It takes all of our collective willpower to stop from showing a reaction to that declaration. It wasn’t so much the words as the tone and mannerisms. The casual tone and clear lack of empathy as he discussed murdering everyone I’ve ever known as a political statement.
He held the pose he’d struck for a moment, an inoffensively pleasant look on his face.
Sifu An just looked at him for a moment, showing as much emotion as a stone wall.
“I see. You understand I cannot make such a decision on my own, correct? I would need to confer with the other Sifu.”
“Oh, yes. Of course.” Baron Kotz says, before scratching his chin pensively as he looked to the sky. “There is one minor issue with that. While I am in charge of ambassadorial affairs, Captain Fleischer holds unequivocal sway over military matters. I can stop him from attacking for so long as I can show clear progress toward an amicable solution, but were talks to break down, he would no doubt countermand any of my order and recommence the siege.”
<That sounds like a bald faced lie to me.> Thom sends. <There’s no way he can call down the Captain and insult him like that and then claim he’s not in charge.>
<You are most likely correct, but whatever the case we need to play the game. Sometimes that’s what you have to do when dealing with people outside the temple.> our teacher confirms.
“And what would you propose to avoid that?” Sifu An asked.
“It’s very simple, really. So long as I am still in negotiations with someone from your temple, the good Captain cannot make a move. Leave one of your fellows with me to maintain an open channel of communication and everything should be fine. They need not even talk about anything important, so long as it appears things are going smoothly.”
Feelings of surprise and apprehension bleed out through the mental connection, and it becomes impossible to separate who is feeling what.
Sifu An’s ‘voice’ rings out to all of us at once.
<I had feared something like this. But it must be done. I’ll ask for a volunteer, first. They will most likely not hurt you unless they definitively don’t get their way here. The Rolgaran government is often ruthless, but not sadistic, no matter what this man projects.>
There is a pregnant pause as all of us take time to think things over.
“I will stay with you.” A voice rings out after that moment. I’m surprised to find it’s mine, as is everyone else.
<What? Xu! We could have talked this over first!> Ran sends. <You pick now as the time to be the first one to blurt something out?>
<She’s right, we should have talked this over.> is all Thom says.
<We should have determined who was the most expendable of us.> Chou sends, a strange, sad undercurrent to her thoughts. <If things go wrong, whoever is held hostage probably won’t make it out.>
‘Hostage’. The words send slight shivers down my spine, even as I already knew that’s what I was to be in all but name. The label made it much more terrifying.
Sifu An’s ‘voice’ cuts through the connections. <Enough, it’s done. We can’t afford to go back on it now. All of you would be in the same danger, and none of you are expendable. Xu will go.>
Sifu An nods permission to Kotz, with less than a second having passed.
“Excellent. It’s always good to see the youth so committed to peace. Follow me, and we’ll let your Sifu get back to business, yes?” he looks up at the sky again, and tilts up one of his wrists, something gleaming there. “You have three hours to decide. I’m afraid I can give you no longer than that.”
<That wasn’t even part of the deal!> Ran’s angry voice comes through. <That-> she manages before being cut off again by Sifu An.
<He wants us to decide before dawn, if you’ll recall. This doesn’t come as a surprise.>
There is a short pause, and he continues, for me alone. <Keep in contact. Let me know if anything happens. I will come for you.> he says, before stepping back for me to follow Baron Kotz.
The Baron gestures with a hand, leading me out flanked by two of the bug-…Rolgaran soldiers. I couldn’t think of them as ‘bug men’ any more, and I was ashamed I ever had.
We’re a hundred paces out and the gate is closed behind us before it hits me that this is the first time I’ve set foot outside of Gao Shansi in twelve years.
Gao Shansi, as always, is set atop a nearby mountain, this one with a convenient trail leading toward the summit. The Rolgarans have set their camp not far from the door to the temple. Most still have on their…I’m not sure what to call it. Uniform? Equipment? That makes them look like insects.
The few that don’t are busy building campfires, cooking food in large pots, and simply relaxing. It’s a jarring contrast to my initial thoughts of these people as some supernatural creatures, or even the second impression I’d gotten of some faceless threat. Seeing them sitting around and laughing with each other brought a mix of surprise and anger to me. They weren’t monsters, but they were still attacking my home. And they didn’t seem to care.
Baron Kotz turned to me, sweeping his arms over the camp.
“Well, what do you think? It’s not much, but this little patch of ground is our home for the evening.” He gives me a smile, which I do not return.
“It’s certainly not what I expected.”
I’m off balance, opting for as much of a neutral phrasing as possible.
