We followed cautiously behind Sifu An in a loose group.
“It doesn’t really matter where you stand as long as you’re behind me, out of each others’ ways, and look confident.” he suddenly says.
We all look at each other. “What do you mean? Why do we need to look confident?” Ran asks.
“Link. We don’t have much time.” he orders, ignoring the question. We obey before finally getting our answer, instantly transmitted and understood.
<They haven’t breached the front gate yet. We’re going to speak with the men outside.>
<Speak with them?> Thom’s incredulous ‘voice’ rings in our heads. <They’re trying to destroy our home!>
<Which is why we need to be sure they don’t, for the sake of everyone in our care. We are the guardians of Gao Shansi, but that does not mean our first response to any provocation should be violence. Do you think your fists can deflect one of those explosives?>
Our silence is enough answer for him.
<Just so. So we speak with them. See if we can resolve this peacefully. And if not, we attack them with overwhelming force while knowing the measure of everything they have.>
A question comes to mind after a moment of silent walking. <What are these ‘explosives’ you mentioned? Those are what are destroying the temple?>
He spares a glance back and nods.
<They are weapons that have been in use for some time in other parts of the world. No one is quite sure who developed them first, but they spread like wildfire to neighboring countries. Once they were done blasting each other to pieces, a single united country emerged from the ashes. They’ve been trying to expand their territory for years, with pushback from the other nations of the world.>
I can’t begin to form a response. If that’s what they were, then…
My thoughts are cut off as we arrive at the gate. We arrange ourselves behind and around Sifu An, doing our best to look menacing, or at least not as anxious as we felt. Ran looked clearly uncomfortable leading with her left, though at least her arm was no longer in the sling. She could move it well enough for normal purposes, but fighting was out of the question. Hopefully whoever or whatever we were speaking with wouldn’t pick up on that.
Sifu An approaches the gate and calls out.
“Step away from the gate. I’ve come to negotiate.”
There is a slight shuffling from outside, as if several people are stepping away.
A muffled voice comes through.
“So we finally got your attention? I’ll get the captain.”
‘Got our attention’? That’s what they call attacking children? I clench my fist, anxiety forgotten and replaced with anger.
I have time to cool down in the intervening minutes, shoving that rage down and forcing myself to keep a level head, adopting the blank, serene expression we’d had beaten into us. A quick glance around shows the others have done the same, no doubt struggling with similar feelings to my own.
Sifu An likewise is as blank as when he taught us as children. If these men were anything like us when we’d first been adopted into the temple, they’d find the expression unsettling. I hoped it was the case, it was the least of what they deserved to feel.
Some time later a different voice rings out through the gate. “I am Captain Erik Fleischer of the Rolgaran National Army. Have you finally decided to parley?”
“If it will stop you from putting our children in harm’s way, yes.” Sifu An replies coolly.
“It didn’t have to come to this.” the man replies after a faint pause. “We sent other envoys, but they were turned away.”
This was the first I was hearing of anything like that. Then again, I rarely if ever went near the gate.
“You may come through with anyone you think you need to feel comfortable. I and my four companions will be waiting.”
That said, Sifu An stepped to the gate, pulling at the heavy bar. Belatedly we realize he cannot lift it by himself, so Thom, Chou, and I move to help him. The thick bar on the gate was immense, only dwarfed by the size of the gates themselves. It had weathered assaults from entire armies in the past, if only for half a day at most. It was unclear if the explosives would be enough to destroy the door, but Sifu An seemed to think so. After how easily the stone ceiling of the outer temple had been smashed I had no reason to doubt it.
With some effort the door was opened, and we stood back. It takes every ounce of willpower I have to prevent my expression from changing to show the shock and fear I feel.
A large force of the bug men stand on the other side of the gate. Intellectually I know I shouldn’t be surprised. The sounds of the explosives were similar to what I’d heard ripping through my home town from a distance. But seeing them standing here, where I’d always been safe save for in my dreams was a shock.
Even more so was when the lead bug man stepped forward and pulled off his head revealing a normal, if severe looking man underneath. On closer inspection this too shouldn’t have surprised me. Flesh was visible near the necks of the four men following him, and had been all the while. Thinking back the hints had been there even as a child, but the events were so frightening and happened so quickly, with so much running in the dark that the clues were obscured. They were no monsters, just people in strange clothing.
Captain Erik passed a piercing gaze over us, our expressions schooled to perfection, or so I hoped.
“Your ‘companions’ are these kids? They’re as green as our newest recruits.”
“And yet better trained than your veterans. And with far less innocent blood on their hands.” Sifu An shot back, expression and voice as calm as ever despite his biting words.
