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Thread: Diplomacy (Slayers)

  1. #1
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    Default Diplomacy (Slayers)

    Rating: R
    Fandom: Slayers
    Genre: Romance/Comedy/Drama
    Status: Complete
    Pairing: Xellos/Filia

    Summary: The world is changing, and as a result Filia is cajoled into representing the golden dragons as their diplomat. The problem? A certain monster seems to be taking a similar role. The bigger problem? It’s not just the monsters that are up to no good.

    Author’s Note: Having to be done with Legal Matter would’ve made me a little sad if it weren’t for this story simmering on the planning stove and keeping a smile on my face. I’m really excited about it and I hope y’all will enjoy it too.

    *****

    Diplomacy

    Chapter 1. Interesting Times.

    Filia couldn’t help but tremble slightly as she stood in front of the temple of the Fire Dragon King: a place she never thought she’d return to. It had been her home for many years, but after the events of the previous year, she no longer belonged there. It seemed to her that its grounds and halls should be filled with only… echoes — ghosts of a once bustling community of dragons. After all, they were massacred. She’d seen them die with her own eyes, just as the prophecy foretold.

    But only a year later it was full of energetic activity once more. Around the grounds, dragons in their proper forms were busy with construction efforts to expand the size of the temple. Closer to the interior, dragons in their human forms strode through the halls carrying clipboards with palpable purpose. Everyone seemed to have a job to do.

    After the loss of the entire population of the temple of the Fire Dragon King, the dragons of the other temples had been forced to take some kind of action to mitigate the damage. They couldn’t very well leave the entire eastern zone of the world unprotected, as the monsters would surely take advantage of the breach. So they made the decision to cover the gap. Dragons were reassigned from the north, south, and west temples. A new Supreme Elder had been selected to preside over the once abandoned temple. Their numbers were stretched thinner now, but at least there was someone manning the doors in all the quadrants, so to speak.

    She’d had no interest in seeing the newly run temple. It brought back too many painful memories of her kinsmen’s deaths. She’d been content to leave the temple be – to manage her shop and get along with her new life. But then the letter arrived.

    It was from the new Supreme Elder, and requested – ‘urgently’ requested – that she travel to the temple and meet with him. She couldn’t fathom why and knew that she was, of course, under no duress to go there. She’d left the temple and left her responsibility to it.

    She’d considered whether to go or not for awhile, but couldn’t fight back her curiosity. She knew that if she didn’t go, she’d always wonder about the odd, vague request. So she’d left Gravos in charge of the shop and Jillas in charge of the unhatched egg containing the reborn Val, and headed off to her former home.

    Now, as she walked down the once familiar halls on her way to the new Supreme Elder’s office, she wondered if she’d made the right decision. Ever since the events of last year her feelings for her own race had been tinged with ambivalence. They were her people, and her family, and she mourned for those that had passed; yet, whenever she looked at the egg containing her adopted son she couldn’t help but think of the boy – the last of his race – who’d had everything taken away from him in the name of peace, and could only respond with revenge and despair.

    She wondered what the new Supreme Elder would be like. She’d heard that there had been a bit of a quarrel over his appointment. The senior members of the election counsel put forth various wise and powerful dragons to take charge of the temple and put it to a vote. Apparently the two front-runners had canceled each other out allowing a lesser-known dragon to take the position. A recount was called for, but met with no approval. The decision had been made for better or for worse.

    She’d heard very little about him except that he was somewhat younger than the others, though as far as dragons went he was still considered quite old. Many dragons were worried because they weren’t sure exactly what he stood for.

    Well, perhaps she’d find out. She knocked on the door.

    “Come in,” a voice said from the other side.

    She slowly opened the door and walked into the cavernous stone room. The replacement elder looked up from behind his desk where a stack of papers rested in front of him.

    “Ah, Filia is it?” he said. “Excuse my lack of formality. I know we haven’t been introduced before.”

    “Not at all, sir,” Filia said, still not sure what the conversation would entail.

    “Please, sit down,” he said indicating a chair, which Filia took.

    The new elder seemed… smaller than the previous elder. He was shorter, scrawnier, and had the sweaty look of overworked and underpaid pencil-pushers everywhere. He was balding and had a few sad, lonely chin hairs in the place of a beard. In short, he seemed non-threatening and easy to push around. Not exactly the ideal choice for policing an entire quadrant against destruction.

    “Thank you for coming,” he said. “I know it can’t be easy for you to be back here, but I assure you, what I have to ask is important.”

    He did have one point in his favor: he spoke like an orator. Filia could believe, with relief, that some intelligence and charisma lurked behind that sweaty forehead.

    “It’s no trouble,” Filia said dutifully, looking at her hands in her lap. “What uh… what was it that you wanted to ask?”

    The Supreme Elder looked down at the paper in front of him and thumbed the corner thoughtfully. “These are interesting times we’re living in, Filia. The fall of the Hellmaster is still sending its ripple across the monster race. We ourselves have suffered losses that I know you are no stranger to. After an initial rocky start, the human kingdoms from within and without the barrier have made the first steps toward political ties. There have been shake-ups all around, and things are changing.”

    Filia nodded.

    “And despite what some say, we must change as well,” the old man said, frowning at the paper in front of him as though it troubled him.

    “Sir?”

    “I apologize, I didn’t mean to dally there,” the Supreme Elder said. “The main point is that within the barrier countries every year a… summit is held where representatives from all the kingdoms, dukedoms, states, fiefdoms, and miscellaneous special groups are gathered for the purposes of strengthening political ties. Matters of policy and trade are discussed and negotiated, and efforts are made to maintain peace between the lands.”

    “This year,” the Supreme Elder went on. “Will be the first year that the organizers have decided to invite representatives from what they refer to as the ‘Outer World’, our world, as well as their own. Several previously unrepresented groups are finally being recognized this year for participation on the world stage. It’s meant to be the first real World Council, and we dragons have decided to send a delegation in attendance for the first time in history. I would like you to lead that delegation.”

    Filia couldn’t help but be surprised. It seemed like the old dragon had thought this through quite clearly, but it just didn’t make sense to her. “With all due respect, sir,” she said. “Why me? I’m not a priestess of the Fire Dragon King anymore, and I’m not important enough for this kind of mission. Anyway, why would the dragon race want to involve themselves in human government?”

    The Supreme Elder drummed his fingers on the table. “I mentioned that both our race and the monsters have suffered substantial losses lately, yet, look at the humans. They thrive. Too often our race has discounted the humans, but those like your companion Lina Inverse have accomplished things bigger than we have ever imagined.”

    “Well, Miss Lina and her friends are rather special cases,” Filia said somewhat fondly.

    “So I gather,” The Supreme Elder said with a twitch of his lips that might have been a smile. “My point is that often when I think of the future, I wonder if there may come a time when there are no dragons, nor monsters, but only humans. Perhaps that day will never come, and for our own sakes I hope it doesn’t. But the humans have certainly come into their own over the years. They may often do wrong and make foolish mistakes, but nevertheless I have high hopes for them. I think it is time that the dragon race recognized their potential and increased our connections with them.”

    “Filia, you have had frequent contact with humans. Therefore you should be a good fit to socialize with them in a manner that will not make them uncomfortable.”

    “So,” Filia said, trying to come to grips with what a role as diplomat required, but not at all willing to agree to the task right away. “It would mostly be shaking hands and saying ‘hello’? Just letting them know that we’re friendly?”

    The Supreme Elder coughed. “Not entirely, no. I actually have plans to open up trade relations with the humans.”

    Filia gasped because that was an extremely gasp-worthy statement. “But the former Supreme Elder was always against that!”

    “I know,” The new Supreme Elder said with just an edge of harshness in his voice. “We have hoarded our technology jealously over the years, afraid that the humans would use it to evil intentions. As a result, those in our world distrust us as they struggle to invent in our shadow, and those within the barrier were forced to rely heavily on magic in the place of mechanisms. But these two worlds will soon collide and an interest in non-magical ways of doing things will surely spread to the countries that once lay within the barrier.”

    “If we were to part with a few of our secrets to deserving individuals, then we could encourage this trend. There is always the possibility that the technology we impart could be misused, but I do not believe that the progress of the human race should be held back any longer. If they change their focus, they might even lose their dependence on magic; which would be very bad news for those creatures who acquire strength by trading favors with humans for black magical power.”

    It was true. If humans stopped pledging themselves to darkness every other minute for the benefit of exploding things, it could be a blow to the monster race. But Filia was still uncomfortable with this notion. Some humans are good and some humans are bad, but all humans tend to get carried away with new ideas and make mistakes.

    The Supreme Elder coughed again, which seemed to be his signaling device that he was about to drop a verbal bomb. “That actually brings us to the most important point: the monster race is sending a delegate to the conference as well.”

    What?!” Filia said, sitting upright suddenly, her shout ringing through the large room. “What are they doing that for?”

    “We don’t know,” the Supreme Elder said seriously. “It’s likely they are going to spy on the proceedings at least, and also attempt to manipulate the human governments. This is what we can extrapolate from past behavior, but we’re not really sure. All we do know is that if they have a presence at the conference, we must be there to do our part in counteracting it.”

    “Anyway,” the Supreme Elder said, sitting back in his chair. “This actually presents us with a unique opportunity. Both our race and their race are in somewhat weakened states at this point and, as such, are willing to…” He made ready to drop the word delicately: “negotiate.”

    Negotiate?!” Filia nearly exploded. “But dragons don’t negotiate with monsters! We never have!”

    “Things have changed,” the Supreme Elder said, impassive in the face of Filia’s distress. “We need to learn to be pragmatic or we will not survive. Obviously, we and the monsters will always and ever be enemies; but we are more willing to pick our battles now. Especially,” he said, his face suddenly darkening with worry, “with the appearance of the Daius Seed.”

    “The Daius Seed?” Filia repeated questioningly, still shaken from the world being turned upside down.

    “You haven’t heard about it?” The elder questioned. He sighed deeply. “The Daius Seed is a powerful distortion spark that was created in the reality slip that occurred when Darkstar entered this world. Its terrible energy has the potential to theoretically destroy the chain of causality in this world.”

    “Obviously we want the device locked away in order to protect the peace of this world,” the Elder said.

    Filia frowned. Protect the peace of this world. That was the old Supreme Elder’s phrase. Nothing seemed wrong with the sentiment until you saw what he had done in order to achieve it.

    “As such exists,” the Elder finished with some irony.

    Filia’s frown disappeared. This dragon was… different from the old management. Who could say? Perhaps his strategies would work. The world was… changing.

    “And the monster race wants to use the Daius Seed?” Filia asked.

    The Supreme Elder shook his head. “No. The device does not destroy the world; it merely destroys the chain of cause and effect. You could even go so far as to say that the device creates randomized existence. And they are so very against existence,” he mumbled the ending comment – the ironic almost-smile returning to his face.

    “Since both our races would like to see the Daius Seed shut away, it only makes sense to work together on this, and perhaps even work out a few territorial issues while we’re on the subject.”

    “I suppose that makes sense,” Filia said somewhat reluctantly. She still wasn’t on board with the idea of dragons and monsters negotiating.

    “There’s… something else as well.” The Supreme Elder coughed ominously. “The representative that the monster race is sending is… Xellos.”

    What?!” Filia shouted for the second time during the course of that meeting, standing up suddenly enough to send her chair toppling to the floor.

    “Yes,” the Supreme Elder said, apparently having been prepared enough for her reaction not to even flinch when the chair hit the floor. “That’s actually the main reason we’re sending you.”

    That one hit Filia for a loop. “Why? Why me?” she asked in distress. That should be the reason not to send her!

    “Well,” the Elder said impassively. “You’ve had prolonged contact with him; you did travel with him for an extended period of time during the events leading up to the Darkstar incident. And, in order to defeat the dreaded Darkstar, you even joined forces with him: a move practically unprecedented in history.”

    “But that’s not even—” Filia began before her words ran out. It was all technically true, but it didn’t change the fact that having any more ‘prolonged contact’ or whatever with Xellos was a nightmare beyond imagining. Actually it was worse. It was a very easy to imagine nightmare.

    He was just so… mean! Not surprising for monsters, of course, but even just thinking about that arrogant, insensitive, rude, and… and… downright twerpy monster was making her blood boil. What was worse, the Supreme Elder was responding to her obvious distaste for the task with a serene expression. It was as though he believed that it was a sure thing that she’d agree to this venture and not just a possibility.

    “No,” she said firmly in an attempt to quash this presumption. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t go.”

    The Supreme Elder blinked. “Why?” he said. It was almost more of a statement than a question.

    Filia nearly imploded. There were a lot of reasons! Too many reasons to go into. But the one that jumped out of her throat was the not so practical and utterly childish: “Because I can’t stand him!”

    The Supreme Elder raised a sparse eyebrow. “He’s a monster, Filia. I would be concerned if you felt otherwise,” he said. “But you must understand that this summit is more important than the feelings of any one individual. You are the ideal candidate for this task, Filia. Therefore you must go. It is your duty, not just to our people, but to all the people of this world.”

    Filia could feel him twisting the knife of guilt into her gut and knew she wouldn’t wriggle out of this by arguing through emotion. She had to show him what a bad idea this was. She seized on logic to get her out of the corner.

    “But I’m not the ideal candidate!” she insisted. “Even as far as dragons go, he doesn’t like me.” She remembered the time back at Alto and Baritone when it had been suggested that she and Xellos fuse magic to take on the Darkstar weapons. He’d said that even if he was going to do something like that with a dragon, it wouldn’t be a ‘selfish’ one like her. Well, the feeling was more than mutual! Some hatred just goes beyond species. No… this wasn’t speciesism: this was personal.

    “He doesn’t even give me the kind of grudging respect you’d give to an enemy,” she went on, gripping her skirts angrily. “He’s never taken me seriously. All he does is make fun of me!” She resisted the urge to kick the chair on the floor like a petulant child. Such behavior was just not fitting in the presence of the Supreme Elder… but he just made her so mad! (Xellos, not the Supreme Elder)

    “Even if I did agree to talk with him, he’d probably just shoot down any proposal out of sheer spite. Just because it’s me,” she explained bitterly.

    The Supreme Elder laced his fingers together nonchalantly and said, “Oh, I very much doubt that.” He leaned forward. “Have you seen him since the Darkstar incident?”

    Filia was caught off-guard by this seemingly innocent out-of-the-blue question. “Well, yes,” she admitted, her rage quieting as she wondered about the dragon elder’s information network. “He did come by my shop once.”

    “What did he do?” the Supreme Elder asked, idly playing with a pen on his desk.

    “He…,” Filia bit her lip. “He broke a vase,” she finally said. This was technically true. He broke it with his face when she threw it at him. No need to tell the elder that, though.

    “But he wasn’t hostile?” the Supreme Elder asked seriously, ceasing toying with the pen. “He didn’t try to hurt you?”

    “…No,” Filia was forced to admit. He’d been a jerk of course, but she didn’t think she could parlay hurt feelings into being equivocal to actual violence.

    “Hmm,” the Supreme Elder said. There was a long silence in which he appeared to be thinking quite hard. Just when Filia was considering making some sort of coughing noise to remind him that she was still there, he stood up and strode over to the window, looking out at the busy flow of dragons both in their true and human forms hard at work.

    He took a deep breath. “Filia, I understand that what I’m asking of you is difficult. I don’t believe that any of us would relish such a job. But,” he turned away from the window and looked directly at her, “it is absolutely necessary that this summit be a success to further the cause of peace. No, more than peace… to keep things going… to make the world work. That is the greater good that this summit can bring about.”

    “It is essential that we choose the right person to deal with this situation,” he said seriously. “I know that to you, Xellos is… a nuisance. But if you have any familiarity with his history you know that a nuisance is better than wholesale carnage any day. I stand by my original statement: you are the best person for this job. At least you have some kind of past rapport with him to draw from.”

    Filia felt the sincerity behind the elder’s words, but couldn’t help but doubt. In order to get something that he wanted, Xellos had once said that he’d gladly kill her. That sounded like a little more than a nuisance to her.

    The elder walked toward her and gave a short bow of supplication, unheard of at his rank. “Please,” he said. “I know you have your doubts, but I ask you to trust me. I have not made this decision lightly. I have thought long and hard about it, and this is the conclusion that I’ve come to. Won’t you help us?”

    Filia was extremely shaken by the bow. Maybe he was right, but… “I,” she began uncertainly. “I can’t just pack up and leave. I have… responsibilities.” She couldn’t tell him she had to stay with Val. Who knew what the golden dragons would do if they found out he was alive and vulnerable?

    The elder nodded. “I know about your… responsibilities,” he said. He held up a reassuring hand as her eyes widened in horror. “I assure you, I have no intention of causing harm to him. But… your race sorely needs you now. Could you not make arrangements for one of your employees to take care of your… responsibilities while you’re away?”

    Relief suffused Filia’s features. He knew about Val. He knew about Val and he wasn’t going to hurt him.
    This elder made peace without blood actually seem like a possibility. The world might really turn a corner after all. And this summit was the place it would all start. Races working together, despite their differences, for the greater good… it was a beautiful idea.

    How could she turn her back on all that when they were counting on her?

    She swallowed, feeling as though she was about to jump into a chasm. “Alright,” she croaked.

    “You’ll do it?” the Supreme elder asked, his face radiating pure hope.

    She nodded.

    She’d do it, damn it; for hope and grace and the future.

    …Even if it did mean she’d have to talk to that stupid Xellos along the way.

  2. #2
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    Chapter 2. Minor Setbacks.

    After sending word to Gravos and Jillas that she’d be gone for awhile longer, she’d stayed the night in one of the many rooms of the temple and felt strangely guilty about it. It was only that, well, she’d been serious about it when she resigned from her post. She’d been making a stand. Yet, here she was, staying in the very temple where she’d once worked as a priestess and preparing to go out to do a mission for the Supreme Elder yet again.

    But… but… the situation was completely different from last time! It was a whole new Supreme Elder with a whole new philosophy which she was sure that the rest of the Golden Dragons found somewhat controversial. This time no prophecies were involved and no fighting would be necessary. The whole purpose of a diplomatic conference was to avoid fighting. They were going to extend the olive branch of peace to the humans, who they had admittedly snubbed over the last couple of centuries. This was a good mission. There couldn’t be anything dark and sinister lying behind it at all!

    And she’d changed too since then. She’d gone out from the protective bubble that the temple provided and seen the world for herself. Her perfect image of her people had been broken time and time again, but at least she no longer hid from the truth. She’d learned what revenge and obsession can do to a person; she’d learned that the ends don’t justify the means; and she’d learned that there are no absolutes in this world. She owed her awakening to Valgaav …and, alright, perhaps in some small infuriating way to Xellos.

    Hmph. Xellos. Apparently they considered her some sort of Xellos-expert just because they’d traveled together and he hadn’t successfully killed her. Well those are some pretty low standards! she thought savagely.

    She knew he’d make any dealings with him an absolute hell. It was just lucky that apparently their races were more or less aligned on the main issue (which seemed pretty darn surreal). Since their goal was the same he shouldn’t want to obstruct her too much.

    She turned in her cot and glared at the wall in front of her as though it had personally offended her. But that was probably too much to ask for from him.

    Oh well, she thought as she closed her eyes and tried to find something more pleasant to think about before she fell asleep than Xellos (rotting pig carcasses, for example, would’ve been acceptable). At least I’ll have plenty of time to prepare for what was up ahead. She’d meet the other members of her delegation and likely be briefed extensively in summit protocol. Time and knowledge would probably make her a whole lot more comfortable with the situation ahead, and she was sure she’d get both. The dragon race was nothing if not detail-oriented.

    *****

    “What do you mean I have to leave for the summit now?” Filia asked in a panic after she’d been shaken awake by an errand girl and told to get going.

    “Just what I said,” the errand girl said in a slightly peeved voice as she laid Filia’s newly laundered and pressed dress and traveling cloak on top of the covers. “They want to make an early start.”

    “But—” Filia sputtered. “I just found out about this yesterday! I haven’t gotten any additional information yet. I haven’t even met my staff!”

    “Well, they’ll be going with you, right?” the errand girl asked with next to nothing in the way of actual concern for Filia’s plight. “You can meet them then.”

    “Is there really such a rush?” Filia asked. She couldn’t imagine that they’d just throw her to the wolves with no guidance whatsoever.

    The errand girl shrugged. “Only if you want to get there on time, I guess.”

    Filia stared into her covers for a moment. She wasn’t prepared for this already! They should’ve told her before she’d agreed that there’d be no breathing time before the whole thing started.

    The errand girl coughed. “I can’t make the bed when you’re on it,” she hinted in the slightly chiding way she used to address those who fail to appreciate the important of bed-making in a polite society.

    Filia slid off the bed and dressed in a kind of numb horror. She’d had a nightmare last night that she’d shown up at the conference naked in front of all the royalty and whatnot. They’d formed a circle around her and pointed saying things like, “Not one of us! Not one of us!” And Xellos had laughed and laughed and laughed.

    The fact that Filia occasionally had prophetic dreams always made her nightmares much more fear inducing. What if they actually came true?

    …Although in this case that seemed downright unlikely and could probably be chalked up to garden-variety anxiety.

    So, after double checking that she was indeed fully-clothed, she asked the errand girl where her staff was waiting for her.

    “Around the back of the temple,” the girl had said almost boredly as she fought a losing battle with the fitted sheets. “But don’t expect much.”

    *****

    She would’ve done well to heed the errand girl’s advice. Honestly, it’s not like she’d expected a fanfare or anything, but she hadn’t expected a rinky-dink coach and two golden dragons.

    She’d wondered, briefly, where the rest of the delegation was, but with growing horror she realized that this was really it. One fresh-faced golden dragon who looked like he might be even younger than her, one surly-looking golden dragon with graying hair, and two slightly nervous looking horses. This was the task-force charged with bringing goodwill to the humans and thwarting the monsters.

    The younger of the two stepped forward as he saw her approach and tucked a file folder under his arm. “Miss Filia?” he asked, holding out a hand for her to shake. “My name is Cleon, recorder to the Supreme Elder. I’ll be doing everything I can to assist you during the summit.”

    “Nice to meet you,” Filia said, returning the smile he was giving her. He seemed friendly and very… keen. He had a pencil stuck behind his ear, practically lost in blonde strands, but he might have been unaware of that.

    “And this is Rasmus,” Cleon said, gesturing to the older dragon who merely gave her a nod. “He’ll be your bodyguard.”

