhat estranged from her family, and is more of a free agent than a part of any political bloc. If anyone, Shayma stole her away, and she’s accompanying me by her request.” Keri’s signature was actually part of the agreement, vouching for Iniri’s pregnancy.
“Oh? That sounds like quite the story.” Denise leaned forward, ears swiveling in Iniri’s direction. Once she started filling the cat-kin in on the political goings-on near Tarnil, the woman seemed far more personable. Apparently her weakness was political intrigue, or at least gossip.
In truth, Iniri didn’t mind the exchange, since she really didn’t have any real perspective on the internal workings of the Empire of Ir. She knew it was composed of a number of kingdoms and princedoms that had been conquered or assimilated, some of them centuries back and others more recently, but it seemed monolithic from the outside.
From the inside, it became more clear why, for example, Ir hadn’t bothered to do anything when Tarnil had been invaded. Wright had a good grip on his empire, but interfering in a far-away war that had a good chance of getting promising Classers killed or depleted was too much of an ask. Especially when there was a slow-motion skirmish between the newly incorporated southern areas and the various southern clans.
Iniri was just glad she didn’t have to deal with that kind of mess in addition to Tarnil’s own recovery. She’d studied enough history to know that kind of drawn-out feuding usually only ended in a full purge by one side or another. Not to mention trying to corral nobility at such a distance. Her own surviving titled Classers were restive enough.
Shayma and Adrian joined them for lunch, which was several grades above what Iniri was used to. Even though she was the ruler of Tarnil, it wasn’t like she had a high-level food artisan cooking for her anymore, nor were there many delicacies available in Tarnil. It was all they could do to feed people the basics.
She even got to meet the infant in the betrothal agreement, only seven months old and in the care of a serene-looking nurse. Cradling the small child in her own arms made her glad that she had one on the way. There was just something about it that warmed her heart.
Despite the impending meeting with Tor Kot, it was actually quite relaxing. The political gossip was just gossip, nobody was demanding anything of her, and her table companions were all quite sharp. In fact, aside from Shayma, they all had more normal leadership experience than her, and some of their insights were quite useful. She wasn’t too proud to learn.
When she saw them off in the morning, their train of guards and servants ferrying bags and boxes into train cars, she felt that they were almost old friends. Admittedly, friends that in all likelihood she wouldn’t see for another few years. She had Tarnil to administer, Gavin and Denise had the Silin province to take care of and, unless Shayma got involved, the travel time for a friendly visit was a little much. They did, however, promise to send her a paired book at some point.
“I wish I could set up a portal here and go back,” Shayma said as they settled in to wait for Tor Kot’s arrival. “I’m feeling a little twitchy. I mean, it’s nice here.” She gestured around the opulent surroundings. “But it’d be great to go burn off some energy hunting the Underneath with Annit and Keri.”
“You should really try to relax a bit,” Keri observed. “Maybe take some notes. This sort of thing is what people expect from royalty!”
“I’m not exactly royalty,” Shayma demurred, and Blue chuckled.
“You’re pretty much my royalty,” he said, and Iniri laughed.
“He’s got you there,” she told Shayma, who gave her an aggrieved look. “Voice of Blue is a post that most kings and queens will defer to. You get all the benefits without any of the paperwork. Not that I’d trade my Tarnil for anything.”
“I suppose I can’t exactly avoid it, especially with my Class, but this feels like a little much.” She waved her hand to indicate all the antique, expensive furniture, the sheer quantity of magical items, and the art covering the walls. “I’m afraid of touching anything.”
“You say that, but both you and I are wearing Artifacts.” Iniri reached up to touch the [Torc of the Stars]. “Which is far more extravagant than anything here.”
“That’s true.” Shayma examined [Promise], then shrugged. “I suppose it doesn’t seem the same since it’s functional.”
“That does seem a very adventurer perspective on things.” Despite having gone down in Ir’s Great Dungeon herself, she’d never really been a proper adventurer. The purpose had always been for her to gain experience and levels in anticipation of ruling, not in order to support herself. She’d seen the attitude many times, though, where people would impoverish themselves on gear and refuse to spend the barest fraction on niceties. “It’s good to keep that in mind, but also remember certain types won’t take you seriously unless you flaunt your wealth.”
“That’s what Presence is for,” Shayma said with a devious grin. “It doesn’t matter what they think when they can’t even raise their heads.”
“I wish I had that option,” Iniri laughed. “It’s not very diplomatic, but I’m sure it’s satisfying.”
“Diplomacy is your lookout,” Shayma said smugly. “I get to wield Blue’s hammer.”
