1.15

Strangely, I don’t feel fear at the man’s pronouncement. I’d already considered myself to be in danger from the moment I stepped outside the walls of Gao Shansi. Despite the Baron’s cordial demeanor, the danger was apparent every moment we were together.

That left only a clam sort of resignation. What do I do to make sure I get out of this alive? I can’t fight all of them. Perhaps one of the Sifu could, but my mastery of mental combat techniques was tenuous even under training conditions. I could certainly overpower Kotz and get out of the tent, but then what? The devices all of the soldiers carried killed things faster than the eye could follow. There is no way simple martial arts would be enough to take on more than one, maybe two in close quarters.

By the time I’ve finished the thought, those ‘two’ arrive, called by the Baron.

“Take the young man into custody. Try to be gentle, unless he resists.” He says, then turns to me. “Cooperate and you won’t be harmed. These men are going to tie you up and carry you deeper into the camp.”

They came closer, pulling lengths of rope they’d tied to their belts. Neither were carrying weapons; this would be my best chance to fight back if-

My thoughts are interrupted by a message. <Xu. The Eldest have…reached a decision. I am forbidden from saying more. All I can say is this: I will come for you, as I promised. Stay safe until then, whatever it takes.>

At this my blood curdles. I have no idea what it means, but it worries me more than any of the Baron’s implied threats. Sifu An was usually absolutely controlled even in mental communications, only letting what emotions he chose slip through. The fact that I’d felt concern saturating every inch of that message implied either Sifu An wanted me to feel it, or he’d lost control enough to let genuine emotion come through unfiltered. Neither boded well.

“You look pale, young Xu. I am sad to see your poise suddenly slip. As I said, you will not be harmed.” Kotz says, snapping me out of the trance I’d fallen into. The two men had surrounded me as I processed Sifu An’s message, and now began to tie the ropes around my wrists and ankles.

Halfway through the process, I felt…something. The sensation was subtle, almost unnoticeable. But it was familiar enough my worry intensified. Whatever was happening felt similar to our training with the hourglasses, but that knowledge seemed useless. I poured every ounce of will I had into fighting the effect but it was like trying to move a mountain with my bare hands. I had enough self-awareness to know I was being affected but no ability to do anything about it. The sensation was frustrating but passed quickly.

As if nothing had happened, since I doubt it was even perceptible to these men, they finished tying the ropes.

They picked me up, and Baron Kotz led the way out. He paused after pulling back the first tent flap, light spilling into the tent. The men carrying me looked at each other, and then at him.

“Sir? What’s going on?”

The Baron is silent for a moment, then begins to shake. After a few moments more, he throws back his head and laughs.

“Well, I suppose that problem is solved. Or at least postponed. I am a bit disappointed though.” He says, eyeing me.

“Untie his bonds. I doubt they’ll be necessary any longer.” The men look at each other in confusion, but do not question their orders.

As soon as they’re done I step forward, dread and disbelief warring in me. I vaguely feel he soldiers move to stop me, but the Baron waves his hand to allow me to pass.

I step outside into the bright sunlight; the sun has clearly been up for hours at this point. I let my eyes adjust and look up, knowing what I’ll find.

Where the temple once stood is a mountain, untouched by man. Gao Shansi is gone as if it had never been.

It hits me harder than I thought it would. We’d planned to leave in a few months, of course, but that was something in the future, and supposed to be a triumphant moment. Our success, symbolized by leaving our home and putting our training to use. This was…abandonment. I’d not chosen to leave but been forced out.

I try to contact Sifu An, but the thoughts only bounce around the inside of my own head. Why? Was there no other way? Or was it just the most convenient, for all he’d said about none of us being expendable?

Or maybe…

I trail off as I feel a tap at my shoulder and almost jump in startlement. The Baron looks at me with something in his eyes, though the rest of his expression is carefully schooled into what I’d come to view as his default expression: polite detachment.

“I imagine this must be heartbreaking for you, for your composure to slip so suddenly.” he says. I realize with shame that my mask has almost completely slipped, my bereavement naked on my face. Thankfully I’d not burst into tears. I’d never been much for crying.

“I wish I could give you the time you need, but we’re in a bit of a strange position now. Our goal has been completed to my satisfaction at least. Gao Shansi exists to be wooed another day, and your compatriots are out of our territories for now. Under other circumstances our business would be concluded, but I’m afraid I uttered a bit of a falsehood earlier.”

I painstakingly reconstruct my mask and face him.

“Only one?” I respond.

A flash of annoyance crosses his face. “I’ll let that go; you’re clearly not in control of yourself at the moment. But yes, only one. The fact of the matter is your organization were declared enemies of the state over a decade ago. The king was willing to let that go if we came to an agreement of some sort, so I presented it as a preventative measure rather than a removal of a sanction we had already taken long ago.”

I have an inkling what event had precipitated that, but keep silent on it. Instead, I turn to processing this newest information. What that meant was…what? What did that even change about my position? I was already a hostage. After a moment it clicks.

“Meaning I’m no longer just a bargaining chip. I am a captured enemy combatant.”

He grimaces. “You have the right of it, unfortunately. You and I both know you’re just a young man in over his head in this position. My cousin, however, would not see it that way at all. He’d want an example made of you, after everything you know had been painstakingly drawn out of you. Which I imagine would be very little of value to our glorious nation.”

“So you’re going to drag me back to your capital, torture me, then execute me?” I ask, focused on keeping a calm I didn’t feel. I don’t know why I even bother; he already knows I’m not quite in control of myself. And the pronouncement did strike fear in my heart…though not as much as I’d expected. Something just told me that my training still had value, even here.

The Baron sighs. “Follow me. You two, wait out here.”