    “Bodyguard?” Filia couldn’t help but repeating.

    Well, of course they’d send a bodyguard with her. It made sense, but… it just made all the unfortunate circumstances for which she’d need a bodyguard float to the top of her head. You never knew… this peace mission could be dangerous. Were they expecting something terrible to happen to her?

    “Just a precaution,” Cleon said comfortingly, noting her expression. “We don’t anticipate any trouble cropping up during the conference. But just to be safe, we have Rasmus. He’s strong enough to deal with any unexpected threat.”

    “I’d like to think that,” Rasmus said gruffly. “But I’m no match for a monster like Xellos.” He looked up at Filia with a serious expression and said: “If worst comes to worst though, I will stand in front of you to give you a chance to run away. That is my job.”

    “Don’t scare her, Rasmus!” Cleon said, waving his hands. “There’s no need to say that because it’s not going to happen. Everything’s going to be perfectly friendly!”

    But Filia’s blood felt cold. To have her bodyguard talking about sacrificing himself for her safety so early on… Well, no matter what Cleon said she had a feeling this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.

    She gritted her teeth. How’d she get roped into this anyway? Oh well… no use in second thoughts now.

    She cast her eyes to the horse-drawn carriage. She wasn’t exactly an expert on how state representatives traveled, but this seemed somewhat below the bar. An absence of tassels and gold leaf and… well paint gave it a rather shabby look. She turned back to Cleon.

    “We’re not flying?” she asked.

    “I’m afraid not,” Cleon said giving her a hopeless sort of look. “We rented the coach out from down in Brusk. The Supreme Elder thought it would be better if we arrived in a more… modest way.”

    It showed a certain amount of insight. The whole point in coming to the conference was to treat the humans more like equals than underlings. Arriving in the same fashion as they did, even in a slightly more meager way, would present an image of humility. “That seems like a good idea,” Filia agreed.

    Cleon beamed. “The Supreme Elder thinks of everything,” he said with every trace of pride.

    “Always thinking,” Rasmus echoed, but in a somewhat darker tone.

    “So uhh,” Filia looked around and tried to think of a polite way to ask: is this really it? “Are we waiting for anyone else?”

    “It’s just us three,” Cleon said, gesturing to himself, her and Rasmus. “As you might have guessed our attendance at this conference is a little… controversial. There have been some difficulties with the council, so the Supreme Elder thought it best to keep things on the quiet as much as possible.”

    Filia nodded grimly. Talking to humans like they weren’t perpetually five; trading forbidden knowledge with humans; and worst of all, engaging in bilateral talks with the monsters. She wasn’t even sure if she agreed with all of that and she was charged with carrying it out. No wonder support was scant.

    “But I’m sure we’ll be able to accomplish all our objectives without any help,” Cleon affirmed optimistically. “Now, are you about ready to get going? I’m afraid by carriage the trip is rather long and the road is rough. A lot of royalty are fashionably late to the summit, but I don’t think it’s particularly wise if we choose to do the same.”

    Filia had a sudden thought. “I haven’t had a chance to pack anything, and I don’t really have anything with me because I didn’t expect to be away this long.” She wasn’t about to wear her traveling clothes over and over again for a week in the presence of a bunch of queens and duchesses. Though that was certainly preferable to her bad dream from the night before.

    “Not to worry,” Cleon said, patting the back of the coach fondly. “The Supreme Elder has seen to it that the appropriate attire was prepared for you.”

    “Oh, well, okay then,” Filia said. She tried to draw up some courage from the depths of her slightly fluttering soul. “I guess we’d better get going then.”

    Rasmus climbed to the top of the carriage and took up the reign and whip. Cleon climbed up the plain carriage’s rotting wood plank stair, and turned back gallantly to give Filia a hand up. As she took his hand she glanced up at Rasmus with a nervous expression.

    “Does Mister Rasmus know anything about horses?” she asked in a quiet voice.

    Cleon’s brow furrowed. “…What’s to know? They’re horses: they whinny and they like sugar cubes.”

    “I just wondered if he knew how to drive them,” Filia said, feeling somewhat slighted even though she knew Cleon hadn’t actually meant to be condescending.

    “Oh, he’ll be fine,” Cleon said with a wave of his hand. “Humans manage it all the time, after all.”

    *****

    As Filia suspected, Rasmus didn’t turn out to be quite the undiscovered equestrian genius that Cleon expected him to be. By the time midday had rolled around, they were forced to stop as the coach, horses, and several of the scattered articles of luggage were stuck in the mud.

    “It nearly flipped over!” Filia exclaimed from within the coach, a note of hysteria still in her voice.

    “Yes,” Cleon said with no hysteria at all. “I really thought he was getting the hang of it before that.”

    The upside-down head of Rasmus appeared in the window as he bent down from the roof of the carriage. “Sorry about that. Are you alright in there?”

    “We’re fine,” Cleon said. “How long do you think it’ll take for us to get moving again?”

    The upside-down head did some mental calculations. “You’d better just get out and have some lunch,” he said grimly. “It’ll be a bit.”

    “Alright then,” Cleon agreed good-naturedly. “Did the food basket fall off with the others?”

    “I’ll check,” Rasmus said, disappearing onto the roof. Apparently he found no picnic-type basket as, moments later, they heard a muddy splash as he jumped into the bog.

    He appeared upright in the window moments later, holding up a slightly muddied wicker basket and passing it to Cleon through the window. “It fell out,” was all he said.

    “That’s perfectly alright,” Cleon said, taking the basket. “Everything was in containers.”

    He turned to Filia and said, “I’m sorry about this, but we might as well make the best of a bad situation and have a break for lunch.”

    “Sure,” Filia said with her forehead cupped in her left hand. After all, what else could they do? …Except wonder about the inauspicious start to their mission.

    Cleon got up and opened the carriage door, revealing the overgrown puddle that they were slowly sinking into. Filia waited behind him, but he didn’t jump out. He turned to her and passed the food basket which she held at a slight distance from herself so she wouldn’t get mud on her dress. He took off his cloak and placed it on the muddy ground beyond the step, and stepped out into the mud. He reached a hand out to help her to the mud-free tarp his cloak was acting as.

    Filia was surprised. She knew for a fact that chivalry wasn’t dead… but she also knew that it wasn’t particularly well and that people talked in hushed voices when it entered the room. Of course, men hold doors open for women, but that’s mostly all that survives. And, to be honest, it’s not like women don’t hold doors open for people too. No, chivalry existed, but only chivalry that cost nothing. After all, who’d want to get their cloak all muddy?

    Filia wouldn’t have allowed it if she’d known that was what he was going to do. After all, what did it matter if her boots got a little muddy? Mud was what boots were for. But considering that his cloak was already sitting in the mud and was probably going to be sucked down if she waited any longer, she decided not to let the sacrifice go to waste and let him help her down. She walked across it to the dry land on the other side.

    They found a tree stump to use as a table and cracked open the basket. The food was mostly plain, and where it wasn’t plain it was over-salted for preservation. It was honest-to-goodness traveling food and therefore tasted like particularly low-grade crap. Cleon said that after the summit was over, she’d have overdosed on rich food to such a point that she’d be begging for a lunch like this.

    “So,” Filia said, taking a sip of some bitter tea. “Is it really right to go through with this conference thing when it’s so unpopular?”

    “Oh, but it’s very necessary,” Cleon said nodding fervently. “Everyone will see when it’s done that we’re better off coming down from the mountains every so often and associating with the humans. Diplomacy will give us so much more room to maneuver without fighting. And getting the humans on our side will be a big plus.”

    “I just wonder how much of our knowledge we should share with them,” Filia said glumly. “Things could get… out of control.” She remembered quite clearly when Lina and her friends had caused an old dragon transport system to crash into the temple.

    “The Supreme Elder says that they will learn from their mistakes,” Cleon said reverently.

    Filia gave him a wry smile. “So you’re a big fan of the new Supreme Elder, then?”

    “He’s a great man,” Cleon said emphatically. “With him leading us, we can solve our problems with negotiation and not fighting.”

    Filia sighed. She’d figured Cleon for a supporter of the Supreme Elder’s philosophies, but he was probably even more radical than the dragon himself. The idea that you could avoid all war just by talking things out assumed that the other side was reasonable. In this world, you couldn’t even assume that you were reasonable.

    “He seems like he has good intentions,” was all Filia would respond with.

    “Don’t let him fool you with his ‘servant of a better tomorrow’ routine,” Rasmus said, joining them. He was covered in mud up to the waist and plopped a few mud-covered suitcases to the side. “This was all I could save. The rest I’d have to go diving for.”

    “What did we save?” Cleon asked, giving Rasmus a disapproving look but deciding to move on to more important issues.

    “Mostly our baggage and the paperwork,” Rasmus said and then turned to Filia. “Sorry Miss, but your clothes are at the bottom of the bog.”

    Filia frowned. She was worried that the universe was trying to make her nightmares come true. Well it won’t work, universe! she thought angrily.

    “Damn,” Cleon said. “We’ll have to buy replacements when we get to the summit. I assume they’ll be some shops in the area.”

    “It doesn’t exactly seem like a good omen for the summit,” Filia couldn’t help but point out as Rasmus helped himself to the rations.

    “Please don’t think that way, Miss Filia,” Cleon said. “Everything that’s gone wrong so far is our fault,” he said, gesturing from himself to Rasmus (who didn’t look too contrite). “I’m sure you’ll do great.”

    “I only hope so,” Filia said. She turned to Rasmus. “What were you saying about the Supreme Elder, Mister Rasmus?” she asked.

    Rasmus shrugged. “I don’t trust him,” he said stiffly, as though he wasn’t intent on elaborating.

    “Why?” Filia asked, as Cleon made agonized faces and tried to decide whether to start an argument or not.

    “He’s shiftier than he looks,” Rasmus said. “I heard how he tricked the two lead candidates and cheated his way into the Supreme Eldership.”

    “That’s an ugly rumor perpetrated by those jealous of his political savvy,” Cleon said, in a manner that indicated he’d run across this before and was sick of it.

    “Maybe,” Rasmus allowed, not getting drawn into it. “But I say he’s a little too cunning for his own good.”

    “You shouldn’t be filling Miss Filia’s head with this kind of talk!” Cleon said loyally. “Don’t forget we’re all here to do the Supreme Elder’s work.”

    “I haven’t forgotten, and I intend to do it,” Rasmus said lightly. “It doesn’t mean I have to trust him.”

    Cleon looked like the type of person who hated to get upset with people. Since he decided that he wasn’t going to do so today, he asked, “Is the carriage free?”

    “Yes,” Rasmus said. “Ready to go whenever you are.”

    “Then let’s go now,” Cleon said, standing up and packing up the basket. He glanced at the horses pawing the ground nervously. “And maybe I’ll take a shot at driving this time if you don’t mind.”

    “Suit yourself,” Rasmus said stiffly, but without offense.

    Filia sighed. Her assistant was an overly optimistic zealot, her bodyguard was a lousy driver with a devil-may-care attitude, the man who’d sent them on this quest was either an idealistic savior or a ruthless politician, and her entire wardrobe was at the bottom of a bog.

    Vases, she thought. I should’ve just stuck to selling vases.

  3. #3
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    A/N: I guess I forgot to say so before and now I can't seem to edit the first post, so I'll say it now: This fic is also posted up on my fanfiction.net account (Llybian Minamino).

    Chapter 3. Fancy Meeting You Here.

    As it turned out, Cleon wasn’t any better with horses than Rasmus was. Fate had sent them toppling into yet another bog before the trip was complete. As such, they arrived at the summit in a much grubbier condition than anyone would normally want to attend a massive multicultural hobnobbing-session.

    Rasmus, who’d had to do the heavy lifting to get them moving again, was the worst off, being pretty much mud-coated from the waist down. He seemed gruffly unconcerned by this fact. Cleon’s robes had been splashed with mud, but he’d done his best to blot it away with an application of a napkin soaked in ditchwater. Filia was the cleanest of the three. Her boots were mud encrusted and the hem of her pink skirt was dusty, but in most places this wouldn’t have caused comment. Unfortunately a once-a-year diplomatic conference was not most places.

    A skeptical guardsman needed to be shown their paperwork (which thankfully had been scooped out of the bog unscathed) before he’d agree to let them in. While Cleon dealt with him, Filia had a chance to look around at the entrance of the upscale hotel the event was being held in. It wasn’t doing much for her self-esteem.

    The place was beautiful! It was all marble pillars and red velvet settees. A spiral staircase carved with polished, dark red wood wound its way to the next floor in ornate and swirling patterns. A giant chandelier glittered from the ceiling just above her head. Rainbow prisms reflected by the crystal plates were cast all around the room, swaying in the flickering candle flame.
    They were in the lobby, but she could see through a doorway ahead of them that lead into a large room. There was a busy bustle of conversation from within. Every so often the polite, high-pitched titters of the well-bred drifted from the hall and into the lobby. She’d caught glimpses of the people in there. There was a certain prevalence of silk and velvet, paired with gold and jewels, and tiaras as grand as the very chandelier above her.

    She wondered, in a tiny, near-hopeless way, whether she could make some sort of emergency gown from the materials around her. There was, after all, no shortage of velvet curtains. Surely they wouldn’t mind if she nabbed just a few, right? …Wrong. The tuxedo-clad hotel staff looked like they distinctly wouldn’t appreciate any attempts by her to MacGyver a gown.

    “Well, that’s all sorted out,” Cleon said, turning to her as he folded up an official looking piece of paper and put it back in his briefcase. “Sorry about the wait, Miss Filia. You can go into the hall now.”

    “What?” Filia said in shock, tearing her eyes away from the room where the rich and powerful consorted gracefully with those of their own station. “You mean I have to go in there now? Dressed like this?”

    “Yes,” Cleon said. “Don’t worry; I’ll see about ordering some nicer clothes for you while I get everything settled. In the meantime, you look fine.” He paused and suddenly realized that, because he was talking to a woman, he’d have to do a little bit better than that. “Better than fine,” he amended. “Lovely, beautiful, stylish.”

    He elbowed Rasmus. “You can barely see the mud,” Rasmus commented at the nudge.

    “But—” Filia began helplessly, looking at her muddied skirt hem in dismay. It wasn’t just the mud, she knew even if the dress had been spotless it wouldn’t have been appropriate for this kind of event. She couldn’t believe they were actually serious about her going in there. “But there are princesses and duchesses in there!”

    “You could out duch a duchess any day,” Cleon said, pure confidence.

    “They say it’s what’s on the inside that counts,” Rasmus said in a deadpan, perhaps aware that he was not helping in the least.

    “But I haven’t even been briefed yet,” Filia pointed out desperately. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say!”

    “Oh, the first night’s just a bit of a meet-and-greet while everyone gets settled,” Cleon explained. “You’ll find they actually, well… like to ease into more serious negations later. You’ll just have to introduce yourself and make some polite conversation tonight.”

    Filia didn’t quite feel up to polite conversation at the moment. Her stress level was heightened and getting stuck in a swamp twice hadn’t helped. What had made it even worse was when Cleon took up the reigns and she’d been forced to spend the second half of the trip with Rasmus who hadn’t said a word to her the whole time and just stared austerely into the wood paneling in front of him. So she struck out once more: “I don’t even know how to… how to…” she rustled up an excuse, “how to address a Duke or anything like that!”

    “That’d be ‘Your Grace’,” Cleon said with a small smile. “I’m sure you’ll pick it up, and the etiquette thing really isn’t as stifling as you’d think. What the gentry appreciate most is a smile and feigned interest in whatever they’re talking about.”

    Filia still wasn’t sure. In fact, Cleon’s faith in her actually worried her more instead of pacifying her. It was a lot to live up to.
    Cleon patted her shoulder awkwardly. “Why don’t I come in with you for a bit before I attend to our rooms and ordering your new clothes?”

    Filia nodded numbly and then gritted her teeth. She wasn’t going to get anywhere just worrying about things. She tried to quell her anxiety with determination. She swept forward toward the grand hall flanked by Cleon and Rasmus, pretending that she was as grandly dressed as any princess.

    A man in a suit and tie stopped them at the door, but didn’t even bat an eye at their grubby ranks. Cleon passed him a card. The Announcer read in a loud clear voice into the hall, “Miss Filia Ul Copt, for the Dragon Race.”

    Several heads turned and Filia froze, hoping to not hear any mention of her less-than-appropriate attire. At least it was better than her nightmare, she thought grimly.

    But… now that she looked at the hall, she really didn’t seem as out of place as she thought. Sure, there were a lot of women decked out like parade floats and smartly dressed men, but there were also a lot of people in traveling clothes like hers. There was even a man at the long buffet touching every canapé before he picked the one he liked best who looked like he hadn’t shaved or washed his face that morning. Perhaps this wasn’t such a breach of protocol after all.

    She breathed out. “See?” Cleon said, smiling warmly. “I told you it would be alright.”

    “I’ll stand guard by the door,” Rasmus rumbled as he took a place against the wall with the other bodyguards, watching the room with sustained interest in case they should need to spring into action.

    Filia was glad he wouldn’t be following them around the whole evening. It was comforting to know that he would protect her if anything went wrong, but the idea of his somber face staring over her shoulder all night was decidedly awkward.

    They cleared the doorway to let the dignitaries behind them get through. The hallway was massive. Tables had been set out with a variety of appetizers, but not too many since the cooks were no doubt slaving away in the kitchen to prepare for the dinner that would be served in a few hour’s time. There had to be some food out though, on the basis that a hungry diplomat is not very… diplomatic. Waiters bustled around with trays stacked with bubbly, alcohol beverages and tried to keep their balance.

    People were talking animatedly to one another. It was more like… like a party than a political meeting. But Filia supposed that all this engendered good will and made it easier for people to work with one another once they’d got down to business.

    “That’s the Right Reverend Stacis of the Gruddian Church,” Cleon said, pointing to an old man inconspicuously picking at his teeth as they walked through the room. “And that’s Baroness Sheraeda of the Mioria delegation. And that’s— Oh.” He stopped suddenly.

    Filia had felt it before him. After all, she was used to it; that nasty little aura that was like a thermite reaction in her stomach. The urge to breathe fire and trample buildings rose up within her. She clenched her fist and steered herself toward the epicenter of the aura.

    There he was, lounging against the corner and looking up at her as she turned. He too was dressed in his normal traveling clothes, though unlike hers they were perfectly clean. He gave her an ‘I just swallowed a bug’ smile and approached her.

    “Well, what a surprise,” Xellos drawled mildly. “You’d think even the dragon race could drudge up a better ambassador than some naïve little shop-girl who doesn’t even bother to wash her clothes before showing up at a party.” He shrugged in mock resignation and raised one eyebrow. “But I guess your numbers are spread thin lately.”

    Filia glowered. Three sentences in and she already wanted to bash him over the head with something. How dare he – how dare he. It was enough to insult her, but how dare he bring up that brutal massacre!

    “Why you—!” she began, and remembered that one of the perks of her traveling clothes was that her skirt concealed her favorite weapon. On impulse she grasped her mace and held it out in front of her to let him know she wasn’t in the mood for any of his crap.

    Her red haze of hatred was interrupted by someone tugging at her arm and saying: “Miss Filia, stop please!

    She reluctantly tore her angry gaze away from the amused smiled paired with eye twitch Xellos was treating her to and turned to Cleon of the nervous face and sweaty forehead.

    “You heard what he said, didn’t you?” she said a little louder than she should have.

    “I did,” Cleon trying his best to placate her and warily eyeing the surrounding people who’d turned to watch the exchange. “But that doesn’t matter right now. You’ve got to remember where you are and what you’re doing! Your actions reflect on your entire race!”

    Filia lowered her mace and tried to calm her breathing. Why did she always let that… that weasel get to her and make her act stupid?
    “Are you saying that…” Filia began slowly.

    “Yes!” Cleon said emphatically. “If you sneeze, the dragon race sneezes. If you eat dinner, the dragon race eats dinner. If you attack someone, the dragon race attacks someone. And that’s a fantastic way to start a war, which is not what we came here for.”

    “That’s right, Filia,” Xellos said smugly. “We’re supposed to play nice here.”
    Filia was about to tell him just what she thought of that, when she was suddenly tapped on the shoulder by a large man in a black suit with dark glasses.

    “Ma’am, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to confiscate that,” he said, looking down his nose at her. “Non-clearance weapons are not allowed at the conference.”

    “It’s… cultural?” Cleon tried with a weak smile.

    The security guard shook his head. “Good effort, but the dwarves already tried that one.” He held out a hand.

    Filia stewed inside as she pointedly avoided looking at Xellos’s face. It was no good though; she could imagine that smug smile anyway. “I’ll want that back,” she snapped as to maintain as much of her pride as possible as she handed over the mace.

    The guard toppled to the ground as the mace fell into his hands. He grunted something that might have been an affirmative and dragged it out of the room with as much dignity as he could muster.

    “You’re doing well so far,” Xellos said cheerily as the man scraped out of sight. “You’ve been here five minutes and you’ve only nearly caused one international incident. I suppose the dragon race’s strategy of picking ambassadors from random underlings might not be as suicidal as it first seemed!”

    There was an angry silence. Cleon coughed, stopping Filia from saying… saying something really scathing that she hadn’t quite thought of yet. “Actually,” Cleon said. “Miss Filia is not an ‘underling’ as you say.”

    For the first time since he’d approached them Xellos turned his focus away from Filia and to the dragon clerk. “Oh?” he said.

    “Yes,” Cleon said in the manner of one who is not at all at home in his current company but is going to be polite and say his bit nevertheless. “Miss Filia is actually the Premier of Foreign Affairs and Trade.” He looked up with a trace of defiant pride, as though he’d pulled out his trump card.

    There was a long silence as both Xellos and Filia stared blankly at Cleon, who seemed to wilt in the presence of their shared gaze. Finally Filia said, in a mildly surprised voice: “I am?”

    “Yes,” Cleon said somewhat awkwardly. “The paperwork was signed last night,” he added in a quiet voice.

    “Hmm,” Filia said to herself. They’d given her a do-nothing title. “I don’t see much point in that,” she commented.

    “But you’ve got to have a title, Filia,” came Xellos’s voice. “All these people,” he gestured to the crowd of diplomats around them, “respond to things like titles, ranks, ancestors; that sort of thing. It engenders respect.”

    “Oh really?” Filia snapped, wishing he would do them both a favor and leave her alone. “Then what’s your title?”