It was pleasant to simply relax and chat for a while, and be served extraordinarily expensive tidbits that she’d never even heard of back in Tarnil. Despite the chill outdoors the villa environs were pleasant, and the furniture didn’t lose any comfort by its opulence. She almost lost track of time until a servant came to inform them that the last visitor was on his way.
Tor Kot’s arrival didn’t completely take them by surprise, since Wright had people watching for him, but the fact that she couldn’t feel him coming with [Queen’s Insight] made her uncomfortable. She hadn’t even realized how much she relied on the Skill to keep track of things around her. At least the extra energy from Blue’s habitation core stayed with her outside of Tarnil.
The mage-king came by skyship. Not the sort the Chiuxatli had, built of floating wood with magic-embroidered sails, but a small needle of a ship made of metal and stone, propelled by brute magical force. She watched from afar as it descended toward the courtyard of the main building, where the groundskeeper was there to meet him. Shayma was there too, though more to blanket the area with Blue’s mana and purge depletion than actually see Tor Kot.
「He brought his monsters with him,」 Shayma informed her. 「Five of those mantises. Not very surprising, but it still seems a little weird. Just as well, though, since Wright’s not supplying any servants.」
「Just as long as he doesn’t try anything.」 Iniri replied. She hadn’t really thought about the fact that she’d have to face the pale mantises once again, but there was nothing for it. At least with the Scalemind she’d gotten used to the oddness of talking with something she could feel was a monster, though the Scalemind had never felt quite as wrong as the mantises. That could have been personal bias, though.
「He hasn’t seen me but he sure noticed the mana saturation. I’m sure if Blue’s ANATHEMA were still targeting him he’d be more bothered by it.」 Iniri didn’t even have the chance to reply to that before Shayma popped back into view inside the room, emerging from her travel Skill.
“So you’re sure it was him?” She asked, though she doubted they’d send someone else, not after what Blue had told her.
“Yes. Blue confirmed it, but I recognized him. More, I recognized his monsters.” Shayma shook her head. “I guess it’s less bizarre now that I know One-Eye-Green, but I have a hard time thinking of that Miriam of his as anything other than, well, a monster.”
“Miriam isn’t a harmless child.” Iniri considered One-Eye-Green for a moment before amending her statement. “Mostly harmless, anyway.”
“If she’s anything like the other one, she’d give Monat trouble.” Shayma shook her head, and Iniri took a moment to appreciate that Shayma could stand up against fourth-tiers despite being in the single digits, level-wise, less than a year before. Of course, she could, too.
“It’s odd to think we don’t have to worry about that now. Wright and us together should be more than enough to stand up against him.”
“I doubt you’ll need to,” Blue said. “He actually seemed honest about wanting a diplomatic solution. I’m worried about what he might offer or threaten. Pretty sure Tarnil is safe, but everyone else might be less so.” Iniri nodded, glad Blue was thinking along the same lines as her, and lifted her eyebrows at the butler who discreetly entered the room.
“Emperor Wright, Your Highness,” he announced, and Iniri nodded.
“Show him in,” she instructed and a few moments later Adrian arrived, his presence rather stronger than was usual. After a moment, she realized he was using a Skill, some kind of internal reinforcement.
“Well, he’s here and he’s in his villa. We won’t be doing anything until the evening, but I can already tell there might be issues with the wards. The monsters moving around are liable to trip them, since for some reason we never thought about monsters as guests.” Adrian’s tone conveyed that he didn’t think this was a major oversight.
“So what—” Iniri was interrupted by the very thing she was asking about. The magic of the wards sparked and flared, drawing hammered-steel plates over the walls and windows, magical protections humming. Her magical senses couldn’t even make anything out past the warded exterior, so thick were the layers of defensive shielding. “Ah. That.”
“Yes,” Wright said, looking moderately annoyed. “I’ll get you a wardstone to signal an all-clear so you can take them down yourself. I suspect we’re in for a long few days, with this happening every couple hours.” He waved around at the lockdown. “I’m not about to take down the wards entirely just because of this inconvenience.”
“I completely agree with you,” Iniri said. “But I appreciate getting wardstones so we aren’t stuck.” Though she had a feeling that Shayma could bypass the wards if it were really necessary.
“Having security constantly going off is a great way to make people ignore it when it actually counts,” Blue observed. “It’s the kind of chaos that Anell could take advantage of, if they have someone around. Or Tor Kot himself, if he’s up to mischief.” Neither she nor Shayma felt the need to relay Blue’s thoughts. It was obvious from Adrian’s frustration that he was thinking the same thing.
“I assure you,” Adrian told them, “I will make sure that this meeting is as safe as possible.”