I sit back in my chair, looking at things in a new light. From their perspective, then, we are the aggressors. It doesn’t excuse everything they’ve done but it makes their actions more logically sound than things first appeared. At some deep level I’d always known that must be the case; a government made entirely of short sighted and needlessly cruel people could never function, but I hadn’t thought to ask the right questions about why they were doing what they are. I had no reason to doubt him, since it would be a strange sort of lie, but I decide to confirm it with Sifu An.
I send a message toward him. <Baron Kotz claims we’ve done something with their emissary, that’s why they’re attacking us. Is there any truth to that?>
The reply I get is surprisingly terse. <Yes. Busy.>
Odd he’d be so short with me after ordering me to keep in contact. Something must be going on back at the temple. I itched to ask for clarification from him, but he would have explained if he had the time or ability. Frustrated, I try to reach out to Ran next.
I feel a spike of alarm run through me when I realize the connection to her is gone. As are the ones to Thom and Chou. There’s a good chance they’ve been gone for a long while. I’d found it strange that as worried as they were I’d gotten no chatter from them making sure I was fine and asking what was going on -I’d certainly be curious if I’d been left behind and Chou had gone, or something similar- but I’d been too distracted by everything to consciously make note of it.
“Is something the matter…” he trails off, cocking his head. “Apologies. I do believe in the confusion that it slipped my mind to ask you your name.”
I mentally kick myself, analyzing my actions over the last few minutes. While I’d kept my expression blank, my other mannerisms clearly hinted at some kind of distraction at the very least. I’d sat forward in interest at Kotz’ explanations, then slumped back, going quiet as I sent messages and thought on their implication. I try to recover as best I can, straightening my posture.
“My name is Xu, Baron Kotz. And no, I was simply thinking on what we were discussing.”
The man wrinkles his face in distaste. “I don’t suppose I could get you to refer to me by name where your teacher would not? Formalities have their time and place, but frankly slow down an already tedious process on most occasions. My given name is Manfred, in case it had slipped your mind.”
I ponder for a moment refusing, simply because Sifu An had done so. But I care even less about Kotz’s title than he had seemed to, and I was already tired of saying two names when one would do.
“Of course. If that is your preference.”
“Wonderful. In any case, you said you were thinking on what we’d discussed? I assume you mean the little matter of our disappearing emissary. What thoughts were you having, exactly? I’d be fascinated to hear your take on the matter from the other side.”
I almost contact Sifu An to ask what I should tell him before stopping myself. It’s unlikely that whatever was taking so much of his attention away from our predicament would have resolved itself by now, and I had no wish to inconvenience him more. The negotiations are up to my judgment, which doesn’t help my state of mind. Too many things are changing at once.
In the end, the truth seems like a good option.
“I was thinking it was strange that none of us ever saw your emissary or had heard of anyone who did. Students rarely go near the front gates without reason, but they are not so far from the living areas that everybody would have missed them opening, particularly if they were open for any length of time. And nobody mentioned seeing any new adults come into the temple either. That would have been even more noticeable.”
My own comprehension flares as I talk it out. It didn’t make any sense…unless one or more of the Sifu used their abilities to hide those occurrences. If what we were already capable of was any indication, the Sifu were more than able of affecting anyone that might have seen them with an illusion, or editing their memories.
“I see. The issue is, I am certain she went into the temple; she was not waylaid on the road or mauled by a wild animal. One of us must be mistaken, but where you have speculation, however well thought out, on your side I have the testimony of my own eyes to trust. You see my predicament.”
I hesitate for a moment, beyond caring what it might look like. I’m caught here, with no idea of the right path. The truth wasn’t an option this time, but I’ve never been a good liar. I open my mouth to try one anyway, then close it again.
Manfred leans forward and flashes a smile. “Ah, we’ve reached that stage of the proceedings, have we? Take your time, choose your words carefully.”
He was expecting a lie, that much was clear. Given his attitude he probably wouldn’t even be offended by one…but it didn’t move us any closer to solving this situation. I still couldn’t tell him the whole truth, but perhaps half a truth would work?