    Xellos smiled his small, obnoxious smile. “I don’t need a title to get respect.”

    Filia crossed her arms. “Well, you certainly don’t have my respect.”

    His expression didn’t change, but if you were looking for it you might have noticed his grip on his staff tighten ever so slightly. “I hadn’t noticed,” he said sourly.

    The agitated buzz of their mutual glowering was broken off by an abrupt clap from Cleon. “Well,” he said in as lighthearted a tone as he could manage while in the presence of two people so clearly on the verge of physical violence. “It’s about time I went off and… saw to things!” He began backing up. “You’ll do fine, Miss Filia. I’ll catch up with you later!”

    And then he walked backwards out of the room, nearly colliding with a bishop along the way, leaving her alone with… ugh.

    “Who was that supposed to be?” Xellos asked with a vague glance over her shoulder as Cleon disappeared.

    “My assistant,” Filia said through gritted teeth.

    “Oh,” Xellos said, taking a glass of champagne from a passing tray. “So I assume he’ll be the one telling you what to say and you’ll… just stand there and look pretty? Is that the job description for the,” insert sneer here, “‘Premier of Foreign Affairs and Trade’? Because you clearly don’t have any other qualifications.”

    Filia kept herself from shrieking at him because they were in a public place and she’d already caused one scene for the evening and that was enough. “I’ll have you know I was chosen for this job on merit and your nasty little suggestions are completely out of order!” Ignoring the fact that she hadn’t wanted the job in the first place because she didn’t think she was qualified. Still, he had no right to say things like that to people.

    “I wasn’t trying to make any nasty suggestions,” Xellos said in a persecuted voice. “It’s not my fault if you have an overactive imagination.”

    He drained his glass, seemingly oblivious to her irritation as he gave the matter some thought. “You might actually be better off acting on your own in this case,” he said. “And it’s a sad state of affairs when you are better off thinking for yourself than being someone’s puppet.”

    She wished that she could pull off a cool glare. It would be so much more aloof and competent. The look she was giving him right now could’ve melted steel. She glanced away from him for a minute (which was good, because he was beginning to feel like an ant under a magnifying glass) to the waiter to his left with the tray of drinks.

    Her currently line of thought was: where can I get one of those? But she shook it off. She wasn’t going to let Xellos drive her to drink.

    She didn’t want to be there. She was worried enough about this whole thing without Xellos telling her she was going to make a mess of it. It was hard to frame appropriate comebacks when she had a sneaking suspicion that he was right. It wasn’t her fault though! The Supreme Elder had practically begged her to do this. She was just trying to do her best under the circumstances.

    And suddenly, Lady Luck, who had been rather disinclined toward Filia as of late, seemed to decide to throw her a bone. Salvation strode through the crowd – a familiar figure in a powder blue dressed designed by someone who knew about ruffles, but also knew when enough ruffles was enough.

    “Miss Amelia?” Filia said as the figure turned.

    It was Amelia! Filia mentally cheered. She wouldn’t be stuck having to make forced conversation with Xellos after all.

    “Miss Filia? Mister Xellos?” Amelia said as she approached them. “I didn’t expect to see you two here!”

    She really didn’t; you could tell by her expression. It was the caught off-guard look people always get when they come across people they know in entirely different settings than they were used to. It’s like when a student runs into a teacher at the mall. It’s awkward.

    “I guess I should have expected to see a princess of Seyruun here,” Filia said cheerfully, heartened by the idea of having a friend at the summit.

    “Yes,” Amelia said, straightening out her dress in an absent-minded way. “You know, I heard rumors that the monster race and the dragon race were sending representatives, but I didn’t know whether to believe them or not.”

    “That’s right,” Filia said, thinking on it. “The Supreme Elder did say this was the first year we were invited. So have you been here before?”

    “A few times with Daddy,” Amelia said, still seeming a bit shaken from the surprise of seeing them. She paused. “With my father, I mean,” she amended. “This is my first time alone.”

    “So have you seen Miss Lina and the others lately?” Filia asked.

    “Oh, Miss Lina and Mister Gourry stayed at the castle a little while back,” Amelia said. “I haven’t heard from Mister Zelgadis lately though.”

    “No doubt he has more important things to do than visit with you,” Xellos said in the jovial tone he especially liked to employ to deliver casually hurtful comments. Filia gaped at him.

    But Amelia didn’t take the bait. She merely sniffed and said, “I guess we’re all very busy.”

    Amelia seemed a bit… different from her usual self. Just… slightly remote. Filia wondered what might be bothering her and gave her a searching look.

    That’s it, Filia thought, reading into Amelia’s expression. She’s worried… and embarrassed! Strike the teacher-student-mall comparison. This was more like running across childhood buddies on a business trip – when you’re around people that you have to impress and you’re unnerved because other people who have heard you tell that ever so amusing joke about the nun and the hickory stick have shown up and these two groups of people could conceivably meet, resulting in… trouble.

    It struck Filia that Amelia probably didn’t always climb trees and deliver hyper dramatic justice speeches. When it came to matters of the state she probably knew when to tread lightly, to curtsy, and to speak carefully. She was a princess. This diplomacy thing had been foisted on Filia and she was trying to handle it as best she could with no proper training, but… as for Amelia… well, it was her job.

    “Well,” Amelia said finally adjusting to the new situation and smiling at Filia. “I’m sure we’ll get to work with each other later during the summit.”

    “Yes,” Filia said quietly. “That’ll be nice.”

    Suddenly the Announcer’s voice drifted in from across the room. “The Countess Gardenia of the Sarazevian Empire.” A girl in green swept imperiously into the hall.

    “Oh!” Amelia said, looking up. She gave Filia an apologetic look. “Sorry, but I’m supposed to meet her.”

    “That’s fine,” Filia said. “I’ll see you later, then.”

    “Bye!” Amelia said, hitching up her skirts slightly and making her way toward the girl in green.

    As Filia watched her go she felt a renewed sense of purpose for her mission. Amelia seemed to be taking her role as a diplomat very seriously and Filia was determined to do the same. She wasn’t going to let her nerves wreck this. She was going to have a professional attitude. And that would all start with…

    She took a deep breath. “Xellos,” she began seriously, “we have to talk about the Daius Seed.”

  4. #4
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    Chapter 4. An Introduction to Politics.

    “The Daius Seed?” Xellos repeated. He shook his head and to Filia’s intense irritation clucked his tongue at her in a disapproving fashion. “You’re getting it all wrong again.”

    “What are you talking about?” Filia responded in a barely contained voice. She had been putting forth her best calm, professional tone; she’d gotten to the point they needed to discuss so they could actually get something productive done instead of bickering; and she’d resisted the urge to punch his stupid face in. That last one had been the hardest. She was trying. And now he had the nerve to tell her she was doing it wrong?!

    “Negotiations are for later,” Xellos explained. “This is just the reception – face time. You have to make a good impression before you can expect anyone to want to make a deal with you. If you really wanted to do your job well you’d be out there,” he gestured vaguely at the assembled ambassadors, “mingling.”

    Filia turned her gaze apprehensively to the residents of the bustling hall. There was a lot of… handshaking and smiling going on. This in itself isn’t that hostile, but in Filia’s current state of mind it just made her feel as though she’d stumbled into a secret club that she didn’t belong to.

    Xellos was surveying her expression through one lazily opened eye. “But you can’t do that, can you?” he observed. “You don’t know anyone here and you don’t have the wherewithal to insinuate yourself into the group.”

    Filia bit her lip. Cleon had left this to her because he thought she could handle it. She was letting down the team at the very first hurdle.

    Xellos’s face suddenly brightened considerably which did not make Filia feel better in the least. “I can just imagine you going up to the King of Distle and saying: ‘Hi! I’m Filia! Who are you?’”

    He laughed but Filia just glowered and muttered: “I don’t sound like that.”

    Filia felt sunk. For a moment she’d held out hope that she could find Amelia and ask for her help, but Amelia probably had her own troubles to worry about and, anyway, seemed to be in deep conversation with the young Countess that she’d gone off to chat with.

    Horrible creature though he was, sticking with Xellos was, at this point, preferable to talking to anyone else. At least he expected her to make a fool of herself. He’d probably be disappointed if she didn’t.

    He frowned at her look of helpless resignation. “Oh, I’m sure it’s not as hard as you’re making it out to be,” he said. Then the mocking tones seemed to creep back into his voice once more as he said: “After all, you are the Premier of whatever it was, aren’t you?”

    “Foreign Affairs and Trade,” Filia said glumly. “Whatever that means.” No one had given her a job description or even told her she was getting the title.

    “I think it means you sleep with people from other countries,” Xellos replied.

    There was a crowded, dangerous silence.

    “Clever,” Filia responded in tones as harsh and inhospitable as the highest peak of the Mountain of Tears.

    Xellos really should have had to brush snow off his shoulders after this last word from Filia, but he let it pass as though the temperature of the room hadn’t just entered the sub-zero zone.

    “In any case,” he went on, “you ought to be able to manage the reception at least. The meet-and-greet is supposed to be the easy part. It’s just a matter of making the right contacts.” He leaned casually against the buffet table.

    “Now,” he said thoughtfully to himself as he scanned the crowd. “Who were you sent here to manipulate besides me?”

    Filia did not know at all how to respond to that and was therefore lucky that she did not try to open her mouth as she would’ve said something like: “Wrxtzl?!” which isn’t a word. Obviously there was anger there. How dare that monster of all things accuse her of trying to manipulate people? Manipulating people is not only in the monster job description, but it’s how they spend their spare time. Whereas she favored the honest, non-sneaky approach to communication. He was the one that was probably there to manipulate people.

    And what made him think she’d even try to manipulate him? What, did he think all the insults and vague threats of violence were just her way of getting on his good side? If that was true then Xellos really needed to take more devious ******* lessons because that was not generally the way Filia thought of going about getting people to do what you want.

    She came to the conclusion that he was just trying to seed some confused guilt in her already nervous soul, and she decided she wasn’t going to have any of that.

    “I’m not here to manipulate anyone,” she said through gritted teeth. “I’m just here to represent my race.”

    “Oh, my apologies,” Xellos said with an overdone shrug. “I’m afraid I assumed that your new Supreme Elder was thinking of taking advantage of our past dealings with one another in sending you. You know,” he paused to ratchet up his smile, “what with you and I being such good, old friends and all.”

    “The monster race is sending… Xellos.”

    “That’s actually the main reason we’re sending you.”


    Filia surprised herself with her own poise. The recollections of those words passed across her mind but she didn’t betray them. “You don’t have any friends,” Filia sniffed, rallying magnificently. “You have ‘acquaintances’.”

    Xellos beamed at her as though she was an exceptionally stupid dog who’d done a rather clever trick. “Very good, Filia,” he said.

    Filia gave him a sour look and glanced edgily at the crowd. She wasn’t in the mood at the moment for any of his backhanded compliments. In fact, she was never in the mood for his backhanded compliments. She searched the crowd for any likely friendly face that might be willing to chat with someone that they didn’t know who knew nothing about them. Basically, she was doing the social equivalent of looking among the herd for the lost lamb, young elk, or wounded gazelle; but she’d have never put it in such bloodthirsty terms.

    Xellos noted her gaze and said thoughtfully: “Actually, you might have more trouble breaking into the group this year than in years past.”

    “Why?” Filia asked, tearing her eyes away from the assembled ambassadors to look at him.

    “Oh, they might be just a little wary of talking to strangers,” Xellos said vaguely. “I don’t know if you heard, but there’s supposed to be a monster somewhere around here,” he added in gleeful nonchalance.

    Filia glared at him. That little… Of course he wasn’t going to just out and tell people he was a monster. Understanding that someone is, as a matter of basic being, predisposed to seek not only your suffering but your destruction makes working with them seem less than beneficial. No. He’d just sneak around and pull the strings in secret.

    “They’ll see through you,” she announced, steely-eyed.

    “Really?” Xellos asked as though this was an amusing idea that had no hitherto occurred to him.

    She wanted to say ‘yes’ but the word stuck in her throat. A sharp, acidic feeling in the pit of her stomach told her that she didn’t believe it. No one would see through him. He’d probably been fooling people for centuries… not exactly by lying to people, but by telling the truth in the most deceptive way possible; by volunteering information and not volunteering information; by trimming off the extra edges of the truth and giving only what he wanted you to know.

    My God, she found herself thinking uneasily, what would I think of him if I didn’t know any better?

    She tried to tell herself that even without being able to sense his malevolent aura that she’d be able to pick up on the subtle clues. But yet… she’d seen it hadn’t she? He could be downright nice and friendly though not, of course, to her. He only didn’t bother much with her because the affable routine cut absolutely no ice as far as she was concerned. She knew what he was. But if she didn’t… would he be able to fool her?

    It didn’t help, she thought to herself, that Xellos didn’t really look like what most people, particularly humans, would imagine a monster to look. He was a little bit short on horns and fangs and the other accouterments ascribed to his ilk.

    He looked… normal. No. Strike that. He seemed normal. There was a difference. He blends into crowds when he wants to and can go completely unnoticed until he speaks. He can disappear and not just in the literal astral teleportation way. By all accounts he should be bland and unmemorable. But when you actually paid attention to him you realized that he wasn’t either of those things. You wondered how he could manage to have escaped your notice before. He decided when he wanted to be the center of attention and when he wanted to lurk in the periphery. There was some trick to it, she was sure. But he certainly didn’t look normal. He was downright unique.

    Xellos usually smiled, but his current smile seemed to gain a patina of smugness that hadn’t been there before. With an unpleasant jolt she realized that she’d been staring at him throughout her entire inner monologue. She snapped her attention back to the crowd and tried to pretend that none of that had happened.

    She could hear Xellos straightening up from his reclined position against the buffet table and step closer to her. She focused on an old man hanging furtively around the cheese tray, holding his hat and looking around. She didn’t turn around or look sideways when she felt him step forward and stand next to her. She could feel his eyes on her.

    And then, suddenly, the pressure of his eyes on her vanished. He was looking out into the crowd and following her gaze.

    “That,” he said, nodding to the man by the tray, “is Senator Malar from the Republic of Chelonia.”

    Filia let out a breath she hadn’t realized that she’d been holding. “Is he looking for someone?” she asked, more or less to have something to say.

    “You could say that,” Xellos said. “He’s probably looking for Prince Helix of Rayfare, but only so he can avoid him.”

    “Why?” Filia asked. She didn’t know why Xellos was telling her this. Perhaps he was feeding her false information. Perhaps he just wanted to lord his more extensive knowledge over her. Perhaps he was bored. Going along with it wouldn’t do any harm, and anyway, she was glad to be on a neutral subject.

    “Chelonia and Rayfare have been embroiled in a rather heated argument for quite some time,” Xellos explained. “There’s been… disagreement about a war fought between them.”

    “What kind of disagreement?” Filia asked.

    “Apparently it’s over what to call the war,” Xellos said almost laughingly.

    “What?” As far as Filia was concerned, what to call a war was hardly of paramount importance in the greater scheme of… well, warfare.

    “Yes,” Xellos said. “The Chelonian’s refer to it as the War of Balsail because most of the major battles occurred in and around that particular state.”

    Filia couldn’t really see what was controversial about that. “And what do the Rayfarians call it?”

    “The War of Chelonian Belligerence,” Xellos said bluntly.

    “Oh,” Filia said. She was beginning to have a sneaking suspicion that she’d been tossed in with a crowd of kids. To check she asked: “How long ago was this war?”

    “126 years,” Xellos said.

    “Ah.”

    Xellos gave her a sidelong glance and nodded his head in the opposite corner of the room. “That’s Commander Banner of the East Trift fighting force,” he said as Filia turned to look at the man he referred to.

    “The one in the wheelchair?” Filia asked out of surprise. The man Xellos seemed to referring to was in uniform, but he looked old, unkempt and slightly lost. He sat immobiley in a wooden wheelchair with a blanket on his lap, smiling vaguely at nothing. An extremely tall woman in surgical white pushed his chair slowly along with an expression of austere efficiency.

    “That’s the one,” Xellos said. “There are whispers that he’s only faking senility in order to put the Herland delegation off their game. The woman is supposedly a skilled assassin from the tribes of the Mohahn island.”

    Filia stared. “You mean the nurse?”

    “Good with needles as I understand,” Xellos commented with a knowing expression.

    He turned his head once again and Filia whipped her head around to follow his gaze. “Now here’s a rare sight,” Xellos commented. “The werewolf delegation.”

    Ahead of them were three tall and exceptionally hairy creatures in serious looking armor. The lead one was female and therefore wore slightly more figure flattering armor.

    “This is the first year that the beast tribes have been allowed representation,” Xellos went on. “You may think you’ve got it bad, but just be glad you’re not them.”

    Filia sighed remembering the horrible treatment Jillas and Gravos had suffered at the hands of humans simply for being what they were. “They hate them because they’re beastmen?”

    “Partly,” Xellos said. “But the werewolves have a particularly bad reputation all on their own. And,” he added with a twisted little smile, “they’re reputed to be demon worshippers.”

    “Are they?” Filia said figuring that Xellos was the one to ask about this.

    Xellos shrugged. “Some are.”

    “Does,” Filia struggled to put her frustrated thoughts into words, “does everyone here hate someone else here?”

    Xellos grinned broadly. “Now you’re catching on. In a manner of speaking: you’re among friends.”

    Filia groaned. Politics, she thought. I had to get involved in politics. It’s like dealing with third graders with siege weapons. Cleon had acted like this was going to be a cooperative effort probably ending in them joining hands and singing. But she couldn’t help getting the feeling just by talking to Xellos and looking at these people that she’d be walking on eggshells the whole time.

    Not eggshells… daggers.

    A horrible sight woke her from her doomsaying thoughts. She shrunk a step back in utter disgust before saying in a very loud whisper: “What is that?”

    “That would be the esteemed representative from the Duchy of Finnale,” Xellos said in a maddeningly chipper voice.

    “But—But—,” Filia protested as her eyes followed the man in fascinated horror. “There are things crawling on his clothes!”

    “Probably lice,” Xellos said as though this information helped.

    “But he’s a diplomat?!” Filia half-shrieked as the esteemed representative from the Duchy of Finnale stuffed eight or nine sandwiches into the pockets of his filthy, oversized coat. “He looks… homeless!”

    “Not during the summit he isn’t,” Xellos said. “The smaller countries tend to do this. It costs a lot less to send a commoner to a big conference like this than it is to send nobility. They don’t need an entourage or regalia.”

    Hobo diplomacy. Now she’d heard everything. “And people are okay with this?” she asked, still unable to reconcile the man she’d seen with the setting they were in.

    “Well,” Xellos admitted. “Some leaders do insist that all diplomats at least wash before they’ll grant them audience, but overall it’s worked out fairly well. Some of those hobos are actually fairly shrewd.”

    If Xellos’s only plan in telling her this was to make her feel even more out of her depth than before then… well, mission accomplished! Now that she was inside the international community it seemed even more insane than it had from the outside. It was all… infighting and prejudice and petty arguments and… and… lice! It clearly followed some kind of mad methodology but she worried that she’d have a hell of a time figuring out exactly what that was.

    “Now there’s someone important,” Xellos said crossing his arms and staring toward the open bar where a black haired man in his mid-forties stood drinking with a determined expression on his face. He wore sandals and a long red cloak. He carried no sword, but an empty hilt was strapped to his waist. “You’ve at least heard of the Renz Empire, haven’t you? Well, that’s Duke Arkon Myant, a very powerful man within the ranks – army background. His ambitions to rule Renz are well known.”

    Filia’s gaze had shifted almost magnetically to the figure to Duke Arkon’s left. Her skin was tan and glowed with health; her long brown hair was elaborately braid; she wore a figure-hugging linen dress; gold bracelets jangled at her wrists and large rings decorated her fingers. Her eyes were heavily made up and a piercing shade of green that could be seen even across the room. She had to be the most beautiful woman Filia had ever seen. “Who’s that with him?”

    “Ah,” Xellos said, turning his attention to the woman. “You’ve spotted the infamous Lopa, the first and only Queen of the river country Arcet. She and the Duke are,” he paused as though searching for the right word, “involved.”

    “Romantically?” Filia said, looking at the Queen and the Duke carefully. They seemed to be talking quite fondly with each other but… there was a carefully kept distance between them that she couldn’t quite reconcile.

    “Yes,” Xellos confirmed. “In fact, you could say that they’re rather famous for their love affair.”

    Across the room, Queen Lopa smiled at Arkon. Her smile flashed as quickly as a snake’s fangs and then it was gone.

    “I wouldn’t romanticize it too much, though,” Xellos said, following Filia’s gaze. “Their relationship is more of a political one than anything. As I said before, Arkon Myant wants to rule Renz. He’s using the river kingdom as an outside base independent of his own lands, and of course utilizing the rich resources of the land and Lopa’s considerable wealth. Lopa’s people are on the edge of rebellion and she needs strong allies wherever she can find them. Arkon is in line for the throne and if he does become king then as his partner she can absorb the mighty Renz as part of her domain.”

    “On the surface, it is the fiery affair between two nations that has captured the imaginations of poets from both their lands, but if you look beyond that you realize that they’re just using each other,” Xellos summed up. “Alas, in politics love doesn’t really factor into the equation!” he concluded brightly.

    Filia was starting to feel angry again. It was just that hearing a monster of all things talk so smugly about love, a subject that he knew nothing nothing about was just too much. “How do you know?” she demanded. “You don’t know them!”

    She threw up her hands. “So what if they do have a political alliance? That doesn’t mean anything! Maybe they have strategic reasons for being together and love each other. It’s not like her having wealth and him being in line for the throne somehow makes that impossible. Just because their relationship has political benefits doesn’t mean that they don’t love each other. There’s no reason why both can’t be true.”

    Filia thought he was going to argue, and frankly she was up for it. Let him call her starry-eyed and naïve all he wanted: he couldn’t prove her wrong! But he just gave her a thoughtful look, shifted his gaze back to the Queen and the Duke, and then back to her again.

    All he said was: “Perhaps.”

  5. #5
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    Chapter 5. A Good Impression.

    The reception wore on. Filia helped herself to a few appetizers, though not too many as she didn’t want to spoil her appetite for dinner, while Xellos would occasionally point out one of the guests and share a few facts about them. Considering their opinions of each other, it was going quite well. Of course he would casually insult her from time to time, and at one point she did brandish an ornamental toothpick shaped like a sword at him in a threatening manner, but still.