“Don’t try to play the victim here. You and your leadership caused this situation. We’ve tried diplomacy for years with you people, but you always turned us away and then disappeared to come back later. You forced our hand.”
“So you were just following orders when you put the children under my care in danger, then.” Sifu An says. For some reason this nettles the man.
“Yes. I was.” He bites off, visibly angry.
My eyes catch sight of something moving in the crowd of ‘bug men’, their ranks parting to let another man pass.
“Enough, Captain Erik. Clearly your style of…diplomacy is lacking here. As I expected.”
Erik’s face goes blank in a pale imitation of our own masks, clearly trying to hide some ill feeling toward the newcomer.
“Yes, Baron Kotz. It appears you were, as always, correct.” Erik says, biting off each word as though they pain him.
“You shouldn’t strain yourself so much.” is all the Baron replies, patting Erik on the shoulder and motioning for him to step away.
He moves forward, bowing his head slightly to Sifu An.
“I am Baron Manfred von Kotz. I would ask whom I have the pleasure of negotiating with this evening.”
“An. Sifu of Gao Shansi.” is the clipped reply.
“Ah, wonderful. One of the mysterious Sifu themselves has graced me with his presence. We’ve heard some of you from various sources, but nothing concrete. I’m afraid I do not know how you prefer to be addressed. By your title or name?”
“I am An, to you. Unless you wish to become my pupil.” The stone faced mask remains, but Sifu An conveys an undercurrent of amusement to us, though it is laced with caution.
<This man will be polite so long as we give him no pretext to feign offense. If he asks you your own names, bow and respond but say nothing further.>
<Understood, Sifu An.> we all chorus as one.
The brief exchange takes only as long as the Baron needs to process Sifu An’s introduction.
“Perfect. You may call me Manfred if you prefer, to keep things simple. I imagine my titles mean little to you, yes?”
“I must admit I’ve given very little though to them, Baron Kotz. Your country is yet young, and the significance of your titles elude me.”
<This is the most polite and wordy I’ve ever seen Sifu An be to someone.> Ran sends, her disgust apparent in her thoughts. <I know why he’s doing it, but it feels wrong.>
<I can’t help but agree.> I send back. The lack of response from the others tells me this is a private message. <But maybe we can end this night without bloodshed.>
Our attentions snap back to the conversation, not having missed anything of significance.
“Well, unfortunately as much as I’d wish to educate you on the finer points of our country’s etiquette and aristocracy, I’m afraid I’ve come with much direr business. Your temple has been flagrantly violating our country’s laws for quite some time. Unlawful entry of our nation on multiple occasions. Kidnapping with multiple offenses as well. Housing enemy combatants, and initiating raids on our military personnel. Serious charges, but nothing that couldn’t have been handled peaceably in the past.”
I very nearly blink in shock at the accusations. Thom even moves to respond, fingers twitching briefly into a fist before he restrains himself.
<Is he serious?> he sends to all of us.
<Deadly, it sounds like.> I respond.
<They’re trying to paint everything Gao Shansi has done for us as some kind of attack on them.> Chou sends at the same time, a strange feeling of tiredness following her words.
“In the past?” Sifu An says, responding only a moment later to the Baron’s charges. “I should hope our talks here are more than a mere formality, else what was the purpose of agreeing to parley?”
“Ah, perhaps I misspoke. But it is true that your actions over the years have forced our hand. The great state of Rolgar is left with only two options; we must either declare you an enemy of the state and dismantle you by force, or come to an agreement which leads to the dissolution of your organization in a peaceful manner.”
“You would have us ‘dissolve’ an institution more ancient than any of the countries which spawned you, just like that?”
“Indeed. I suppose a third option is on the table, just between the two of us you understand.” The Baron leans forward, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “If you were to leave Rolgaran lands and promise never to cross our borders again we would of course not be able to pursue you. This is all unofficial, you understand. My cousin, the king, wishes to make a harsh example of you. But it would not be hard to smooth over his anger were I to explain that we simply could not stop you from leaving. Once you have moved your temple halfway around the world it is quite impossible to pursue you, after all. Leaving now would be a token of good faith, and go a long way toward opening further peaceful relations in the future once things have calmed down, of course.”
“And if we refuse, we will be declared ‘enemies of the state’, correct?” Sifu An asks. “What exactly would that entail?”
“Ah. I’m afraid that is where the unpleasantness with the mortars would begin again. We’ve been given orders to raze your temple to the ground before you can leave at the dawn, using whatever means are at our disposal. Any survivors would be captured and tried as war criminals, either executed or serving out the rest of their days repaying their debt to society in the iron mines.”
He shrugs and throws up his hands dramatically.
“Politics, you understand.”