“The Sifu control many secrets that the students and normal teachers have no idea of. Perhaps one of those could have been used to spirit away your emissary?” I concede.
He blinks and sits back again, smile growing a bit wider. “I must say that’s not what I was expecting. They really didn’t send me a politician, I thought for sure you were some old hand disguised as a young man, given your Sifu’s appearance.”
It’s my turn to be surprised again. “What made you change your mind about that, exactly?”
He waves his hand dismissively. “That game is over now, stop trying to make moves in it. No career negotiator would ever outright admit the potential for guilt like that. Hint at it, perhaps. Slip me a note wanting a more secret meeting, certainly. Even admit that it had been done and challenge me on what was to be done about it, if their government is in a strong enough position to back up that kind of boldness. But admitting both that you truly are not certain what’s going on and that I might be right? Unthinkable for anyone steeped in politics. You gain nothing by it.”
That makes a sort of sense if I think about it, not that I particularly want to. Reading that much into someone’s words and actions sounds incredibly tiring.
Then again, on second thought it fit well into our own teachings. Control of yourself eventually leads control to things outside of yourself, directly or indirectly. For all I’d mocked the man’s expressiveness he’d certainly made more use of his exuberance than my blank face to get closer to what he wanted, without needing to outwardly do anything.
I searched the still faintly smiling face, looking for any clues as to the man’s real emotions, for certainly he was hiding his true agenda as much as I was: only in plain sight.
“Unfortunately, that leaves us in a bit of a predicament.” He says, looking thoughtful now. I begin looking over his expressions more closely, trying to read his eyes, but his technique is certainly more effective than anyone at the temple would ever give credit for. If even half of his expressions were faked, how would you ever tell when he’s being genuine or not?
“What kind of predicament is that?” I ask, fearing the answer.
“Were you truly a diplomat in disguise, you and I could come to some kind of arrangement to take back to your leaders, and we could resolve this whole thing. Being a genuine student, unfortunately, takes that option off the table. As much as I feel you’re a reasonable person and I’d be fascinated to talk more with you, the sad fact is you have no power. You couldn’t bargain with me even if you wanted.”
His face cycles through a combination of emotions too fast to follow before settling on another smile, this time with more teeth. “That leaves your only value now as what you were presented as: a hostage. Downgrading you from bargainer to mere bargaining chip is something I’m loathe to do, but it seems it’s what I need to do with time running so low.”
He makes another face, wiping the strange smile off. This one at least appears to be distaste.
“We run low on time. That leaves me with few options, and none I particularly like the shape of. Your ‘Sifu’ are quite cold blooded, putting the noncombatants on the lower floors where they’d be more susceptible to assault. It protects your leadership and turns away the squeamish. I suppose I can understand the logic.”
I nearly open my mouth to defend the Sifu, but realize my heart isn’t in it, and moreover it would be dangerous in my current situation. I hadn’t felt this kind of dread since…well, the last time I’d seen the darker side of the Rolgarans a few nights ago.
“Storming your temple will probably lead to the least loss of life. We could burst the gates and attack on foot, but we run afoul of our time limit that way. Leaving an option we try first: do you think your Sifu, An would come running if we threatened your life?”
I focus hard on exuding an aura of calm that I certainly did not feel. “Absolutely. He promised me he’d come for me.”
Manfred gives me a strange look but does not comment.
“So, you went into our initial encounter already planning to become my hostage? How interesting. Your people are shrewder than I gave you credit for. I suppose that explains why you volunteered so quickly, without any discussion.”
I’m puzzled again for a moment before I feel a chill run down my shrine. I’d completely forgotten Sifu An had never said that out loud.
“In any case that’s good to hear. It means you have worth, which is a positive for both of us.”
For once my mouth moves faster than my brain. “I’m very glad to have my worth affirmed by you.”
A brief small from the Baron is quickly subsumed by his more ruthless mien again.
“Ah, if only you’d been born Rolgaran. You have potential. Hopefully you’ll live long enough to reach some of it.”