    A dusky robed figure made his way through the crowd toward them. With a rush of relief Filia realized that Cleon had come back to rescue her from Xellos’s odious company. He smiled when he saw her, then stopped suddenly, looked surprised and strode forward to greet her uncertainly.

    “Were you able to order the new clothes?” she asked.

    “Yeah…” Cleon said vaguely, giving her and Xellos an odd look. He hesitated for a moment and then said: “Umm… Miss Filia, there are uh… other people here for you to meet.”

    “Oh,” Filia said. She didn’t know what else to say. Of course there were obviously other people she should be talking to, but it wasn’t her fault that her assistant had left her with no information! He didn’t need to act like she’d wanted to be stuck with Xellos this whole time.

    “I’m sure I didn’t mean to monopolize her,” Xellos said with a sneer.

    Filia allowed Cleon to lead her away and wondered vaguely who Xellos would turn his verbal abuse on now that she’d left.

    “You really mustn’t think you need to spend that much time with him,” Cleon said once they were out of earshot. “Dealing with the monster race may be priority one at this summit, but there’s really no cause to be around him outside of the negotiating room. If you see him all you need do is stand your ground, be polite, and excuse yourself as quickly as possible.”

    He grimaced. “Usually it is a good idea to chat with diplomats before getting down to serious business. In fact, chatting makes up most of the job. But in the case of our two races… well, I’m sure you know the phrase ‘familiarity breeds contempt’.”

    Of course she did. But with the monsters and the dragons, Filia knew, it was more than a case of familiarity breeds contempt. Absence and avoidance also bred contempt. It was ridiculously easy to breed contempt between the dragons and the monsters.

    It’s probably the only easy thing to breed between dragons and monsters.

    Filia stopped dead in her tracks. …Where had that thought come from? …It had been inside her head and in her own voice so theoretically that probably meant that she had thought it herself. She could hardly believe that she would make such a tasteless comment herself and put it down to spending too much time with that smart-alecky Xellos. Sass must rub off on you at some point. Better watch that.

    “Now, let’s see,” Cleon said, looking around the room. “We’ve got a little time before we should leave to prepare for dinner… so let’s try to make a good impression then!” Cleon gave an encouraging smile.

    Filia nodded.

    Cleon seemed to have spotted a likely candidate for impression-making and pointed out a man who stood out from the group. “That’s the President of the DASIS. I’ve heard he’s a very well thought of gentleman.”

    Most of the bright clothing in the room was worn by the women, the men favoring more neutral shades, but this man outshone them all. He wore a long smock splattered with explosions of every imaginable color blending together. He wore a tall cylindrical hat in the same cacophony of clashing colors. He had a pleasant, crinkled face and despite the fact that only wine and champagne seemed to be available, he was bringing a very small glass half-full of a clear and corrosive liquid to his lips.

    “DASIS?” Filia repeated.

    “The Democratic Assemblage of Southern Island States,” Cleon explained. “But they just call it DASIS.”

    Filia nodded and breathed steadily. This actually seemed a lot less scary now that the task was before her. Perhaps it was the fact that the President did, indeed, look like a very nice man.

    “Anything else I need to know?” she asked.

    “Just call him ‘Mr. President’,” Cleon said. “Otherwise, you’ll do fine. Go for it!”
    Filia decided to do just that. She’d spent most of the reception in the stands and now she’d decided to earn her keep in the ring. She approached the Island State president with only a slight flutter of anticipation and said, “Mr. President?”

    The President looked up at her, grinned with tobacco stained teeth and then pointed at her with the hand still holding his drink as though he was trying to place her. “You’re the dragon girl, aren’t you?” he said good-naturedly.
    Filia tried to mirror his smile, though of course minus the tooth decay. “That’s right, sir.”

    “Never met a dragon before,” he said in a slightly clipped accent, putting his drink down on the head of a very short passing waiter. He extended a hand. “Put it there.”

    Filia shook his hand. She was glad this introduction was friendly enough, that was encouraging, but she couldn’t help but notice the whispers of people around them as the crowd thinned. Other diplomats were leaving and shaking their heads, apparently not considering meeting a dragon to be such a nice event.

    “I expected dragons to be bigger,” the President commented after the handshake was over.

    “Oh, well,” Filia began uncertainly, put off by the negative atmosphere of the crowd. She might have taken the time to explain to the president that dragons were bigger in their true forms, but that at the moment she was taking a humanoid form in order to avoid banging her head against the ceiling and generally causing a panic. She decided, though, at the point the words were just about to come out of her mouth that they sounded condescending and she wasn’t about to condescend to a president. She searched her mind for a more charming reply and went with: “I thought I might get that.”

    “Ha!” the man said, loading a pipe with tobacco before lighting it and taking a smoke. The waiters shifted uneasily. You really couldn’t thank a head of state for not smoking. “What’s your name then?”

    “It’s Filia. Filia Ul Copt.”

    “Well, Miss Filia, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” the DASIS president said.

    “And you as well, sir,” Filia responded dutifully.

    “Now, let me ask you something,” the man said, moving conspiratorially closer so that she could smell the pipe smoke. “This may be a little… whatchacallit… politically incorrect and all, but what can I say: I have a history of that. But I never met a dragon before and I figure this is my chance to find out what’s right and what’s not. So, is it true about the hordes of gold and stuff?”

    Filia swallowed nervously. “Oh no, sir!” she said. At least not anymore, she added silently.

    The dragon race would love to say that the humans just made up all that stuff about dragons hording gold and terrorizing towns. In fact, they did say that pretty much whenever it came up. As they say though, the truth will out.

    It boggled Filia’s mind that members of her race had violently oppressed human villages in the distant past. The dragon race did wrong, and no question about that. She had become all too acquainted with that fact in her journey. But at least when they did wrong they did it with good intentions. They shed blood, but they were seeking peace. She wasn’t sure if that made it better, but it was a fact.

    She couldn’t understand at first how they could possibly claim that lording over human villages was in any way in the pursuit of peace. Apparently the logic had run like this: 1. Humans are of low-intelligence and incapable of governing themselves effectively. 2. Dragons should rule humans by right of their divinity and high-intelligence.

    Therefore the dragons had conquered small groups of humans for their own good. At least that’s what they seemed to think. The gold part came with taxing and as a show of power. After all, you can’t really get a much more potent symbol of authority than a giant dragon sitting on top of the entirety of a community’s wealth.

    The campaign had ceased when the humans, who weren’t really fans of the dragon race’s philosophy, had made every possible effort to slay their dragon overlords. Since then, the dragon race had withdrawn much from human affairs… until now. But now they’d decided to use the tongue instead of the talon.

    The thing that made her really angry was that she’d known none of this in all her years at the temple of the Fire Dragon King. Golden dragons had a breezy, no-nonsense approach to history: ‘If it makes us look bad: don’t write it down’. She’d only found out after she’d left to start her shop because the humans hadn’t forgotten or tried to blot out the incidents. It had colored much of their perception of the dragon race for hundreds of years.
    She just hoped the bit about the maidens tied to rocks wasn’t true. She couldn’t believe it would be, but… let’s just say some dragons have sharply religious feelings about the importance of sacrifice.

    “Well, my people say my taxes are too high, so I suppose I’m not in much of a position to judge,” the President, who must have seen some of the anxiety cross her face, responded with a broad smile.

    Filia returned his smile with a weak, though relieved, smile of her own. The President seemed to decide to change gears. “So this is your first time as a diplomat?” he asked.

    “Yes,” Filia answered. “I’m afraid I’m learning much as I go along.”

    “Don’t worry about it too much, my child,” the President patted her on the shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

    Filia decided not to point out that she was a good ten times older than him and take his encouragement in the spirit it was intended. “I’ll do my best, sir.”

    “Good girl!” the President said emphatically. “Now I’m sure there are other people that the dragoness diplomat must meet. I’m sure we will see each other later.” And with that he strode off, scanning the crowd for the waiter he’d set his drink on.

    “You’re doing very well,” Cleon said, appearing at her side with a proud smile.

    “I suppose,” Filia said uncertainly, looking around.

    “We’re making a good impression already,” Cleon said optimistically. “He definitely liked you.”

    “He might have,” Filia allowed in a low voice. “But I don’t think you could say the same for everyone else.”

    It wasn’t everyone, but ever since the President of DASIS had pointed out in a loud voice that she was a dragon there’d be a hiss of whispers descending upon her like a shower of sound. She couldn’t hear what people were saying, but the fact that their brows were all meeting in expressions of suspicion and displeasure said it all.

    “Alright, I know we’re not going to get a warm reception everywhere,” Cleon said, noting the angry whisperers. “But that’s just to be expected. It’s our first year here and people have… well, ideas about dragons. Completely untrue obviously, and we just have to show them that. Little by little we can change the way they see us. And that all starts with how we treat people here.”

    Filia privately thought that the humans had every right to a little bit of fearfulness and irritation. After all, they didn’t really know what to expect from dragons in this day and age. But this was what it was all about, wasn’t it? It was about changing the relationship between dragons and humans. It didn’t have to be hostile.

    “Who’s next?” she asked.

    Cleon looked around the room, searching for a likely candidate to talk to that would cast dragons in a humanitarian light (in the caring charitable way, and not the dietary way). He pointed. “Do you see that older gentleman over there?”

    Filia followed his gesture to an old man in a wheelchair. “You mean Commander Banner?” she asked without thinking.

    Cleon looked at her in surprise. “Yes,” he said. “How did you know his name?”

    “Oh, I guess I just overheard it somewhere,” Filia said vaguely deciding it was probably best not to reveal her source.

    “Hmm,” Cleon said. “Well, anyway, he’s from Trift and is a great war hero. Or was,” he added with a shrug of his shoulders. “Unfortunately it seems his age has caught up with him. I understand he’s a bit out of it most of the time, can’t remember what’s said to him an all. But we should still pay our respects to him, even if he forgets later.”

    Filia noticed that Cleon didn’t mention anything about the fake-senility rumor Xellos had told her about. Despite her inclination to believe the worst about Xellos, she tended to think that he hadn’t been idly spreading lies. It seemed more likely to her that Cleon’s information network just wasn’t as good as Xellos’s.

    Cleon wasn’t thinking about double-dealing old men with secret assassin nurses. He probably wasn’t even thinking that the old ambassador might appreciate someone to talk to, the more cynical side of her mind thought. He was just thinking: won’t everyone think the dragon race is full of good people when they see how nicely we talk to this gibbering, half-crazed old man?

    But this is how things are done. I don’t have to be a heartless diplomat. I can care about talking to the commander whether he’s a spy or a few legs shy of a spider.

    She walked forward and put on her best smile. “Commander Banner?” she said. “I’m Filia Ul Copt of the dragon race. It’s nice to meet you.”

    “Ehh? Felicity? Shoot the tarpaulin and call me Dixie!” Banner announced in a shaky voice as if it made any kind of sense at all.

    “This is Filia Ul Copt of the dragon race,” his nurse said, leaning down by his ear. “She says it’s nice to meet you.”

    Filia wondered how this ‘translation’ was any different from what she’d said. It wasn’t even louder or anything. It seemed that Banner didn’t find this any clearer as he was still occupying some other world.

    “My spackle’s acting up!” he exclaimed cheerfully. “Away! Away! Teddy’s back in town – Ahoy!” A bit of drool was trickling out of the corner of his mouth.

    The nurse took a napkin out of her pocket and dabbed his mouth with it. “I’m sorry,” she said. “He’s a little out of sorts before his medicine kicks in. I’m sure he would appreciate the thought though.”

    “Oh, well,” Filia mumbled uncertainly. “It was nice meeting you anyway,” she addressed Banner in her kindest tone.

    “Mary! Mary! You’ll never guess what they’ve done with the commodes these days!” Banner agreed.

    Filia walked away pensively as Banner’s nurse got him a can of pudding from her bag. She turned over Xellos’s claims in her mind. Either Banner was completely out of his mind or he was one hell of an actor. The problem is… there are a lot of really great actors out there. Anyway, if Banner was faking he’d make a good spy. No one would bother to lower their voices around him. They know he wouldn’t understand them or remember what he said. They’d probably assume he was deaf as a post as well. Not to mention the fact that if he could get up out of that wheelchair…

    She shook her head. All this espionage stuff wasn’t her concern anyway.

    “How’d it go?” Cleon asked.

    “Well,” Filia said, trying to remain positive. “He certainly seemed happy.”

    “Good!” Cleon said. “Now, we ought to be clearing out to see about our rooms soon. But I ran into Brother Wicus, a representative of the Hecalone branch of the Church of Miles. He’s just gone off to get a refresh— Ah, I see you’re back already.”

    “Yes,” a somber looking young man in a long black robe said sadly. “I’m afraid I could not secure a non-alcoholic beverage, and liquor is forbidden by my faith.”

    “I didn’t think Hecalones banned alcohol,” Filia piped up.
    The monk turned red-rimmed eyes on her and said: “Only since last month I’m afraid. And it’s not all Hecalones. Just the,” he closed his eyes as thought trying to remember a speech, “Northern Hecalone Branch of the counsel of the Nine Virtues, Peridian river region, 10th chapter.” He coughed uncertainly. “There have been a few schisms recently.”

    “Oh,” Filia said, not entirely sure how to react to that. “Sorry to hear that.”

    “It’s no problem,” the monk said wearily. “It happens all the time.”

    Cleon cleared his throat. “Brother Wicus, this is Miss Filia, the ambassador I told you about.”

    The monk bowed. “Your servant, ma’am.”

    Filia smiled. You could generally count on the clerics to show some respect for dragons. It was practically built into most religions. Most of the good ones anyway.

    “Now, I’m afraid I must find a tap in this establishment that does not flow with the vile blinder of men,” he announced gravely. “For I am parched after my long journey. And I must talk to the waiter about tonight’s menu as fish is forbidden this month.”

    “Why?” Filia was unable to stop herself from asking. She hoped this would be seen as taking a polite interest in his religion and not a statement of incredulosity.

    “The prophet Payaya once said that while others cast their nets for fish, he cast his nets for love and charity. We remember him by abstaining from fish in the month of turning.”

    “Oh,” Filia found herself saying again. She stopped herself from pointing out that they could’ve just as easily remembered this by eating a lot of fish. That maybe forbidding things wasn’t the only way to go. But everyone practices their faith in their own way and at this Brother Wicus’s way didn’t involve red-hot pokers like some other religions did. “I hope you find a more holy beverage then,” she added because she felt more was expected of her.

    “Thank you, ma’am,” the man said with another bow as he backed off to petition a waiter.

    “Excellent, excellent,” Cleon said after the man had left, which Filia felt was quite an exaggeration. It was getting really hard to buy any of Cleon’s praise he heaped it on so often. Perhaps he meant it all, but it just didn’t face up with the facts.

    “Well, I think we’ve spent enough time down here. Let me show you to the rooms the hotel has provided us with so you can change into your new clothes before dinner.” He looked around. “Now, where has Rasmus gotten to?”

    “Right here,” Rasmus said, popping up eerily behind Cleon as though he’d always been there and making the clerk jump.

    “Good,” Cleon said straightening his robe and trying to regain some composure. “Good.”

    Filia resisted the urge to roll her eyes. They’d made a good impression on a self-admittedly politically incorrect president, a neurotic monk, and maybe a wheelchair-bound war veteran. This probably didn’t cut the mustard as far as building good contacts. If Xellos was watching he was probably laughing at her. But then again, what else is new?

    Oh well. Better to just keep going and do the best I can, she thought. Anyway, I’ll probably feel better once I’ve had a meal.

  6. #6
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    Chapter 6. No Table Manners At All.

    The room they’d assigned her was beautiful… and big. Very big in fact. Perhaps they’d thought she’d want to transform and had given her a place to stretch out her wings a little? When she put this to Cleon he had laughed and said that all the ambassadors had fairly large rooms because many of them came to the conference weeks in advance for preparation and needed larger living quarters.

    In fact, Cleon had pointed out, Filia’s room was actually one of the smaller rooms in the complex. He hadn’t seemed at all troubled by this until Rasmus had growled: “They’ve got no respect”.

    Whatever the case, the room was more than big enough for Filia’s needs. She meandered around it, cautiously exploring the drawers and knickknacks as people are wont to do in hotel rooms. A half a dozen dresses hung over the bed in varied, but subdued colors. They were nice, but not meant to be showy.

    “I hope those will be alright,” Cleon said with a nervous smile. “Unfortunately there isn’t much of a selection in this area.”

    “They’ll do fine,” Filia said, unhooking a frill-less little navy number.
    “I still have to find you a gown for the more extravagant events,” Cleon added. “Nothing I could find at the last minute was acceptable. But don’t worry, I’ll find something.”

    More extravagant events? Filia couldn’t help but wonder what the ladies wearing half a ton of sparkly fabric at the reception would wear when they busted out their fancy clothes. If a gown you needed two people behind you to carry was casual wear then she, Filia, was harboring a secret infatuation for Xellos.

    That bit of sarcasm left a bad taste in her mouth, so she decided to occupy her brain power on wondering if anyone ever fell down from having to wear those big, heavy dresses.

    Cleon opened up his brief-case and took out a sheaf of paper and passed it to her. “I’ve prepared notes on some of the important attendees here,” he said. “Look over them when you get a chance.”

    “Now,” he pointed out the door. “Rasmus and I are in the room next door. We’ll leave you alone to get changed for dinner. Why don’t we head down to the dining hall in… let’s say twenty minutes?”

    Filia nodded as they closed the door. She walked over to the bed and set down her chosen dress on it, taking a minute to leaf through the notes. Most of them had the name of the ambassador and their title, the country or organization they represented, and a small illustration. The illustration would definitely come in handy in trying to pick them out in a crowd. Then again, a lot of painters are flatterers or at least fear for their lives if they’re too honest. Beauty is not necessarily truth if you’ve been assigned to do a portrait of a king with crossed eyes or a queen with caterpillar brows. Accuracy does not console in the dungeons.

    Beyond that, though, there was very little information. What Cleon had spent most of the time painstakingly copying out was a list of the country’s major exports. She wasn’t sure how much help that would be to her and had the sneaking suspicion that he’d just copied all his information out of almanacs.
    Filia was new at this, but she was inclined to think that a good diplomat would need different information and a lot of it. After all, how could a person know what to focus on and what to let pass without information? How could they know what to broadcast and what to tip-toe around without knowledge? A diplomat needed an appreciation for history, an insight into the likely moves of the government, and an understanding of the psychology of the individual they were talking to.

    The fact was that Xellos probably had all that information; not because he had any natural desire for the cause of peace. Quite the contrary, in fact. It seemed though, that he did his homework. It saddened Filia that her good intentions didn’t make for much of an advantage. No. This was a job for a sleazy con-artist. How very lucky for Xellos.

    She set down the notes on her nightstand for more lengthy perusal later. She picked up the navy dress she’d set on the bed and crossed to the vanity.
    She sat on the frilled stool and returned her reflection’s look of determination. After a pause, she reached up to her head and took off her hat, placing it on the table in front of her. Then she undid the bauble-laden headdress.
    In the mirror her elongated elfin-type ears poked out from her long blonde hair. Anyone who saw her coming would know that they were at least dealing with someone not human. Generally she hid her ears. It just made things easier when dealing with humans.

    But she wasn’t going to do that this time, she thought stubbornly as she changed into her new navy dress. She wasn’t going to be deceptive and hide what she was. She didn’t have to skulk around like a monster. She’d be up front and honest, and she’d still be a good diplomat.

    With that settled and with her new dress on and all embarrassing tags removed from it, she headed out the door to go down to her first diplomat’s dinner.

    *****

    Cleon and Rasmus escorted Filia down to the dining hall. It was gorgeous in there too, of course, but this time she remembered to make a point of not gaping at the architecture and decorations with her mouth open like some kind of tourist. She tried to look serene and in charge as Cleon and Rasmus asked one of the attendants to lead them to the table they’d been assigned to.

    “No menus?” Filia said, looking around at the many tables that filled the hall. They weren’t long tables which would probably have been the most efficient way to seat so many people. They were round tables which sacrificed space, for a more intimate environment. It probably made it easier to talk with your seat-mates. The tables were set with a confusing amount of silverware as per expectations in such a posh environment. The napkins were folded into the shapes of swans. …Or… probably swans; possibly turkeys.

    “Orders are made at the reception,” Cleon replied. “I already made yours special: the Royal Capra in Grey Vale sauce.”

    “Oh,” Filia said and tried to sound pleasantly surprised. Royal Capra was a favorite specialty among the dragons. But Filia had never been fond of it as she considered it too stringy and the taste odd.

    “They had to get a goat for it special,” Cleon added proudly.

    “Isn’t that nice?” Filia said gloomily.

    The attendant stopped and pulled out a chair at the assigned table for her. There were very familiar faces at the table. Amelia was there. Next to her was a girl a few years younger than her in a green dress and with a face that took advantage of every centimeter of freckle-space who must have been the young Countess Gardenia who Amelia had been talking to earlier. Brother Wicus was there, praying somberly into his hands and standing up abruptly when he saw her. The president of DASIS was there, and gestured to her fondly with his pipe as he saw her arrive. And… and…

    “It’s nice to see you in something more recently dry-cleaned, Filia.”

    Why? Why? Why was he here?! Was he following her? Did fate just despise her? Well she wasn’t going to have it. She was going to get to the bottom of this.

    She swiveled around angrily at Cleon and said: “What is he doing here?” After all, hadn’t he just told her that she didn’t have to spend that much time with him? And here she was: being forced to spend more time with him! It wasn’t fair.

    Cleon cleared his throat nervously as though he didn’t like to say. “Umm… that is, I believe they assign seating by whoever you spend the most time with during the reception.”

    He quailed under the withering heat of her gaze. “I guess it’s helpful because those are usually the people you need to spend the most time working with,” he chattered on nervously. “And it eliminates the problem of diplomats being forced to sit with people they can’t stand.”

    “Does it?” Filia asked dangerously.

    Cleon gulped. “Uh… ideally.”

    So… this whole mess was technically all her fault for spending more than half of the reception with Xellos. That didn’t exactly make her feel any better about it.

    “Well, why can’t everyone just sit wherever they want?” Filia asked. After all, it wasn’t as though they were children or anything.

    “Oh, you wouldn’t want to do that,” the president of DASIS said, shaking his head. “Ambassadors get real tetchy over seating. ‘S down to seniority and whatnot. I remember one occasion at a royal wedding where the ambassadors of Neros and Atrain got into a spat over who got the aisle seat.” He stuck the pipe back in his mouth. “It actually ended in eye-gouging. No fooling.”