At this, they do protest. “But sir! Leaving you alone with him is-“ they cut off as the Baron waves his hand, appearing irritated.

“I appreciate your concern, gentleman, but I do believe Xu and I have a rapport. In any case, you will be right outside. If I yell for help, simply be sure to come running.”

With that, he leads the way back into the tent, and gestures once more for me to sit. Seeing little other option, I do so.

Once settled, he continues.

“Away from most prying ears, we may speak openly. I’ll be blunt: allowing my cousin to get his way would be an appalling waste. We gain nothing from it, and a bright young man is removed from the world. I would prefer it not come to that. I assume you do not wish to die as well, yes?”

We sit there for a moment, the Baron’s face serious. It takes me several seconds to realize that wasn’t a rhetorical question.

“No, I would very much like to stay alive.” I respond, voice as dry as I can make it. The faint undercurrent of fear is still there, but is briefly subsumed by incredulity until I look at his perspective on us form the outside. We are secretive and train our students to suppress their emotions. I had read about cults in various parts of the world with similar practices, and fanatical loyalty to the point of willing suicide was common among them. I sit forward and adjust my tone.

“Gao Shansi does not train its students to throw their lives away. We are a school not a group of zealots.”

He smiles a bit. “I’m glad to hear it. If you go back on your word and bite off your own tongue later, I will be quite angry.”

It was still impossible for me to get a complete read on the man. Was that a joke, or a serious remark couched in a façade of amusement? Or some combination of both?

“So I get to live.” I begin again, feeling out my words as I say them. “And what do you get?”

“The perfect question, if a bit accusatory in tone.” He says, still smiling. After a moment he drops it, then sighs. “In an ideal world I’d take you as my apprentice, quite honestly. You have the core of a wonderful diplomat about you and with the right training you could be one of our nation’s most valuable assets.”

I can’t help it; I blink in surprise. It’s such a huge change of tack that I’m not immediately sure how to respond. He’d made mention of it before, but I’d assumed it was baseless flattery.

I’m saved from having to find the words by his continuing. “Unfortunately among most of the populace your people are not well viewed. Quite frankly you’re barely even seen as people by many.”

“Students of Gao Shansi? I didn’t realize we were so hated.”

He looks at me oddly again. “No…your people, the Daluni. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but you come from Dalu, yes?”

Again I’m thrown. It takes me a long time to realize that that was indeed the name of the country I’d been born in. My mother and the other adults had never quite pronounced it like that, but it was close enough to not be a coincidence.

“Yes. That sounds right.”

“I don’t know how much you know about recent history. The Expansion, particularly. I’ll try to explain succinctly so you know the position we’re in.”

I gesture for him to go on.

“Our country as it exists today is only about forty years old, give or take and depending on who you ask. Before then, the countries that now make up the nation of Rolgar were simply dozens of tiny, constantly feuding countries everyone was content to ignore, themselves leftovers of a different great empire.”

This much I knew already from Sifu An’s explanation, and what I remembered of history in the region. If he was trying to lie to me about this history, he wasn’t doing so up front.

“That changed when King Friedrich came to power in Rolgar. We were the largest of the old imperial nations still extant, and one of the few with a clear line back to the old imperial line, however distant. Friedrich used that tenuous connection to build a fervor in our people, a desire for the old empire to return. Long story short, he spent the better part of his life folding the other countries of the region into Rolgar, by diplomacy, force, or subterfuge where appropriate. By the time he passed away and his son – Friedrich II, the current king – took the crown, Rolgar was quite an influential state on the grand stage again.”

“My cousin, of course, was not satisfied with that state of affairs. With the advances in our weaponry we’d developed over the course of Friedrich’s conquest, King Friedrich II was certain we could expand even further, forging an empire that spanned from shore to shore at least.”

I continue to listen impassively. All of this, too, sounded plausible and lines up with what I know. I just wasn’t sure where he planned to go with this.

“He was probably right, but my cousin lacks the patience of my dear distant uncle. We attempted an armed takeover of one of the other nearby powers, and were repelled after both sides took brutal losses. The thing with technology, you see, is it tends to spread. Our advantage in the last expansion period was that our weapons were like none ever seen before and troops more driven to succeed. After nearly two decades of peace at that point, our weapons were only a bit better than our opponent’s, and they had the advantage of defending their nation from a group of half-hearted invaders. While we both licked our wounds, the king decided that now was the perfect time for a different sort of expansion. He wanted to secure a steady supply of raw materials to feed a new war machine.”

He looked at me a bit sadly. “Sea routes to Dalu were perilous, but the rewards were potentially staggering. Your nation was a font of useful minerals. Iron, coal, even gold in enormous quantities. What’s more, your people had never gone to war with mine, and lacked the guns and other weapons that had become commonplace in our home continent’s warfare. We tried diplomacy first, of course, but were rebuffed. Your people wanted nothing from ours that they were willing to trade for, and any promises of diplomatic or military support mattered little to a country so far away from ours. And so to conflict it came.”

“To this day we still hold most of Daluni territory and have secured the steady source of materials we wanted. But your people fought hard every step of the way. Particularly once we realized your high populations made excellent workforces for the mines and factories we set up there.”

My blood wasn’t sure whether to chill or burn. I had few memories of my time in Dalu besides the few memories of the Rolgaran invasion I had unearthed over the course of my training. The anger over the fear those events had caused me felt distant. I was still angry, but truth be told the losses did not burn in me like I’m sure they would if I remembered anything about my parents or friends. Instead I just felt…sad. It all made too much sense, and if what he said was true was probably inevitable.

“By the end of the grueling conquest, the soldiery had a deep seated hatred of your people, which the nobility of course made sure spread to the common folk. In Rolgar proper your people are rare, but not unheard of.”

“And, almost universally, your people are someone’s property.”

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