I take a closer look at the camp as he turns and walks a bit more, noticing how orderly it all was as we strolled toward the center of the camp. Tents raised in neat lines, fires lit at what seemed to be fairly precise intervals. Even as the soldiers relaxed, I could see some quickly and without apparent complaint get up, dust themselves off, and move off to patrol he outside edge of the camp as others returned from doing the same.
“It’s all very new to me as well, truth be told. I don’t deal much with our own soldiery in my line of work, you see.”
“Which is an ambassador, correct? You travel around threatening people your country has a conflict with?
He turns and gives me a strange, almost pouty look. These people are like children, wearing every stray emotion they have on their face for all to see. It was off-putting after so long in the temple. Even me and my friends in unguarded moments were less obvious about our feelings.
“Now, now. We only resorted to the stick with you lot because the carrot was repeatedly rejected without even being looked at. Most of our dealings with our neighbors go much more smoothly these days.”
Despite myself, I’m curious. “Why is that?”
“Well, we’ve fought off all aggressors, claimed our birthright, and spread word of our glorious empire to every continent in the world, earning the respect that is our due.” He says, waggling his finger with a look of mock seriousness on his face.
“Or, at least, that’s what the official story is. Quite frankly the truth is much simpler: we were growing too big, too fast, and making too many enemies at once. The major forces of the region formed coalitions and backroom deals to unite against us if our expansion wasn’t checked, so we found it prudent to slow things down and repair some of the diplomatic damage that we caused over the years.”
It was good to know that there were countries that could stand against this ‘Rolgar’.
“It seems odd for a diplomat to be so openly defiant of his country’s wishes.” I note.
“Ah, but you see…hold on. We’ve arrived.”
I look around myself, having been distracted by our conversation. We stand in front of a large tent, clearly made of higher quality materials than the ones the common soldiers were using.
“Come in, sit. We have some time yet to converse.” He says, gesturing to the tent’s flaps. I move inside, and am glad he’s behind me. My eyes betray the shock I feel at how many luxury items are packed into the space. A couch, several chairs, a table, multiple chests, a bureau, and other furniture leave little room to walk around.
“Take your pick of any of the seats. I assure you they are all quite comfortable.” I hear from behind me.
Mastering the widening of my eyes, I move to take a seat on the nearby couch. “You always travel with so many items?” I ask. If the soldiers had to lug all of this around all the time, it was no wonder Erik hated the Baron so much.
“More, usually, and a bigger tent.” he shrugs, taking his own seat in a cushioned chair. “We obviously were in a bit of a rush this time, so I only got to bring what was left unpacked from my last trip. I just arrived back from meeting with one of the Sultans down south, you see.”
I nod my head as if I understand. I knew from our history lessons that the Sultans of the many city-states in the deserts toward the center of this continent had a reputation for decadence, so the need for so many comforts while traveling isn’t completely lost on me. And from Baron Kotz’ attitude the Rolgaran nobility were also quite soft. What confuses me more is why he’d bother bringing so much for a mission that wouldn’t last longer than the night.
The Baron watches me as I think. Belatedly I remember that I didn’t even try to make a mindscape to accelerate my thoughts, so I’ve been sitting here for several seconds in silence, clearly contemplating something.
“I assure you it’s not for my own convenience, if that’s what you’re thinking. I won’t deny I enjoy my comforts, but I could have made do with just one of the couches and a chest, if necessary for the week we’ve been here. Truth be told I’d hoped to actually get a more in depth meeting with several of your Sifu, and have meaningful negotiations about how Rolgar and your temple would interact in the future.”
“The Sifu wouldn’t be impressed by all of this in any case.” I say. “Part of becoming a Sifu is letting go of any want for worldly comforts and beginning to trim down everything in your life to the bare necessities to live.”
He nods along, before pausing. “I won’t pretend to really understand it, but I’d heard something like that from my sources. Still, ‘better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it’ as they say.”
I mentally grimace. Not at the quote itself; it made a lot of sense to me. But at the memories it brought up of those torturously long philosophy and literature classes we’d had to sit through.
I open my mouth to continue that line until something he’d said struck me.
“You’ve been waiting here for days now? I thought you would have just arrived. You were so worried about us leaving after all.”
He looks at me, clearly puzzled. “No, as I said, we’ve been sending emissaries to your temple for a while now. The most recent was yesterday.”
“That makes no sense. The temple moves on a daily basis.”
Again, the confused look. “We had thought so too, but you’ve been here for over a fortnight, now. At first, we sent someone to treat with you every day once we arrived. It’s why we were even able to get here at all, for once. We’re days from the capital here.”
It takes all my willpower to keep my expression blank, but anger still leaks into my voice. “And so you decided to attack us because we turned your emissaries away?”
Kotz’ own expression changes, his demeanor becoming more serious. “No, the king ordered us to attack because our last emissary never returned from your temple’s gates.”