    Everyone stared at him.

    “True story,” he said.

    After an appropriately long moment of still silence when it became clear that DASIS wasn’t going to elaborate any further, Xellos turned to Filia and said: “I think the monk is getting tired. If you’re waiting for the rest of us to stand up too, then you’re wasting your time.”

    “What’s he on about?” the president of DASIS asked.

    “It is customary,” Brother Wicus murmered, “to stand until a lady takes her seat.”

    “Oh?” DASIS shrugged. “If you say so.” He stood. “Can’t say we do that on the islands, but when on mainland do as the mainlanders do.” He gave Brother Wicus a sidelong glance. “I get why the crazy old crippled guy’s not standing—”

    “Spit-valves! Can’t you hear their native tunes?”

    “—but why isn’t the purple-haired young man standing?”

    “Because I’m not sure temperamental lizards count as ladies,” Xellos answered calmly.

    “It’s best just to go with it,” Cleon whispered into Filia’s ear as she stewed in her anger. “I’ll speak to the organizers about seating and make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

    Filia took a breath and sat at the only available seat left: the one between Xellos and Commander Banner. Brother Wicus and the president of DASIS sat down after her.

    “Stop the flotillas: we have a winner!” Commander Banner gibbered in what Filia was sure was meant to be a warm and welcoming sentiment.

    On that resoundingly senseless beat, the waiter came around with trays piled with various dishes and, of course, glasses of wine. Filia was coming to believe that all diplomatic functions involved some kind of alcoholic beverage. Wouldn’t sobriety be more… professional?

    “Could I get a glass of water instead?” Amelia asked, apparently thinking along the same lines. “Daddy always said it’s best to keep a clear head at these kinds of things.”

    “Pfft,” the Countess Gardenia said, raising her glass to her lips. “You are such a child.” On that note she took a slurpy gulp and sloshed much of the wine down her dress. The dress didn’t suit her anyway. It was green and sparkly and quite expansive. Gardenia thought it made her look like a sophisticated red-haired temptress. In reality she looked like a sickly Pippy Longstocking wrapped in a lettuce.

    Filia stared sadly down at her meal. Xellos noticed.

    “What’s the matter, Filia? Not fond of goat?”

    Filia glared at him and then looked jealousy at his meal which contained absolutely no goat whatsoever. The idea that Xellos might occasionally prefer the vegetarian option had not hitherto occurred to her. A bloody steak seemed more appropriate. But Xellos doted on defying expectations.

    Cleon coughed from his standing position behind Filia. “It’s a cultural specialty,” he explained.

    “Translation: nobody likes it,” DASIS said succinctly over a plate piled with potatoes and gravy. “Cultural specialties are for feeding to stupid tourists.”

    “It’s fine,” Filia said. After all, there was a lot of sauce on it and that would probably disguise the flavor.

    In the seat beyond Commander Banner (whose nurse was conscientiously cutting up his food into easily gummable pieces), Brother Wicus was saying a blessing over his food. Then he made a sign to ward off evil. Clearly, it didn’t work: Xellos was still there.

    Filia barely suppressed a sigh as she reached out for her wine glass. So this is really it, she thought, staring into the crimson depths of the glass as she held it in front of her. They were separated into pre-assigned seats like they were kids at camp instead of civil professionals. What would be next? Would they threaten to seat them boy-girl if they didn’t behave? With her luck she’d end up next to Xellos just the same.

    The ting of glass on glass woke her from her reverie in time to see Xellos clink his glass against hers. He raised it with a mocking expression.

    “To your good health, Filia,” he said, and then drank.

    Filia glowered at him. She turned her head and saw Cleon and Rasmus giving her disapproving looks. She desperately wanted to say: That wasn’t my idea! I didn’t want to clink glasses with him! It was a completely nonconsensual clink!

    But they didn’t seem to read her desperate expressions very well. They probably thought she was getting chummy with the enemy or something equally stupid. Suddenly she felt that the world would look a whole lot better through the bottom of her wine glass.

    She went to take a drink and it seemed that she was to be denied even that small comfort; for at that moment Commander Banner cried out: “Biscuits! Precious Buttermilk biscuits!” Which was actually the most in touch with reality thing Filia had heard him say thus far as there were, in fact, buttermilk biscuits that he was reaching for. They probably weren’t worth the tone of excitement in his voice or the denotation of ‘precious’, but to each their own. As he reached forward his arm jogged Filia’s elbow and caused her to drop her glass on the table leading to the smashing of glass and the wasting of perfectly good alcohol.

    Filia grabbed some napkins to stop the flow, but Cleon put a hand on her shoulder and shook his head. “Rasmus, go get some towels,” he said. Apparently it doesn’t do for an ambassador to clean up their own messes. No, there are servants for these kinds of things… and in the case of big messes: armies.

    Rasmus, for his part, gave Cleon a look that said: ‘I’m pretty sure step-and-fetch isn’t in my job description’. And at her other side Filia was sure she heard Xellos mutter something, but couldn’t hear the whole thing. All she could make out was: “dragon race” and “spastic”.

    “Umm… is that stuff supposed to be eating through the tablecloth?” Amelia asked in a worried tone of voice.

    They all turned to look and… indeed the wine seemed to be having a much more… corrosive effect on the table than you’d generally expect from ordinary fermented grape juice. Either human wine had gotten a lot more potent since she’d last had it or something was very wrong.

    Xellos reached over her to the spilled wine and dipped one gloved finger into the puddle, brought it to his lips, tasted it tentatively, and announced to the entire table: “Poison.”

    *****

    “Poison?” Filia exclaimed in disbelief from the safety of her room some time later.

    “That does… uh… appear to be the case,” Cleon said, fresh nervousness painting his furrowed brow.

    “But I haven’t even done anything!” Filia said in a panic. “Why would anyone want to poison me?”

    “It’s not you,” Rasmus said gruffly. “It’s the dragon race. Someone’s trying to send a message.”

    “Now, we don’t know that for sure,” Cleon said, wiping his forehead with a handkerchief.

    “The poison was only in her glass,” Rasmus pointed out in a growl.

    “I know,” Cleon said gravely. “But it could have been a mistake. The poison could have been meant for someone else and ended up in her glass by accident.”

    There was a steady pause as Rasmus thought. “Possible,” he finally allowed. “But not likely. Such a public assassination-attempt would have to be very well planned. And I can’t see any of the other occupants of that table drawing such a daring attack. Whereas we,” he gave a bitter little laugh. “Well, we’re not exactly popular in this crowd, are we?”

    Cleon sighed sadly. “I’d prefer not to believe it, but you have a point.”

    “What do we do now?” Filia asked worriedly. “Do we leave?”

    Cleon and Rasmus both looked at her as though she’d sprouted a second head.

    “No,” Rasmus said firmly.

    “I mean, what would people say?” Cleon asked in an incredulous tone not wise to use on the recently attempted-murdered.

    Filia gritted her teeth. She could feel some anger about to boil over. “They’d say, ‘Wow! What a smart race to leave now before their diplomat really gets killed’.”

    “Leaving the conference early would be an intolerable sign of weakness,” Rasmus said in the maddeningly calm voice of someone who hasn’t almost been poisoned. Filia felt a special surge of annoyance toward him. Wasn’t it his job to make sure this kind of thing didn’t happen to her?

    “And it would be the end of everything we’re trying to accomplish here,” Cleon pointed out. He gave Filia a comforting smile. “Please don’t let this scare you off, Miss Filia,” he said. “Now that we realize that the situation is dangerous, we can adjust for it. The summit guards are already making inquiries and are doing everything they can to find the person responsible for this. Rasmus will also be on guard to protect you and, given this evening’s incident, I will hire food-tasters straight away.”

    Filia sighed. In the end, she knew she hadn’t intended to leave at all. She wasn’t the kind of person who could nearly get poisoned and just walk away. She had to see this through to the end. She’d just have appreciated it if Cleon or Rasmus had been more… concerned. Maybe they could’ve said: ‘Oh, Miss Filia, please, you must return home. It’s far too dangerous!’ Then it would have been easy to stay.

    “Fine,” Filia said. “I’ll stay.”

    In not just an effort to change gears, but because it was preying exclusively on her mind, she asked: “Who could have done this anyway? Please tell me this isn’t normal at a peace conference.”

    “It’s not,” Cleon said seriously, shaking his head. “In fact, whoever’s done this has committed an act of war against the dragon race.”

    “I got some pretty nasty looks at the conference,” Filia pointed out.

    “Human governments,” Rasmus practically spat. “They may not like us, but most of the reason they don’t like us is because they’re afraid of us. I don’t think they have the balls to do anything like assassination.”

    Filia wasn’t too sure. After all, humans had been assassinating one another for centuries. It didn’t seem like much of a jump for them to move on to other species. As for fear, well… fear doesn’t always encourage submission.

    “Then who?” she asked.

    “We should consider our enemies first,” Rasmus said vaguely, but as though he had a point underneath it all.

    Filia took a minute. “…You’re not actually talking about Xellos, are you?” she asked doubtfully.

    “There is no greater enemy to the dragon race than the monster race,” Rasmus said as though he thought Filia needed some reminding.

    “I know that,” Filia shot back crossly. “But… honestly, Xellos?” Couldn’t he see that just didn’t make sense?

    This time it was Cleon that spoke. “Don’t think that because you were comrades before,” he said carefully as though treading across thin ice, “that he would hesitate to kill you if he was ordered to. He’s a monster.”

    Why do people think she needs reminding of that? “We’re not comrades,” Filia said with a glare. “And I know he’d kill me if he was ordered to. But let me ask you this: does poisoning honestly seem like his style?”

    There was a hesitant pause from the other two and Filia took this moment to press her advantage. “If Xellos wanted to kill me he wouldn’t bother with poison,” she said. “Monsters have other ways of doing things.” Terrible unspeakable ways. She knew in an uncomfortably certain way that he wouldn’t have to even try hard to kill her. She didn’t like thinking that because it made it difficult to treat him like the dirt he was, but she knew it to be true deep down. No… he wouldn’t poison her. With a terrible chill that ached into her very bones she thought: it would be too impersonal.

    “Perhaps he wanted to be anonymous? Perhaps he’s trying to frame someone else?” Rasmus suggested.

    “Well then he’s done a terrible job on both counts,” Filia said. “Because you thought of him first.”

    “You have to admit she has a point there,” Cleon said thoughtfully.

    “Well, I guess we can’t tell who at this point,” Rasmus admitted extremely grudgingly. “But someone’s got a bone to pick with the dragon race. I don’t know if they’re just intent on terrorizing us or if they’re trying to start a war. All I know is: we’ve got trouble.”

    Cleon nodded. That seemed fair enough. “But we’ll deal with it,” he said. “We’ll deal with it.”

    For my own sake I hope so, Filia thought. Somewhere out there a would-be murderer lurked. If Filia had her way, and she hoped to, he or she would remain ‘would-be’. All she knew about them was that they probably weren’t Xellos and that wasn’t a lot to go on. No… her unsuccessful assassin would probably be someone who had no connection to Filia; someone with an axe to grind against the dragon race; someone she’d never even met…

  7. #7
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    Chapter 7. Be Careful Little Mind What You Think.

    Lunch is an unexpectedly tricky international issue. Some cultures are fairly casual about it, simply allowing their mid-day meal to fall somewhere between eleven in the morning and one in the afternoon. Some cultures take their mealtime more seriously and demand that bread only be broken when the sun is directly overhead in the sky and the sacred bell is rung as foretold by the prophet Pellegeny over three thousand years ago. Some cultures have no lunch. Some cultures have two lunches. Some prefer to sleep through lunch. Basically, though dinner time could be sorted out by consensus and breakfast could be taken or left: lunch was a diplomatically unassailable issue.

    So since any attempt to mandate a communal lunch hour during the conference would have met with serious offense, the kitchens were kept open most of the day and lunch was treated as an individual issue. During the slow hours, the cooks would boredly twiddle their thumbs and wait for the Heruvian delegation to come in for their 10:12 am sacrifice of a black rooster (which always ruined their best aprons, but at least made the time go by faster).

    So that’s how Filia came to be sitting somewhat uncertainly alone at a table in the dining hall. Well… not quite alone. Rasmus was standing against the wall and appeared to be counting the tiles on the floor and two food-tasters were milling around by the dessert cart until they were needed again. Cleon wasn’t there as he was currently running around like a chicken with its head cut off looking for a gown for her to wear at whatever event was slated for that evening. He’d been in such a rush that he hadn’t gotten much of a chance to explain. And to be honest, Filia wasn’t that fussed over whatever the summit itinerary had in store for her. It was the fact that around any corner a knife-wielding maniac might be lurking that had her a little jumpy.

    And she wasn’t at all happy to be back in the dining hall again after her last visit had nearly ended in her death. But she’d had to eat eventually. The food tasters hadn’t dropped dead yet and her meal (which contained absolutely no goat thank-you-very-much) was pronounced poison-free, though slightly overcooked.

    “Hey! You’re the girl that got poisoned!” an awed female voice enthused.

    That lack of tact seemed rather out of place in a diplomat as far as Filia was concerned, but she was learning to expect the unexpected. “Almost,” she said weakly, looking up.

    The enthuser was a familiar face from last night’s meal/arsenic tasting festival. It was the Countess Gardenia. If she’d looked like a brassica princess yesterday, then today she looked like she could be queen of the leeks in a figure-hugging (well, it was meant to be figure-hugging, but perhaps Gardenia would grow into it someday) dark-green dress. Someone had done wrong by this girl at some point by telling her that green looked good on her.

    “Well, okay: almost poisoned,” Gardenia allowed as if this wasn’t a huge important distinction at all. “Your name’s Filia, right? Amelia said you were friends.”

    “Yes,” Filia said with a nod. “Are you a friend of Miss Amelia’s?”

    “Our fathers are friends,” Gardenia said. “I’ve known her since I was six.”

    “Oh,” Filia said. She noted that the answer to that question hadn’t been ‘yes’. She was beginning to suspect that Gardenia would be a rather hard person to be friends with.

    “Ah, that’s right, we haven’t introduced ourselves,” Gardenia said drawing herself up haughtily. “We are the Right Honorable Countess Gardenia.” She gave an imperious curtsey.

    Filia gave the girl a curious look and then said, more out of her own curiosity than out of any attempt at correction: “I thought the royal ‘we’ was only for kings.”

    Gardenia’s face fell and her chest deflated; there hadn’t been a lot to inflate in the first place. “Well, maybe,” she allowed. “But I can do it if I want to.”
    Filia couldn’t think up any particularly diplomatic response to this, so she took a sip of tea instead. Gardenia sat down by her somewhat awkwardly, nearly ripping her dress in the process. She looked down at Filia’s nearly-finished plate and nodded at it.

    “So have you got food tasters? Or are you just going to take your chances?” she asked.

    “My assistant hired food tasters last night,” Filia said. She shifted uneasily. “To be honest, I’m not completely comfortable with it.”

    “Why?” Gardenia asked incredulously.

    “Well, doesn’t it seem sort of cruel to you?” Filia asked. “You know, to use them as guinea pigs?”

    Gardenia waved an emerald-gloved hand dismissively. “Don’t feel too sorry for them,” she said. “They get free food out of the deal, right? And anyway, who’d poison someone who has food-tasters? That’s just stupid.”

    Gardenia took out a lacy fan and began fanning herself. It struck Filia that Gardenia was doing it less out of temperature control than because it seemed like the kind of thing noble ladies did. But for goodness sakes, it wasn’t like it was warm. Filia actually thought it was a little too cool.

    “So, are you going to the installation tonight?” Gardenia asked conversationally.

    “Probably,” Filia said distantly. She was pretty sure that was the event that Cleon had mentioned before he disappeared into cut-throat world of last-minute gown acquisition.

    “It sounds like it’s going to be dull,” Gardenia said sulkily. “I mean, I thought it’d be interesting here, but it’s just a bunch of boring people talking about boringer things,” she went on, making up words ever so creatively where the language failed her. “I thought there’d be… I don’t know,” she waved a hand around vaguely. “Dancing or something. Something more romantic. Maybe a masquerade ball or something.”

    “What would make you think that?” Filia asked. She really couldn’t see what masquerade balls had to do with anything.

    “Well, I don’t know,” Gardenia said pursing her lips. “But it would certainly be better than this. I mean, don’t you think it’s boring?”

    Filia gave her a look.

    “Oh, right, poisoned,” Gardenia said off-handedly. “I guess things aren’t so boring for you.”

    Filia sighed. She wished things were boring for her, she really did.

    “By the way, I wanted to ask you,” Gardenia said, tapping her fan shut and looking as if she was about to get down to serious business. “Who was that guy you were sitting with at dinner last night?”

    Filia felt a jolt in her stomach. Speaking of unpleasantly not boring… “You mean Xellos?”

    “Yeah, that was his name,” Gardenia said, scratching her chin with her closed fan. “I thought I knew most of the nobles around, what with Father’s connections,” she stopped for a moment to preen at her well-connectedness, “but I’ve never seen him around before.”

    “Oh, he’s…” Filia trailed off. She wasn’t entirely sure how she wanted to finish that sentence.

    “So where’s he from anyway?” Gardenia pressed on. “I asked Amelia and all she said was: ‘you really don’t want to know’.”

    That’s because you don’t, Filia thought darkly.

    “I expect he’s not real royalty,” Gardenia went on confidently, “or I’m sure I would know all about him. Is he some kind of civil servant then?”

    “You might say that,” Filia muttered.

    “From where?” Gardenia asked, leaning forward. “It looked like you knew him pretty well.”

    Filia wanted to protest this, but she was already feeling a bit angry at herself in any case. By all rights she should’ve been shouting out to Gardenia or anyone who would listen: ‘Beware! Xellos is a monster! Women, hide your babies! Men, hide your women! …And then hide yourselves afterward!’. But she hadn’t. She’d… she’d practically covered for him and she couldn’t for the life of her imagine why. Then again, if Amelia wasn’t going to spill the secret then she probably shouldn’t either.

    “Why do you care so much anyway?” Filia asked crossly. “Did you have some diplomatic business to discuss with him or something?”

    “No,” Gardenia said, as though diplomatic business didn’t have anything to do with anything. “I just thought that… you know.”

    “Know what?” Filia asked perplexedly.

    “You know, I just thought he was kinda cute, that’s all,” Gardenia said with a shrug.

    Filia stared at her. She stared the open-mouthed, horrified stare you might visit upon someone who has just said something like, “You’ll never guess what I found between my molars this morning! Hint: it has feelers” or “the liver is the tastiest part of the baby,” or “Xellos is kinda cute”.

    “What?” Gardenia said, uneasy in the face of the stare.

    When Filia finally got her jaw working again, she managed to blurt out: “Aren’t you like fourteen?”

    “So?” Gardenia asked in a voice twanging with injured pride.

    Now Filia was silently thanking her lucky stars that she hadn’t told Gardenia that Xellos was a monster. This kind of girl, she felt, was so immature that she’d probably have been more interested in him if she’d known. After all, a monster isn’t boring!

    But seriously, what kind of girl actually found that thing attractive? I’m not being biased, Filia thought savagely against whatever silent opposition she felt was implying this and feeling obscuring like she needed to defend her opinions to herself. Look, it’s not because I hate him. I’m going to be completely fair and pretend I don’t hate his guts and then you’ll see that I’m right.

    Who the ‘you’ that will ‘see’ wasn’t completely clear.

    Alright, so first off he’s got that stupid haircut, Filia thought, conjuring up a mental picture of Xellos. What kind of guy goes around with purple hair anyway? And he’s always got that fake smile plastered on his face. He must think it’s friendly looking, but really, it’s downright creepy. And beyond that, it’s not like there’s anything particularly special about him.

    …Okay, I’ll give him one thing, Filia allowed, just to prove to herself that she was being impartial. When he’s got his eyes properly open and isn’t pulling that stupid squinting face he does have… interesting eyes. I wouldn’t really say attractive, but they certainly draw you in. …Alright, I guess ‘drawing you in’ is the definition of attractive, but what I’m saying is that they’re not nice. They’re not attractive like a… like a clear blue sky is attractive. A clear blue sky is serene and comforting and makes you feel warm and at peace with the world. Xellos is eyes are… sharp and cold and they make you feel… well… uncomfortable, I suppose. It’s like he’s dissecting you and weighing up the bits… it’s like he can see all the secrets that you don’t even know you have.

    Right, but he’s not remotely attractive
    , Filia though firmly, deciding it was about time to get off the track her train of thought was thundering down. Except for his eyes which are attractive in a very bad way.

    If anyone thought he was attractive at all it was just because he tricked them, she thought angrily. He goes around with that confident smug attitude and it’s almost enough to make you believe there’s something appealing about him. But there isn’t.

    Gardenia gave her an odd look and snapped her fan open again and began waving it demurely. For some reason the light breeze it gave off didn’t seem nearly as annoying this time. In fact it was downright pleasant. Filia thought to herself that the day must be getting warmer.

    “So, what?” Gardenia asked with teenagery specificity. “Are you two like… ya’know?”

    Filia didn’t need to ask. What ‘ya’know’ meant was terrifyingly clear. “No!” she practically shouted.

    “Well geez, you don’t have to scream my ear off,” Gardenia said, exaggerating not just a little. “I was just asking.”

    Filia gritted her teeth and clenched her fists. You couldn’t imply something so unspeakably horrible about a person and then say that you were ‘just asking’. It was intolerable! But then, she wasn’t to know.

    “I see you haven’t run away yet,” an all-too familiar voice drawled from behind her.

    Filia whipped herself around, glare already firmly in place. “Xellos!”

    No matter what Filia said, Cleon and Rasmus still seemed to think that the idea that Xellos was trying to kill her was a legitimate possibility. She’d didn’t buy it, but even if it was true… well, she’d come to the conclusion long ago that you couldn’t go through your life terrified that Xellos would kill you and all you held dear. For one thing, you’d never get any sleep. Filia realized that she had about as much control over whether Xellos killed her or not as stopping yourself from being struck by lightning. And not just your ordinary run-of-the-mill lightning, she thought wildly, where you could just stay inside on rainy days and keep away from metal. No, we’re talking about magic lightning that can, not only strike in the same place twice, but doesn’t draw a distinction between inside and outside and doesn’t give a damn what kind of weather it is.

    She could feel her feeble extended metaphor falling to shreds around her, but the point she was trying to get at was: if Xellos wants to kill you then no amount of fighting, pleading, or cajoling has even a 1% chance of saving you. If he wants you dead, guess what? You’re dead.

    So why worry? If it was pointless in the end she wasn’t about to tread lightly around him or kowtow.

    So, on this principle she replied: “Why don’t you just leave me alone, you annoying piece of garbage? Haven’t I got enough problems to worry about without you making everything worse?”

    Got the eye-twitch. The smile hadn’t fallen, but it was clearly being supported by a great deal of strained self-control.

    “How rude!” he replied. “And to think, I came here to make sure you were doing alright.”

    Filia crossed her arms. “Do you really expect me to believe that?”

    Gardenia coughed. A lot of people found the openly hostile aura exuded into the atmosphere whenever Xellos and Filia came into contact with each other a little hard to take. “I’ll just… I’ll just get going then,” she said awkwardly, pushing her chair out with a squeak and backing away.

    Xellos took the chair that Gardenia had just vacated without any ceremony. “So,” he said all seemingly-cheerful. “Are you enjoying your time in the spotlight?”

    “No,” Filia said bluntly, edging slightly away from him on her own seat.

    “Pity,” Xellos said, taking up a cup of tea a waiter handed to him. “You might not have long to enjoy it.”

    “What’s that supposed to mean?” Filia shot back angrily.

    Xellos placed the tea saucer gently on the table. “Just that I’m not sure your staff can handle any professional attempt made on your life.” He sighted Rasmus leaning against the far wall and raised his teacup mockingly in his direction. Rasmus probably hadn’t heard what he’d said, but growled on basic principle.

    “And I suppose you think you could do better?” Filia said, more to be contrary than anything.

    Xellos gave her a very careful look. “I know I could,” he finally said. “But I’m not inclined to.”

    “What a loss for me,” Filia said, breaking out the good sarcasm.

    “But tell me, Filia, what are you doing to stop yourself from becoming an immobile pile of lifeless remains on the carpet?” Xellos asked with apparent interest, lacing his fingers over his knee.

    Filia scowled at him. The idea of her being dead brought him entirely too much joy if you asked her. Anyway, even if there was only a tiny chance that he was the one who’d tried to poison her, it didn’t seem like she ought to be telling him what precautions she was taking to make sure this didn’t happen again.

    “Have you hired food-tasters?” Xellos asked.

    Well, if he guessed there didn’t seem to be much point in denying that. Anyway, she wanted her poisoner to find out about the food-tasters. It would stop them from poisoning things. If no one found out then she’d just have a bunch of dead food-tasters on her hands. “Yes,” she said.

    “It won’t stop the attacks,” Xellos said. “It just means that the next attempt won’t be poisoning.”

    He flicked one eye open at her. You know, one of the attractive eyes that apparently cause Filia to feel uncomfortable. “You escaped death this time by being lucky. I wouldn’t count on that next time. So be aware.”

    “What do you care?” Filia asked. If the sick b****** really wanted her dead then he had no cause to go around telling her to be careful.

    Xellos shrugged. “I don’t.”

    He probably didn’t, but you could never tell with a monster. Who knew what plans were ticking away in that brain of his? Who knew how many motives he had for doing anything? If she was lucky, and as Xellos had said she really couldn’t count on her luck, then maybe he had some selfish reason to want her to stay alive.

    She was beginning to feel very depressed all of the sudden.

    “Gardenia has a crush on you,” she said more to fill silence then anything. And she didn’t want to talk about her possibly impending death anymore anyway. It seemed pretty darn likely that that was what was depressing her. It wasn’t like the Gardenia thing was on her mind that much or anything. It had just been the only thing she could think of to say.

    Xellos gave her a surprised and mildly confused look in the face of this non sequitur. Then he cocked his head to the side and asked: “Which one is Gardenia?”

    “You know,” Filia said, regretting she’d ever brought the subject up. “The one in the green dress. She was just here.”

    “Oh, her,” Xellos said, recollection dawning. He appeared to think for a moment. “Isn’t she like fourteen?”

    Filia felt validated. “That’s what I said!”

    “Well, thanks for getting rid of her for me,” Xellos replied with a smile that was just a little too amused.

    Filia balked at this. She hadn’t been trying to get rid of Gardenia and she certainly hadn’t done anything for him. What did she care about some stupid teenager that liked him for some reason that she certainly couldn’t see. It wasn’t any of her concern.

    And she would have told him all that if she hadn’t been interrupted as Rasmus stiffly approached the table. “Miss Filia, it’s getting about time for you to begin preparations for tonight’s installment ceremony,” he said. He wasn’t looking at her though; he was glaring at Xellos.

    “Fine,” Filia said, getting up from her seat in a bad mood. It wasn’t like she’d wanted to continue the conversation anyway; not with Xellos’s penchant for twisting everything she said.

    “See you later, Filia,” Xellos said in almost a sing-songy voice, as she turned her back on him to walk away. “And remember: be careful out there.”

  8. #8
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    Chapter 8. Lookin’ Good!

    When Filia and Rasmus arrived back at her room they were greeted by a slightly out of breath Cleon. He wore his customary sheen of sweat, but this time beyond the nerves there was a look of triumph in his face.

    “Did you find a dress?” Filia asked.

    “Yes,” he said beaming. “It was quite a stroke of luck too. I looked all over and I couldn’t find anything at the last minute. I was about ready to give up when I came back here and was trying to explain to the summit staff. Luckily, apparently one of the female ambassadors overheard our problem and offered to lend her dress since she’s not going to be at the installation.” He tapped a box on the bed with a grin.

    “That is lucky,” was all Filia could say. It seemed to about cover it.

    “And I thought we weren’t popular,” Rasmus offered tartly.

    “I’ve asked one of the hotel maids to come up and attend to you while you change,” Cleon said to Filia, apparently not hearing Rasmus by sheer willpower. “She’ll be along shortly.”

    Filia nodded. She generally considered getting dressed to be a rather basic skill and, all in all, she’d rather change on her own. Then again, some of those fancy gowns could be rather complicated affairs. Not that the box looked very large – but it might be spring-loaded. Assistance probably wasn’t anything to sneeze at.

    “Umm… Mister Cleon?” she began.

    “Yes?” Cleon said.

    “What exactly is the installation?” she asked.

    He looked blankly ahead and then suddenly slapped his hand over his forehead. “Of course!” he said. “I apologize! With all the running around to get the dress I didn’t actually get around to explaining it to you, did I?”

    “Basically,” he said, “the installation is something like a formal welcoming ceremony for representatives that are new to the conference. Everyone gathers in the auditorium in their finest clothes – because, you see, it’s really about the new impressing the old and the old impressing the new. Then they announce the names of the new representatives – and there are a lot this year because they’ve just started recognizing the lands outside the barrier site and the assorted beastman tribes. There are some speeches in there too. Everyone applauds and there’s a sense that there’s been some introduction so that the real business can be started tomorrow.” He paused. “Understand?”

    Filia was pretty sure she did. It was just an invitation for the diplomats to show off… to make an impression. There seemed to be a lot of those. Heck, they might as well have just gone with a masquerade ball, then at least Gardenia would be happy.

    There was a series of knocks at the door. Rasmus, being the closest, opened it, and into view stepped a girl about fifteen or sixteen with a bright smile.

    “Hi!!” she said keenly. “I’m Molly Chapperton! I’m here to attend to a Miss Ul Copt!”

    Rasmus stood aside and allowed Molly to enter the room. As soon as she saw Filia, her eyes brightened and she made a beeline for her. She clasped her hands to Filia’s and enthused: “Oh my god; I love your hair!! Can I braid it?!”

    “Umm… sure,” Filia said, uncertain in the face of Molly Chapperton and her overused of the exclamation mark.

    “We’ll leave you be to get changed,” Cleon said, as he and Rasmus strode toward the doorway. “Whenever you’re ready we’ll escort you down to the auditorium.”

    “Fine,” Filia said, beginning already to feel a bit tired. It was probably the hummingbird keenness Molly generated into the atmosphere. That was enough to make anyone tired.

    “So what’s your dress like?” Molly chirped. “Is it pretty?”

    “I haven’t seen it yet,” Filia said. “You can look first if you want to,” she offered, pointing to the box.

    Molly squealed. Pretty dresses have that effect on a certain kind of girl. She wrenched open the box cover and threw the wrapping aside. She stared at it. She gasped.

    “Oh my go-od!” she cried.

    “What?” Filia asked, suddenly interested despite herself. She moved closer to the open box Molly was peering into and looked inside.

    *****

    It was the most beautiful piece of clothing Filia had ever seen and now she was shocked to find that it was on her. It wasn’t a showy, frilly dress with silk and ruffles and glittery beads sewn into it. It wasn’t the kind of dress that made its owner look like a frosted confection (though these were probably designed with the aim of attracting a certain type of single-minded man whose interests lie more in the kitchen than on sex). Compared to those it was downright simple.

    It was made of an off-white linen which meant that not only did it look good but unlike other dresses, which had to be careful structured with all the care put into keeping a Gothic cathedral from collapsing, this one was actually comfortable. Around the waist was a metal cincher that was colored silver and blue. The silver shone as though it had been recently shined and curled in elaborate patterns over the noble shade of blue only seen in victory banners.

    It was as though the makers of the dress had a definite aim in mind: to make an article of clothing of quality, comfort, and art that was – and this was the important part – an accessory. It was the kind of dress that was supposed to make people comment on how beautiful the person looked, not the dress. In short, it was the kind of dress worth killing over.

    And it fit her absolutely perfectly. That was the worrying part. How lucky could they be that some woman of Filia’s exact dimensions had decided to be so charitable to them? It was… odd.

    But she pushed aside her suspicions. It wasn’t like you could poison a dress after all.

    “You look amazing!” Molly enthused.

    “Really?” Filia said. She felt it, but it was nice to hear someone else say it especially since that’s not the kind of thing you say about yourself. “And you don’t think the neckline is a little too…” she twitched with the straps self-consciously.

    “Oh no!” Molly said. “I wish I could wear a dress like that! ‘Spose I don’t really have the figure for it though,” she added thoughtfully.

    The box hadn’t just contained the dress either. Whoever had lent them this dress didn’t just believe it clothes, they believed in ensembles. She was wearing light, high-heeled sandals which practically wrapped their delicate way up to her knees and a great deal of jewelry. A bunch of silver bangles jangled around her wrist and a silver arm band shone on her other arm. A coil of pearls so long that they had to be wrapped half a dozen times around her neck hung into the neckline that she still thought was a little too low.

    Molly had braided her hair too. It was nice to have it out of her face and the look definitely suited the dress. Molly had done some sort of fancy style on it too that she thought looked quite elegant. In worlds in which there is a France, it would’ve been called a French braid.

    “And don’t forget these,” Molly said brightly, holding up what was perhaps the crowning jewel of the entire box. They were earrings. A single pearl hung from each. Any more pearls would’ve resulted elongated earlobes. They weren’t quite golf-ball sized, these pearls, but they were pretty darn close. Filia had no idea how much they were worth, in the same way that you or I might be unable to accurately appraise the Hope Diamond. She was pretty sure, though, that if she lost them that she’d be committing some sort of crime against the civilized world.

    And they were for her to wear! But…

    “I can’t wear them,” Filia said regretfully. “My ears aren’t pierced.”

    “Oh…” Molly said, examining her ears downheartedly.

    “Gee, I wish I had ears like that,” Molly commented offhandedly, lamenting her own round humany ears.

    Filia greeted this with about the same look you might give to someone who told you that you had an especially attractive elbow.

    “It seems such a shame not to wear them,” Filia said. She couldn’t stop looking at the earrings. It seemed like they took up the whole room.

    “Hey!” Molly said excitedly. “Why don’t I pierce your ears for you?”

    “Uhh,” was all Filia managed to get out at first. Molly was a nice girl, but she saw pain in her future if she took her up on that offer. “I’m not sure if—”

    “Oh, it’s easy!” Molly said. “I’ve done it about a dozen times before. All you need is a needle and a lemon. I did it for Lindy Hawkins last summer and she said it didn’t hurt a bit!”

    “Well…” It was probably still a bad idea. On the other hand… a girl only got a chance to wear pearls like that once in her life. And anyway, how bad could it be?

    *****

    Filia’s ears still stung dully, but it had been nothing to the sudden teeth-grinding moment when the needle had gone through. Only quick thinking on Molly’s part in grabbing a great deal of paper towels had prevented her from bleeding all over her borrowed dress. And then she’d had to do it again.

    If she got an infection that caused her ears to turn green she wasn’t sure what she was going to do: either cry in her room for the remainder of the summit or hunt down Molly Chapperton to the ends of the earth.

    But the blood had all been cleaned up and the earrings were in, surrounding Filia’s head in much more wealth then it was used to. The gems on the headdress she normally wore were made of glass. Pretty, but worthless. Now suddenly she was more richly dressed than ever before courtesy of a good Samaritan and some very wealthy mollusks.

    Molly had gone. Apparently she was untroubled by the massive blood-loss and extreme pain. Filia had to guess that these were the expected order of business in easy ear-piercing.

    With everything in place, Filia went to knock on the door to Cleon and Rasmus’s room to let them know she was ready to go down to the installation.

    “Who’s there?” called a voice from inside.

    Filia resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Who else would it be?

    “It’s Filia,” she said. “I’m ready to go.”

    “Oh good!” Cleon’s voice called as he turned the knob and began to open the door. “Now I can talk to you about—” he stopped dead as the door opened and stared. Then he stared some more. He followed up his staring with a further bout of staring.

    “What?”

    “It’s just that,” Cleon stammered. He looked down at his shoes. “You look beautiful,” he finally managed.

    Filia smiled uncertainly. She was adrift in this place full of kings and princess and countesses and told that she could be their equal. She still wasn’t sure about that, but now at least she felt dressed to make the effort. It’s nice to feel like a princess every so often.

    “Are we just going to stand in the hall or are we going to get going?” Rasmus’s voice called from behind Cleon.

    “Alright,” Cleon responded a little curtly. Filia got the feeling that Cleon and Rasmus’s personalities did not ideally suit them to be each other’s room-mates.

    Cleon gave her an anxious smile and offered her his arm. She took it and he led her down to the auditorium with Rasmus trailing sullenly behind.

    *****

    The auditorium was replete with a lot of red plush as befitting a theatre of that much class. Rows of seats blossomed out from an impressive looking stage where a bunch of strong men were moving a gilt podium to the center. A lot of people were already there and, as Cleon had said, they were dressed to the nines. Some of them were chatting with one another in the anteroom and some had already taken their seats. It didn’t surprise Filia at this point that there was an open bar.

    She turned to Cleon to see what they were supposed to do next, but he was suddenly staring fixedly at the moving podium with a white-faced look of horror.

    “What’s wrong?” she asked.

    “I’ve forgotten something,” he said with a pained expression. He disentangled his arm from hers. “I’ll be right back!” and with that he raced out of the room in a manner likely undignified in the assistant to an ambassador, leaving her with Rasmus.

    “What’s he forgotten?” Filia asked Rasmus.

    Rasmus shrugged.

    Filia looked around the room uneasily. Cleon shouldn’t disappear when he should be prompting her! “So uhh… should we sit down?” she asked.

    “You can sit down,” Rasmus said stiffly. “There are only so many seats and I’m not a diplomat so I don’t get one. I’ll be close by though,” he said, taking up a position near the wall.

    If you love walls so much then why don’t you marry them! Filia thought angrily at him.

    She walked through the bustling crowd uncertainly. She saw a piece of paper posted up to one of the many columns. She took a closer look at it and found it to be a seating chart. Of course, she thought bitterly. Because all us diplomats have the maturity level of five-year-olds. If they don’t tell us where to sit we might start slap-fights with each other over placement.

    She noticed she was in the very last row and wondered if Rasmus was right about the dragon race not getting any respect. It certainly seemed like the undesirables had been shoved into the back. How else could you explain the fact that all the beastman tribe representatives were also seated in the back row? There were a few humans in the back, but they were a minority. Filia wondered what they’d done to make whatever council that drew this up so displeased with them.

    Xellos was also in the last row. But whereas she was on the aisle seat on the left side, he was way across on the aisle seat on the right side as far away from her as he could be while still being in the same row. This proved that at least someone had finally been thinking diplomatically. She suspected that Cleon had something to do with that. He had said he’d speak to someone over seat assignments so she wouldn’t end up next to him again.

    No, this time her only seat-mate would be someone named Krull Sapos from the minotaur delegation. That meant that she’d probably be cramped for seat space, but anything was better than sitting next to Xellos.

    Since her assistant had cut and run and her bodyguard was about as much use as a brick, she decided that she’d just go ahead and take her seat already.

    *****

    Of course, all the seating charts in the world are no help if Xellos decides to just f****** sit next to you anyway.

    “That’s not your seat,” Filia said through gritted teeth.

    “I’m sure no one will mind,” Xellos said cheerfully from the seat next to her.

    In fact, Krull Sapos, the, for want of a better word, person whose seat Xellos had taken looked like he minded quite a bit. However, despite appearances, Krull was more of a gentle giant than the kind of giant who’d make trouble over a stolen seat. So he didn’t start anything or complain to the staff. He just sighed sadly and tried to find an unclaimed seat.

    “So,” Xellos said, surveying her a little closer than was strictly polite. “All dressed up, I see.”

    “It’s a formal event,” Filia said sharply, leaning backwards as he leaned forward. “I’m supposed to be.”

    And indeed, he was dressed up too; which was a little off-putting. Filia had never seen him in anything besides his traveling clothes and seeing him in a suit seemed very… odd. At least he was still wearing gloves. For some reason, she felt that if he wasn’t wearing gloves the entire picture would have just been too disturbing.

    He suddenly chuckled to himself.

    Filia’s eyes narrowed. She was sure that whatever he found so funny would be significantly less amusing to her.

    “What?” she demanded.

    “I was just thinking,” he commented. “That I could kill you as soon as look at you.”

    Filia glowered. Perhaps that qualified as humorous for a race like the monsters, but she hardly saw the joke.

    “You’re very lucky, you know,” he went on.

    “Why?” Filia growled.

    “Because at least for tonight,” he said, fixing her with a smile. “I’d much rather look at you.”

    Filia blushed and instantly hated herself for doing so.

    Damn him and his superficial charm! she thought vehemently.

  9. #9
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    Chapter 9. Diversity.

    In the last row on the right side aisle seat, Krull Sapos, representative for the Minotaur tribe, shifted uncomfortably. The seats were made for humans and were a little on the small side – though not painfully small because many ambassadors enjoy large dinners. He looked across the aisle to where the man who had stolen his seat was engaged in what looked like an intimate conversation with a very attractive woman.

    Krull frowned. He would’ve agreed to change seats if anyone had asked him. People can be so rude these days.

    “I’m surprised the dragon race is doing well enough to afford quite so many pearls,” Xellos said, tugging gently on one of the many looped strings of pearls draped around Filia’s neck and parts beyond. “Are they real?”

    “Yes, and they’re not mine,” Filia hissed, slapping his hand away from her… jewelry.

    “Oh really?” Xellos said. “Whose are they?”

    “A good Samaritan,” Filia said.

    “Ah, and do you think that accepting a mysterious gift from a stranger while your life is being targeted,” Xellos began to ask as he reached across her to grasp the earring hanging from Filia’s right ear, inciting in her a muffled gasp, “qualifies as ‘careful’?”

    From the wall behind them, Rasmus shifted position warily.

    Filia gritted her teeth. Apparently Xellos considered slapping his hand away to mean: ‘Please continue to paw at my… jewelry. I really don’t mind’. It was only the slight pain from the new piercing that reminded her not to jerk back away from his hand and accidentally rip her own earlobe in half. His wrist was pressed against her neck, not hard enough to be painful, but hard enough to be very definitely there.

    “I haven’t dropped dead yet,” she said.

    “‘Yet’ being the operative word,” he said. He withdrew his hand and she relaxed slightly.

    She readjusted her jewelry as he gave her a contemplating look.

    “Do you know how pearls are made?” he asked finally.

    “Yes,” Filia said in such a way that showed off the bad mood she was in as well as possible.

    “They’re made when some contaminant comes into contact with a shelled mollusk,” Xellos said, pressing on despite this. “Something beautiful, rare, and valued is born out of what was originally an irritation. It’s a wonder of nature, or so I’m told.”

    “I said I knew,” Filia snapped back sounding rather irritated herself. “Why do you bother to ask if you’re just going to tell me anyway?”

    Xellos gave her a sharp look as though she was ruining something for him.

    “Where has that clerk of yours scuttled off to?” He said, looking beyond her. “Shouldn’t he be reminding you around this time to be polite?”

    Filia crossed her arms and glared at him. As though he was one to talk about being polite! “He had to go back to get something,” she said.

    “I see,” Xellos said. He sat back in his chair. “Not very well prepared, is he?”

    Filia didn’t respond. She was practically ready to agree at that point. Cleon wasn’t being nearly as helpful as she hoped he’d be. Ever since the unfortunate almost-poisoned event, he’d been jumpy and seemed distracted. To be fair, she knew he had a lot on his plate. He was handling everything by himself at this point since Rasmus was of no help. He had to worry about scheduling, coordinating information with the guards, making sure an international incident was avoided, and doing his best to make sure Filia didn’t die. Just lately he’d been running around like crazy to get her this dress. He clearly had a lot on his mind. It was just that Filia didn’t really have anyone else she could turn to.

    “I can’t say it seems like the dragon race is taking this summit very seriously!” Xellos said with a grin. “Not with a staff like the one you’ve got.”

    Filia recognized the game he was starting. It was ‘goad Filia until she blows up and embarrasses herself in public’. It seemed to be one of Xellos’s favorites and she wasn’t going to let him win this time.

    “The monster race would never send such incompetents to do a job like this,” Xellos jabbed on. “But then, I guess you dragons just have so many more incompetents that it’s hard to avoid it!”

    Filia glowered. I’m not going to rise to this you horrible, horrible excuse for a living thing!

    “And the sad thing, the really sad thing, Filia,” Xellos went on, apparently hitting his stride, “is that even your incompetent staff members have more of a clue about the art of diplomacy than you do.”

    It’s okay, Filia thought, gripping her skirts angrily, he can say whatever he wants but he can’t get to me!

    “Your tail is showing, Filia,” he pointed out gleefully.

    Oh, damn.

    Indeed as she looked down she saw her pink-bowed tail peeking out from beneath the hem of her dress.

    She tried to focus on staying human-shaped. Come on, this is childish, she chided herself. You can’t transform here. People get all upset over sudden dragons at functions like this.

    The lights in the room started to dim, rendering any tail-related worries moot. “It’s starting,” Xellos said, turning his attention to the far off stage. “Try to pay attention.”

    “Hmph!” was all Filia said.

    A handsome man flanked by two beautiful women in long sparkling gold gowns walked up to the podium and looked eagerly into the crowd. “Welcome my esteemed representatives of the powers of this world,” he said warmly. “As you’re all very much aware, these meetings are so very important for ensuring that lasting peace becomes, not a dream, but a reality. And we can surely only be moving closer to peace as we open our arms to include previously unrecognized groups. This year we welcome many leaders of tomorrow into our ranks. We are a more diverse assemblage than we’ve ever been before!”

    On that note he nodded vigorously and began to clap. Certainly he was joined in by the audience, but there were some frozen faces and light claps that signified that some people thought things were getting a little too diverse around here, if you know what I mean.

    “And tonight we honor and formally accept these new representatives into our ranks as leaders of nations,” the man went on. “We’ll be hearing from them in a moment, but first let us hear from Senator Aither Nyx of the good land of Helius, the country that founded this conference two hundred years ago.”

    Senator Nyx hobbled onto the stage to the beat of applause. He looked like he might well have been there two hundred years before when the first conference was started. Skinny legs poked out from under white robes and limped their owner’s way to the podium. He held onto the podium for support with one hand and placed a pair of spectacles on the bridge of his crooked old nose before looking up sternly at his audience.

    “Regarding our preceding summit gathering,” he began in a voice quite used to giving speeches, “We, that is, those particular nations in the interior of the anterior position of the para-magical obstruction enclosure, reached, after abundant discussion and contemplation of the varied and extremely serious issues in hand, the decision vis-à-vis the implementary committee which was formed and chaired by Senators Rex, Pricus, and Berini, that the continuation of the conference by the means of—”

    Filia felt her eyelids droop. She was trying to pay attention, she really was. Not because Xellos had told her to, but because she was trying to take this whole diplomat thing seriously. But every time she thought she’d grasped onto the thread of what the Senator was talking about, it slipped away from her like sand through a sieve. She chanced a sideways glance at Xellos.

    Oh well, if she was stuck with him he might as well be useful.

    “What,” she began in a whisper, trying to think of a way to ask what the hell the man was saying without sounding stupid and eventually failing, “is he saying?”

    “Oh, him?” Xellos shrugged. “Nothing.”

    “No really,” she pressed on, feeling irritated by Xellos’s unhelpful attitude. “What’s he talking about?”

    “He’s really talking about nothing,” Xellos said with a smile. “He’s from Helius, a land with such an old system of cut-throat politics that officials dare not say anything of substance in their speeches lest it be used against them by their political rivals. So they make very long, eloquent speeches in which any kind of point is carefully extracted beforehand.”

    Filia stared dumbly from the old man still jawing on the stage and back to Xellos. “So he’s just filling time?” she asked incredulously.

    “They’re very good at what they do,” Xellos confirmed.

    Filia turned her gaze back to Senator Nyx. So, here’s another country’s bizarre take on diplomacy: keep talking, but don’t say anything. Perhaps they assumed their enemies would get bored and sleepy sooner or later.

    She was beginning to think that she’d never understand diplomacy. She was also beginning to think that if she ever did then that would mean she’d caught the same variety of insanity that everyone around that place seemed to have.

    “They worship a great many gods in Helius,” Xellos whispered from next to her. “They even have a god for diplomats.”

    Filia couldn’t quite imagine it. Did the god of diplomats preside over realms of charters and political maps? Did one achieve transcendence by universal consent? Was one condemned to hell through a series of non-binding resolutions?

    “Interestingly enough,” Xellos went on, “The god of diplomats is also the god of vagabonds, liars, and thieves.”

    Filia sighed. The sad part was: she wasn’t even surprised anymore.

    Eventually Senator Nyx stopped talking. His audience wiped the drool off their chins and tried to look alert while applauding. Then the Master of Ceremonies took the stage again and began calling out the names of different people from different countries; not just countries, actually. There seemed to be a whole lot of special interest groups that had representation at the conference: The Chimera Anti-Defamation Movement, The United Alchemists Society, Mechanized Light and Miracles, and the Campaign for Temperance.

    The speeches weren’t quite as boring as Senator Nyx’s, but they all had about the same ring. “Thanks for inviting us, we will become an asset to the society; peace, brotherhood yada yada yada”. There was a bit of a tiff when Filia saw some familiar faces take the stand one after another. Both the King of Alto and the Queen of Baritone seemed to have been invited and decided that the best way to use the time they’d been given would be to complain about each other. Xellos said that this was frowned upon since there was a special session set aside later on in the summit for the airing of grievances. “But someone always does this anyway,” he told her.

    It passed on much like that. The Master of Ceremonies would call the names of dignitaries, some would give speeches and some would remain in their seats. Applause followed every time to a greater or lesser degree of enthusiasm.

    In fact, nothing of interest happened until the Master of Ceremonies looked down at his cards, coughed and said, “Ah, and now please welcome Mister Cask Vitrain, leader of the Pro-human League.”

    A man much closer to the front row with black hair touched with grey strolled up to the podium with great energy. He looked out on the crowd and treated them all to a sharp smile. It was a good smile. He’d practiced it a great deal in the mirror. He might have overdone it slightly though.

    “My good friends!” he beamed at them. “I see so many faces I know well tonight! Faces that I trust and that trust me.”

    “I thought we were only welcoming new people,” Filia said.

    “Mister Vitrain has been here many times before, but not as a diplomat,” Xellos explained. “He is a financier.”

    Filia privately thought that when Xellos pronounced that word it sounded suspiciously like ‘crook’.

    “Yet, oh yet,” Vitrain went on, shaking his head sadly. “There are many faces here that I don’t know, and alas, cannot trust. Many of you feel the same way. So patriotic like-minded men and women have joined together to form the Pro-human League. And I am privileged enough to be their leader.”

    He smiled again and Filia felt profoundly uneasy. It wasn’t just her though. It felt like their entire row was tensing up.

    “Regrettably this very institution has spat in the face of traditional values,” Mister Vitrain went on, as though he was sure someone had made an unfortunate mistake that really was no one’s fault. “In inviting,” his mouth twitched unpleasantly, “animals to this conference we have sold the birthright of our children.”

    “Beasts cannot govern!” Cask Vitrain declared, slamming a fist down on the podium. “All they can do is eat and destroy! Only humans have the intellect to lead. If we continue to let these dead-end species into our parlor when they should be tied up in a shed outside then we can only ruin what we have!”

    There were very definite growls from the back row now. Filia was in a position to see the werewolf delegation sitting somewhat beyond Xellos. Their nails were lengthening.

    “Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m a charitable man,” Mister Vitrain said, pressing a very sincere hand against his chest. “As the superior race I understand that we have a responsibility to treat the lesser races with the pity they deserve. Rather like pets. But,” his expression fiercened, “if they continue to try to take what is rightfully ours then they only deserve to be hunted down into extinction like the vermin that they are!”

    There were still growls, but the expressions seemed louder than the growls. Many of the beastmen tribes were filing out of the room; walking out in an expression of disgust against the vile man before them. Filia felt a pang of fellow feeling toward them. It wasn’t just for herself as a dragon, but for Jillas and Gravos. She’d seen how the blind hatred of humans had wounded them. It was the ugliest thing in the world.

    And why shouldn’t she leave? She was her own autonomous entity, right? Cleon had left her alone so it was her decision. And she felt that the dragon race should make a show of solidarity with the other non-human races.

    So she began to hitch up her skirts and get up when Xellos reached to her elbow and dragged her gently back into her seat.

    “I want to hear this,” was all he said.

    Filia balked at him. So, just because he wanted to stay she had to stay too? What was up with that?

    She crossed her legs angrily and glared up at the stage, hoping that the heat of her glare would set the awful man’s hair on fire.

    “Thank you,” Cask Vitrain said when he had finished. “I’m sure I can count on your support.”

    He left the stage. And people clapped.

    They actually went and clapped!

    Filia couldn’t believe it. Of course, it wasn’t everyone. Certain people were, like her, sitting down and looking offended. But certain people were clapping emphatically and standing up! It was enough to make you—

    “Tail,” Xellos said.

    “What?” Filia turned.

    Xellos pointed down at the floor.

    Oh damn again!

    She tried to hide her tail and get a grip back on her temper while the Master of Ceremonies shuffled his cards and called the next name while trying to pretend that that speciesist diatribe hadn’t happened.

    She heard down the aisle the sound of feet running very quickly and turned to see Cleon stomping down the way, sweating profusely and carrying some paperwork.

    “Miss Filia!” he said when he reached her. “I’m so sorry, but I—” he stopped dead when he saw Xellos sitting next to her and grinning up at him. Cleon gave him a shocked look that suggested that he hadn’t thought that a weapon as powerful as a seating chart could have been defeated so easily.

    Filia gave him a grim look that she hoped thoroughly communicated: Yeah, but what am I supposed to do about him? “Sorry, but what?”
    Cleon looked hesitantly at the papers in his hands and then passed them to her in a kind of half-bow of contrition. “Sorry!”

    She took the papers cautiously and glanced down at them. “This is a speech, Cleon,” she said disbelievingly.

    “Yes, Miss,” he said miserably. “A short one.”

    Filia wasn’t the kind to get tongue-tied over speaking in public, she really wasn’t. It was just that, well… some warning would’ve been nice – that’s all! “Why didn’t you tell me before?” she demanded.

    “I’m truly sorry, Miss Filia,” he said, and it seemed like he really meant it. “But there’s been so much going on I guess I just— I just—”

    He looked so pathetic that she practically had to end his misery. She sighed. “It’ll be fine,” she said. “It’s all written out. Don’t worry about it.”
    He nodded, looking slightly relieved but mostly tortured still. “I’ll uh… get out of your hair to let you look it over,” he said, and then marched dejectedly toward the wall Rasmus was guarding against.

    Filia scowled down at the paper. This was just what she needed.

    “It seems as though you dragons aren’t very organized,” Xellos observed chipperly.

    Filia turned her scowl on him. “I’m so sick of you,” she said grimly.

    “Your words are wounding, Filia,” Xellos said, having the effrontery to look hurt.

    I’d love to wound you with more than just my words, you insincere little—

    No. I’m going to be calm now. I have to give a speech soon and I’m not going to walk down there with my tail visible. So I have to control my temper.


    “Is it not said in the philosophical tome of Naieth that the power of life and death is in the tongue?” Xellos asked loftily.

    “I don’t know,” Filia said through gritted teeth. “I’ve never read it.”

    Xellos smirked at her for all he was worth. “Maybe you should.”

  10. #10
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    Chapter 10. Rumors and Hunches.

    Filia’s eyes ran across the paperwork Cleon had left in front of her as she tried to absorb the words as fast as possible. Occasionally when she noted that a speech had ended up front she’d look up and clap as though she’d been listening. This was probably rude, but given the circumstance that Cleon had tossed her into, she didn’t really have much choice.

    Anyway, the speeches all said the same things more or less. Actually they pretty much said the same things as the speech she was hastily trying to memorize. She wasn’t sure if Cleon had written it himself or if it had been prepared earlier. It used the word “outreach” six times and the word “community” eight times.

    One speech stood out among the rest though. The speaker was fairly young looking. His name was Dirk Cambrian and according to the announcer he was the steward of Eyce, a small country in the Outer World. He had a… it was hard to describe, but he had this look about him of being barely contained; like a spring that was going to uncoil at any minute.

    “Thank you,” he said as the applause died down. “I won’t take up much of your time,” he said. “But I just want to take a few minutes to talk about the rumored item that we’ve all been hearing about… I want to talk about… the Daius Seed.”

    Filia tore her eyes away from the speech in front of her immediately and gave the steward her full attention. She wasn’t the only one hanging on his every word. She could hear the remnants of excited and fearful whispers rushing past her and Xellos on the tide of speculation.

    She looked off to her side, but Xellos seemed as unconcerned as ever; as though this was just another speech about brotherly love.

    Cambrian wet his lips restlessly as the hubbub faded to a buzz. He plunged on. “Not much is known about this device; save that it is somewhere within what you all call ‘The Outer World’; the land of myself and my colleagues.” He gestured vaguely to the crowd where other dignitaries from the Outer World were seated. “The rest is whispers.”

    “But,” he went on. “Perhaps these whispers are more than just rumor. Perhaps it is true… that there is a device somewhere out there in the world with limitless potential; a device that can make the impossible possible. Unlimited energy,” he paused, to savor the two words. “Just imagine what we can do for mankind with that.”

    Filia frowned. The Supreme Elder had said that the Daius Seed was dangerous and needed to be destroyed; that it was so all in all bad that even the monsters didn’t want it around. Yet here was this human talking about it as if it was an undiscovered treasure. The humans were only getting their information from secondary sources, she thought. Maybe that’s why there’s a misunderstanding.

    Then again, she thought, this wouldn’t be the first time a dragon elder has lied to me.

    “Perhaps something like that doesn’t mean much to you here, where magic is so well developed,” Cambrian went on. “In my homeland, what you call ‘the Outer World’,” he said it in a way that seemed to suggest with great subtlety that while he was willing to play their little word game now, he thought it was a little bit silly because considering his continent was bigger that he might as well call them ‘the Inner World’, “we do not have the luxury of magic and must rely on our ingenuity to get by.”

    “That is why I am making the claim, here and now, that the Daius Seed when found shall be the property of ‘the Outer World’ and not the continent within the barrier. It is on our territory and because we have a greater need for it we should be the ones to take it.”

    “Typical humans,” Xellos said from next to Filia as Dirk Cambrian returned to his seat to the sounds of uncertain applause. “‘We don’t know what it is, where it is, or what it does, but it’s ours and you can’t have it’.”

    “Xellos,” Filia began uncertainly. “Was what he said about the Daius Seed tru—”

    “And now, representing the dragon race, we have Miss Filia Ul Copt, Premier of Foreign Affairs and Trade for the Golden Dragons,” the announcer boomed from onstage.

    Damn. She whipped her head back towards the stage. Oh well. It wasn’t like she was likely to get a straight answer out of Xellos anyway.

    She shuffled her papers, hitched up her skirts, and got up with as much poise as she could muster. Rasmus was already coming down the aisle toward her, having finally decided to break away from his beloved wall. Cleon was coming up from behind him. When he caught Filia’s eye he gave her a watery smile and a reassuring nod. Given the circumstances, she didn’t really consider this to be helping.

    A rain of applause pattered around her ears as she made her way to the stage with her attendants following at a respectful distance. She could swear that somewhere in the crowd she heard someone mutter: “I thought dragons were bigger than that”.

    She reached the podium and set down her notes as Cleon and Rasmus took their positions at her sides. She looked out into the crowd. There were a lot of people out there. Some were friendly, some were not so friendly. All were important and all were curious as to what a golden dragon would have to say.

    In the face of a crowd hungry for words, it can sometimes be hard to find your voice. Of course, that’s because there are a great many people in this world that fear public speaking even more than death. Fortunately, Filia was not one of them.

    “My dear fellow representatives,” Filia began in a loud clear voice as she scanned the crowd. “I come to you from a race of peoples that have been outsiders within the international community both by tradition and by choice for hundreds of years. Mistakes and misunderstandings have occurred between us and you that we deeply regret. But now, I hope you will all join us in welcoming in a new era of cooperation and outreach.”

    She swallowed and briefly wondered if Xellos was laughing at her from his seat in the back row. He probably thought what she was saying now was more worthless than Senator Nyx’s opening speech. But the speech she’d been assigned to give did have a point. After reading it several times Filia was pretty sure the main message was: ‘Alright. We’re sorry already. Can we please be best friends now?’.

    “If we join together we can accomplish so much more than we can apart,” Filia went on, glancing down only for a moment at her papers. “And that is why we look forward to working with each and every one of the admirable representatives within this room.”

    She bit her tongue before she could say: Except you Pro-Human Leaguers who can all go rot for my money. You people sound like a fouler pile of garbage than… than Xellos.

    …Alright. Maybe that went slightly too far. But still.

    “With our shared community values we can—” Filia stumbled for a second here. She’d been certain that she’d seen something moving at the back of the room. She tried again. “we can—”

    There was a crack like a distant firework that seemed to fill the entire acoustically-balanced hall. In one of those horrible, slow-motion sort of ways she saw a small plume of orange and blue flame blossom from the darkness in the back before it disappeared leaving only the smell of grease and smoke.

    Also in one of those horrible, slow motion sort of ways: she couldn’t move.

    Would it have mattered? Would she have had time to dodge if the fear of the danger closing in hadn’t paralyzed her? It wasn’t likely, but it was something to think about.

    In that split second after the bang, where she could only grasp her notes and look ahead, Rasmus moved.

    He careened himself around as though propelled by hidden thrusters. His back turned toward the audience, forming a shield across her with his body as he pushed her down to the floor and then followed her down as well.

    Filia caught herself with her palms preventing her chin from banging into the hard floor and stayed pressed down to the ground. Cleon had thrown himself down in terror as well. Screams and shouts bubbled up from the throng of spectators. Guards were swarming across the stage, heavy shields held in front of the favorite body parts of each individual.

    Filia lifted her head. “Mister Rasmus?” she tried.

    There was blood on the floor.

    *****

    “How is he?” Filia asked later from the security of her room.

    “He’s an old soldier; he’ll recover,” Cleon said, mopping his brow with a worse-for-the-wear handkerchief. “There’s some nerve damage though, and that’ll take some time to heal.”

    He’d saved her life. Sure, Rasmus had seemed a little on the… distant side. Maybe he was a little crabby sometimes, but he took his job seriously. Filia felt a fierce combination of pride in him and extreme guilt. She’d been… irritated with him earlier; not because of anything he’d actually done. More because she’d been overwhelmed and she didn’t feel like he was helping. But he took it all… seriously.

    He’d taken a bullet for her. Now he was down in the infirmary recovering. Dragon or not, in his more vulnerable human form, Rasmus could have died if the bullet had hit him with precision.

    And if she asked him about it, he’d probably just gruffly reply that he’d only done the job he was supposed to do.

    “He was very brave,” she said.

    “Yes he is,” Cleon said solemnly.

    They both stared off into space for a moment, not feeling nearly as brave as Rasmus.

    Cleon coughed. “They, uh, the committee guards found the bullet and are on the case to find the shooter,” he said. “They told me that the bullet is rather distinctive and they hope that will help them in their inquiries.”

    Filia nodded. “Did they find anything else?”

    “The uh, trajectory of the bullet,” Cleon said slowly as if he was repeating a foreign phrase he’d heard, “seems to suggest that the shooter was in the back of the auditorium; either in one of the last few rows or standing behind them.”

    Filia could have told him that. And she wouldn’t have had to resort to a great deal of string to find out as the guards had.

    “The shooter appeared to be around the area you were sitting in before the speech,” Cleon said in a voice that hinted more.

    Filia wanted to just let her face fall into her hands. It had stopped being a long night hours ago. Now it was a long morning. She was exhausted, her nerves were frayed, and now on top of everything else they were back at this.

    “You think Xellos did it, don’t you?” she said wearily.

    “He was at the last attempt and now he’s shown up again,” Cleon said in his most convincing voice. “Rasmus didn’t trust him and neither do I.”

    Well, that’s because you’re not stupid, Filia thought. Xellos isn’t even remotely trustworthy. I’m not going to argue that one.

    “He had the opportunity in both the poisoning incident and this one,” Cleon went on.

    Yes, and he had a dozen other opportunities in which no one tried to kill me at all.

    “Everyone knows about the grudge between the monsters and the dragons, so there’s your motive,” Cleon said, ticking off his mental deduction list.

    Motives had to be a bit clearer than grudges, didn’t they? It wasn’t about a scrap in the street; it was all… politics. The only possible result that the monster race could expect from having her killed would be to start a war with the dragons. Now, monsters are warlike and maybe they thought they could win in a final conflict. But it seemed to Filia that a war would be just a giant distraction to them in the bigger contest for the fate of the world.

    Anyway, why would monsters need an assassination as an excuse to go to war? It’s not like they needed to blame the dragons for starting the conflict. Who would they be answerable to? If they wanted a war, wouldn’t they just go for the ambush and get it done with instead of pussyfooting around with this cloak and dagger stuff?

    “He was sitting right by you even though he was assigned to be on the opposite end of the row,” Cleon pointed out. “He probably wanted to keep an eye on you. I can’t think of any other reason besides that.”

    Or maybe he just wanted to annoy someone, Filia thought through the pain of sleep deprivation. Simple solutions to complex problems.

    “So,” Cleon began hesitantly. “I think, given how suspicious the situation has become that we should send word to the Supreme Elder that the monsters are moving against us.”

    Filia couldn’t hold herself back this time. “Are you crazy?!” she couldn’t help but shouting, standing up.

    Cleon gulped. “We have no choice but to act if the monsters are—”

    “Oh, would you just listen to yourself!” Filia said, fists clenched. “Are you trying to restart the War of the Monster’s Fall?”

    Cleon looked hunted. “No,” he said. “But if they’re trying to—”

    “Xellos did not try to shoot me!” Filia shouted.

    Couldn’t he see how ridiculous that sounded? I mean, just the idea of Xellos using a gun was so absurd as to be almost funny. Why would anyone who could cause someone’s entrails to explode with the snap of their fingers use a gun?

    She gulped. I wish I hadn’t thought that last part.

    “Look,” Cleon began in a tone that can only be described as diplomatic. “I don’t know what happened between the two of you last year, but—”

    “Don’t get the wrong idea,” Filia cut in harshly. “I can’t stand him. There probably isn’t anyone in the world that I hate more than him.” When Cleon opened his mouth to speak again, she went on in a louder voice: “Which is why you should listen to me when I tell you that he’s not the assassin.”

    When Cleon still looked doubtful, she smacked her hand over her heart and said: “The best evidence I can give you for that is this: I’m still alive.”

    That one got Cleon. His eyes relented, but he was still thinking. “You may be right,” he said. “But I still say he’s up to no good.”

    “You won’t get any argument here,” Filia said, sitting back on the bed. “But he’s a monster, so that’s a given.”

    “I think,” Cleon began, “That we should at least contact the temple with our suspicions.”

    “No,” Filia said resolutely. That was the sneaky, responsibility avoiding way. It would still give anyone who wanted it a license to stir up a war. “There is no evidence.”

    “So who do you think is behind this?” Cleon asked in an exasperated ‘Well, if you think you’ve got a better idea’ kind of way.

    “We don’t have enough evidence on anyone to make an accusation yet,” Filia said firmly. “But since you asked, that Pro-Human League seems the most suspicious. I don’t think you heard their speech, but—”

    “I know of them; I could probably guess what they said,” Cleon said with a sigh. “Sure, they hate non-humans. But they’re a small group and they tend to pick on weak targets that can’t defend themselves. I don’t think they’d pick a fight with the dragon race no matter how big they talk.”

    “Well, nevertheless,” Filia said, reflecting that it didn’t feel good to have your theories shot down. “That just means we need to wait until we have more evidence before we can do anything.”

    “So you’ll just let yourself be targeted?” Cleon asked. He seemed to have lost a lot of backbone since a bullet had grazed Rasmus’s backbone.

    “It’s the only way,” Filia said, “if we want to accomplish anything here.”

    Maybe it was the adrenaline from the near-death experience. Maybe she was inspired by Rasmus’s sacrifice and wanted to honor it. Maybe she was just starting to forget her fear that someone was targeting her life and turn instead to anger. How dare they—

    Whatever it was, though, she was now determined to finish the job she’d been sent to do at this summit or die trying.

    …Hopefully avoiding that last part, though.

    “Fine,” Cleon said finally. “If you insist on staying and don’t even want me to contact the temple for help, then I have three requests to make.”

    “First off,” he began, “If you’re going to stay, then don’t take this into your own hands. Leave the investigation to the guards. They’re the experts here.”

    Filia nodded. To Cleon it might have looked like an expression of agreement, but in Filia’s mind she cherished the claim that all she’d meant was: ‘I heard you. Go on.’

    “Secondly, while I’m consulting with the guards and liaisoning with security, I want you to stay in here where it’s safe,” he said.

    Filia nodded. Again, to the untrained eye this might look like acceptance. But subtle clues would show that all that the nod meant was: ‘Pray continue’.

    “And lastly,” Cleon began, giving her a serious look. “Outside of the negotiating room I want you to stay away from Xellos.”

    Filia nodded one last time. But you could say that it was a nod very similar to the previous two.

  11. #11
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    Chapter 11. Not Exactly Staying Away.

    It was later that morning. Filia had caught a few hours sleep and felt a lot better for it. Cleon had gone off to perform the many organizing feats that he was tasked with completing, secure in the knowledge that Filia would remain in the safety of her room.

    Fat chance. As soon as she’d gotten all the sleep she thought she’d get, she’d surreptitiously unlocked the door and slipped out of her room.

    She knew Cleon’s heart was in the right place, but she wasn’t just going to sit around in her room and let this mess be mismanaged. Even though he had relented and not contacted the temple, she knew Cleon still thought that Xellos was the guilty party in this. And once Rasmus was up and around it’d be two against one. They were so convinced that they were right that they probably wouldn’t recognize a clue to the real assassin if it was right before their eyes.

    And she knew they wouldn’t even think of asking Xellos if he’d seen anything. He was in the back row, and if the assassin was around that area he might have actually seen something. Granted, whether he’d be willing to share that information or not was a whole other matter, but nevertheless.

    So it was up to her take charge of this. She was going to find out who was behind all this one way or another and put an end to it.

    Anyway, the ambassador for the dragon race couldn’t be seen to be hiding in their room after a measly near-fatal-shooting. It didn’t show good character.

    So she was making her way quietly down the hall wondering exactly what to do next. Having to find Xellos is never a particularly pleasant task. Most of her efforts generally fell under the category of avoiding him.

    Still she was feeling a lot better now that she was out of that dress. Cleon had taken it back to its owner and Filia had changed into a dark green dress that Cleon had bought her for the summit. She was sorry to see the beautiful thing go, and the pearls that went with it, but she was certainly more at home in simpler clothing. Sure, the fabric of the fancy dress had been very comfortable, but the cut had been rather… constrictive. She was happy to be able to breathe more easily again.

    “Hello there, Filia!”

    Filia nearly tripped over her own feet. Strike breathing easily!

    She fought for control of her lungs and willed herself not to turn around yet. When she had more or less caught her breath, she turned around in a controlled movement as if Xellos hadn’t just scared the daylights out of her.

    “Are you following me?” she asked shortly. There was no way, no way in hell that she could ever let Xellos know that she’d been looking for him.

    “Oh, I’m afraid I’m just passing through,” he said with practiced nonchalance. “I was just surprised to see you up and around so soon after being shot at.”

    “The bullet missed me,” Filia responded, bordering on smug.

    “I know,” Xellos said, agitated in the face of her purposefully missing the point. “But it hit your bodyguard. Given that you are very much alone, parading down the halls seems rather… stupid.”

    “I’m not parading!” Filia shot back. I never parade! “And anyway,” she said, crossing her arms, “I’ll probably be fine as long as I stay away from you. Have you ever noticed that something bad always happens to me whenever you’re around? For starters: I have to listen to you talk.”

    He was gritting his teeth and wearing his ‘Bah! Why must I be forced to endure this insolence?!’ expression. “And why do you think that is?” he asked.

    “Why do you talk?” Filia asked with a puzzled expression. “Because you like to hear the sound of your own voice, I guess. Not that I can see why,” she added in a grumble.

    “You know that’s not what I meant,” he said coldly. Apparently making fun of his voice was treading on taboo ground.

    Filia hesitated. But if they were going to get anywhere at all, then they might as well get everything into the open air. “Cleon and Rasmus,” she began cautiously, watching his expression for any flicker, “think that it’s because you’re the one trying to kill me.”

    Even in the face of Filia’s intense scrutiny, Xellos’s expression didn’t budge. “But do you think that?” he asked.

    She stared at him. Was she being an easily-led fool in all this? Was she letting him manipulate her into thinking he wasn’t involved? No, she thought fiercely. She was just being logical. …But could he be relying on her being logical? And, more importantly, was there any way that she could answer that question without giving him a peak at her cards?

    “…No,” she said finally, deciding that there wasn’t.

    “Good,” he said, his face suddenly cheerful once more. “So,” he went on with barely a pause, “since you don’t trust your staff to do it for you, you’re out trying to find some answers for yourself,” he summed up. “I might just have a few.”

    Filia opened her mouth and then shut it. “I thought you cherished your secrets,” she said, trying to maintain her cool.

    “Oh, not all of them,” Xellos said, giving her a winning smile.

    “Why would you help me?” Filia asked suspiciously.

    “Now that is a secret.”

    “Of course,” Filia spat with a grimace.

    “So…” Xellos said, walking to her side and gesturing down the hall with his staff, “shall we go?”

    Filia looked onward hesitantly. “I’ve been told to avoid you,” she said uncertainly.

    “Really?” Xellos said as though this was genuinely surprising. “And were you also told to sneak out on your own and search for evidence, thereby making yourself an easy target?”

    “Well…”

    “Then you’re already breaking a few rules anyway,” Xellos cut across her.

    He had her there. And wasn’t this what she wanted anyway? To get some answers out of Xellos? But it was the fact that he actually seemed to want to give them that was worrying her.

    “If it makes you feel any better than we can hold our conversation in the dining hall,” Xellos suggested, noting her reluctance. “At least there if you get killed then everyone will see it happen!” he added with more cheerfulness than Filia thought the sentence was due.

    She wished he’d put it another way, but it seemed fairly safe. Or at least, no more dangerous than her being out of her room with an assassin on the loose was in and of itself.

    “Alright,” she relented.

    Anyway, she was positively dying for a cup of tea.

    *****

    They were sitting together in the dining hall: favorite setting of near-death experiences and awkward conversations. Filia grimly waited to find out which one would be featured today as the waiter came by with their tea. It was an area specialty called herbal fruit sangria. It was a mucky, slightly purple color in the cup. Filia had never tried it before, but it smelled like heaven.

    It was just that—

    “Something the matter?” Xellos asked as he took a drink out of his own cup.

    Filia glowered at her cup as the tantalizingly out of reach smell beckoned her. “My food tasters,” she mumbled. “I don’t have them with me.”

    In fact, she thought angrily to herself, they were probably going to show up at her room very soon with her breakfast. When they saw that she wasn’t there, they’d probably tell on her to Cleon since he’d hired them, not her. And then she’d be in trouble.

    Except that she was the boss here, right? Cleon just worked for her. If she was going to go somewhere then it was none of his business. It was… an executive decision!

    …Of course, he was only trying to keep her safe, so it probably wasn’t worth it to be mad at Cleon.

    “I see,” Xellos said, putting down his own cup on the table with a small clang of porcelain. “Hmm…” He sat back pensively with his arms crossed. “Well,” he said finally, “I suppose I could always fill in for you in that regard.”

    “Unless you think I have cooties,” Xellos added in the face of Filia’s open mouthed expression of shock.

    Filia closed her mouth and set it in a no-nonsense line. She crossed her arms, unconsciously mimicking Xellos’s own stance. “Well, on the off-chance that you are trying to poison me, it’d be pretty stupid of me to take you up on that considering that poison doesn’t affect you.”

    “True,” Xellos said, tapping his finger on his jawbone thoughtfully. He smiled. “It’s good to see you’ve been thinking about these things. Even if you are going in completely the wrong direction.”

    He put his fist in the palm of his other hand as though he’d just come up with a solution as she scowled at him. “How about this then: why don’t we trade cups? Unless, of course, you think I’ve thought far ahead enough to poison my own tea.”

    Part of her was very angry with herself for hesitating. It was obvious that Xellos wasn’t trying to poison her. It’d be stupid to think that he was. She was definite on that. Not one iota of doubt!

    …Well, maybe one iota of doubt because you can never really tell with Xellos. He is sneakiness personified. But there was no point in going forward with any of this if she couldn’t be sure. And more than that, she couldn’t let Xellos see her being timid or afraid.

    “Fine,” she said, and before he could even move or she could change her mind, she grabbed his tea cup and took a long, fierce swig.

    It was good tea. It had a sweet tang of fruit and not, just as a random example, a sweet tang of poison.

    Xellos watched her a little too closely for her comfort as she let out a breath and thunked the cup back on the table with more force than was necessary. “So…” he said, reaching across her arm and taking the cup that had originally been hers. “No burning sensation as acid eats away at your throat?”

    “No,” Filia said. The adrenaline had gone to her heart. Generally tea drinking did not carry the possibility of death. Contrasted with the general calm a good cup of tea usually afforded her… well, it just seemed like a more exciting approach to the beverage.

    “No cold dagger of ice against your heart?” he asked with evident interest.

    “No,” she said again. Her heart was actually calming down as the body quit celebrating still being alive and went back to its regularly scheduled business.

    “No dark spark as the light dies from behind your eyes?” he went on imploringly.

    “No,” she said. “I’m fine.”

    “Well, that at least is good news,” he said, sitting back in his chair. “If about a half an hour from now you don’t fall spasming to the floor with foam shooting out of your mouth as all your joints bend inward on themselves, then you can be reasonably certain that you haven’t been poisoned.”

    She gave him an ultra high-intensity glare. Bast*ard.

    “By the way, Filia, I liked your speech” Xellos went on, taking a sip from his newly acquired cup. “Now, clear something up for me… was that whole ‘oppressing humans’ thing the dragons did a mistake or a misunderstanding?”

    “Oh ha ha,” Filia responded, because this wasn’t a real question. “Why didn’t you have to give a speech anyway?”

    “Because I’m not here to improve monster/human relations,” Xellos answered. “That would be rather counterproductive.”

    “Is that so?” Filia responded sourly. “Then why are you even here?”

    “Reconnaissance,” was all he said.

    “You mean spying!” Filia said accusingly.

    “Such an ugly word. I prefer reconnaissance,” Xellos said, giving Filia a smile that she might normally classify as charming if it wasn’t for the unfortunate fact that it was on Xellos’s face.

    “Anyway, they all do it,” Xellos said, gesturing with his cup to the other diplomats in the dining hall. “They come here to keep an eye on each other; that’s the main point. Sure, there might be talks of trade and increasing friendships between nations, but this conference leads to just as many blockades and vendettas as those. Perhaps more. But you can always count on, well… information gathering.”

    Reconnaissance. Information gathering. I see we like to play with words to disguise their meaning.

    “So why aren’t you spying now?” Filia asked, putting as much emphasis on the word as she could.

    Xellos shrugged vaguely in the direction of one of the meeting rooms. “They’re talking about trading wheat today. It’s quite dull.”

    So…, Filia thought. If Xellos’s entire dark purpose in being here is just to spy on people, then she was probably lucky. It could be a lot worse. That is, if she believed he was telling the truth which she wasn’t necessarily going to bet on. On the other hand, the main reason that she’d been sent here was that he’d been sent. And if that was the case…

    “So will it just be a waste of my time to try negotiating with you?” Filia asked exasperatedly. “I mean, since you’re only here to spy on people and all.”

    “Oh, no. That only applies to the others,” Xellos said. He opened his eyes and looked into his cup, pointedly not giving her his full attention. “You’re the only one I’m here for in a, shall we say… different capacity.”

    Well, that’s a good thing, Filia thought, almost as though she was trying to convince herself. At least I won’t be wasting my time here.

    …Why do I feel like that’s not a good thing?
    she asked herself as she felt seized by unexplained anxiety. Her mind defensively retreated to another topic and came back with a question she hadn’t gotten answered.

    “Speaking of the speeches,” she began, “didn’t you think that speech about the Daius Seed was rather odd?”

    “Hmm? Oh, not really,” he said, swirling his finger in a spilled puddle of tea on the table distractedly.

    “But they were acting like it was… well, treasure or something!” she said.

    “Yes?”

    “But the Supreme Elder said it was really dangerous,” she said. His drawing in the tea was really starting to get on her nerves. She was trying to talk to him and it was like he was barely paying attention!

    “And?”

    “Well,” she was nearly ready to explode in the face of this unhelpful attitude, “which is true?” she demanded.

    Xellos sighed. “That all depends on your definition of ‘true’.”

    She gritted her teeth. “Truth doesn’t need a definition, it is definition,” she responded, not willing to be drawn into any more of his word games.

    “Ah, but there are many different perspectives,” Xellos commented. “However, your Supreme Elder is, for your purposes, probably somewhat closer to the truth.”

    “Well if it’s dangerous then why do the humans want it?” Filia asked.

    Xellos waved a hand as if to say: ‘Oh, you know humans’ and said, “The humans only have limited information on the Daius seed. They must rely on rumor and they tend to be naturally optimistic about what they hear.”

    “Besides,” he went on, “humans have always had an attraction for dangerous things.” He added in a mutter: “I’m sure you understand.”

    “What was that?” Filia asked sharply.

    “Oh nothing. Nothing important.”

    Filia stewed in her anger as he took another sip of tea as though he was utterly at home. She hated how, no matter what he said, it always seemed like he was implying something. It was that snide tone of voice, that’s what it was. It was like he was always enjoying a joke at her expense.

    “Is that all you know about the Daius Seed?” Xellos asked. “Just that it’s dangerous?”

    “No,” Filia said, slightly petulantly. “The Supreme Elder said…” she strained her memory, “that it had something to do with Darkstar and destroying causality.”

    “Correct,” Xellos said as he began to slip into lecture mode. “The Daius Seed was created when Darkstar entered this world. The strain on this world of allowing a Dark Lord of that magnitude from another world was immense. It never would’ve been able to happen without the Darkstar weapons to forge a gate between the worlds. Apparently, it accomplished this by creating a single point – it wouldn’t have to be very large, it would just have to exist – in this world that was not of this world. It’s like a tiny universe in which the laws of physics are different enough to allow Darkstar to exist here, and that created a bridge to allow him to arrive.”

    “A universe?” Filia repeated, brow furrowed. This was a lot to take in.

    “For the purposes of our discussion: yes,” Xellos said. “You heard that man describe it as an item of unlimited potential and energy? Well, technically he’s right. Within the Daius Seed cause doesn’t have to follow effect. There are laws there, there must be laws. But they’re so different from the laws of this world that an outside observer would probably say that there were no laws at all. That’s mathematics for you.”

    Filia frowned. She wasn’t much good at mathematics beyond the practical business end of it. She didn’t consider it her arena. But she did know that in mathematics there was always a probability of something happening no matter how impossible it seemed.

    “So…” she began, very slowly working around the unfamiliar concept, “if the universe,” she paused to correct herself, “if everything is big enough so that everything must happen somewhere… the Daius Seed is where it can happen? Like the deep-end of probability?”

    “I couldn’t have put it better myself,” Xellos said. He actually seemed a little put-out that she was keeping up.

    “And what would happen if someone tried to use it?” Filia asked on an upswing of self-esteem.

    Xellos shrugged. “Who can say? Probably it would expand and overtake this world, thus destroying causality as we know it.”

    “Isn’t that something you monsters should be for?” Filia asked tersely. “Chaos and all that?”

    “Chaos is relative,” Xellos said with a knowing smile. “The Daius Seed doesn’t break the laws, it just rewrites them. If the Daius Seed goes active, then everyone will soon get used to walking around with their organs on the outside of their bodies. It doesn’t really do us any good in the long run.”

    Were exploding chickens and rains of trout really something a person could get used to? Maybe, Filia thought. Humans were extremely adaptive. And maybe the monsters liked the rules the way they were. After all, they already knew the best ways to break them. Rewriting them might cause them to have to seriously rethink their business model.

    “Have you heard of the island of Daius?” Xellos asked.

    “No,” Filia said, still thinking.

    “Then your classical education couldn’t have been very good,” Xellos commented in his casually insulting way. “It’s a very well known myth.”

    “Are you going to tell me it or not?” Filia growled.

    “It was an island that stood on the edge of the world between a sea of water and a sea of space,” Xellos said. “But it sunk downwards towards the sea of chaos and over the reality curve, breaking down the chain of causality as it went. That’s where the Daius Seed got its name from.”

    Something like that, Filia thought, has got to be really dangerous (and no, she didn’t have any kind of attraction for dangerous things thank-you-so-very-much, Xellos). And the humans wanted it. They didn’t know what it was, but they wanted to play around with it in case it turned out to be something good. They were already fighting over it for goodness sakes!

    “What if someone finds it and uses it?” Filia asked apprehensively.

    “It should be fairly safe for now,” Xellos said. “It’s located at the point where the pillar of light used to stand and the only easy way to get there is from Valgaav’s old base. Only you, myself, and Miss Lina and her friends know where that is. In fact,” he went on, “we wouldn’t even know about the Daius Seed’s existence if it wasn’t for the fact that one of your dragon elders foresaw it in a dream.”

    So, Filia thought thankfully, it should be alright for now. There was time to wait until a decision could be reached over what to do about the Daius Seed. She just hoped Lina wouldn’t get it into her head to go after it. There was just one thing about this that still bothered her…

    “If that’s the case, then how’d you find out about it?” she asked warily.

    Xellos grinned. “Dragons are good for some things after all.”

    Filia glowered at him. If I really am the Premier of Foreign Affairs and Trade, she thought to herself, then when I report back at the temple I’m going to get them to tighten the gaps in their information network so that we can keep spies out. Just you wait and see if I don’t!

  12. #12
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    Chapter 12. Profiling.

    It had been a trying couple of days for Filia. She’d been introduced to the world of politics and was only still breathing through two narrow escapes. She’d nearly been poisoned and shot already. Her bodyguard was laying out in the infirmary concentrating on magically repairing his spinal column. She was in the midst of drinking probably-not-poisoned tea with Mr. Smug Know-it-all Jerk (who prefers to be called Xellos), and now the werewolves were coming for her.

    …Well, it was probably too early to say if they were coming for her. But they were certainly walking toward her, and seemed to be looking at her. They also looked like they were about ready to start something, but to be fair, that’s the default expression on a werewolf.

    These weren’t your general mostly-human, wolf-at-the-full-moon werewolves. They weren’t just regular humans that had been bitten. No. These were born werewolves. Wolfmen. They walked upright and wore clothes (well, most of them did), but they were lupine through and through. Shaving cream was not on any of their shopping lists although it should have been.

    “Miss Ul Copt?” one of them asked through his elongated and noticeably toothy mouth.

    “…Yes,” Filia said uncertainly.

    The werewolf plunked his fist onto his armor and held it over his heart in a sort of military salute. “I am a messenger from Lycristy.”

    This meant absolutely nothing at all to Filia so she said: “Okay…”

    “Lycristy is pleased to find that you are unhurt and sends her compliments,” the wolf went on proudly.

    “Oh,” Filia said, and because she’d been raised to be polite she added: “Thank you.”

    The wolf nodded. “She is sure that she will meet you before the conference is over, but she wished to express her support and willingness to work together beforehand.”

    “Oh, well, that’s… good,” Filia finished lamely. She couldn’t remember anyone named Lycristy from Cleon’s ambassador crib sheet. Beastmen hadn’t figured largely into the hierarchy. “Please, uh, send her my thanks.”

    The werewolf nodded and took his leave of them.

    Filia turned to Xellos. “Who is Lycristy?”

    “Werewolves aren’t really at home with concepts like kings and queens,” Xellos said, watching the retreating werewolf. “So it’s best to just say that she’s their leader.”

    “What? Of all werewolves?” Filia asked, surprised.

    Xellos nodded.

    “But,” Filia began confusedly, “but I thought the werewolves didn’t have any one leader. I thought the tribes had leaders, but they acted independently of each other.”

    “Packs, not tribes. And that would normally be the case,” Xellos said. “But things are changing.”

    “What do they want with me?” Filia asked, half to herself. The dragon race had never really involved themselves in the affairs of the beastmen. Largely, they considered them even less worthy of bothering with than the humans, which said something in and of itself. The dragons ignored them, and the beasts returned the favor.

    “You’ve gained their sympathy,” Xellos explained. “After all, you have a shared enemy.”

    “What?”

    “The Pro-Human League,” Xellos said, steepling his fingers. “Apparently the werewolves think that they were the ones behind last night’s fireworks.”

    Ah, that was something else she needed to find out about. “What do you know about this Pro-Human League?” she asked, careful to hide her own suspicions.

    “I might have known you’d zero in on them,” Xellos said with a self-satisfied little smile. “But they’re not really worth talking about.”

    “Why?” Filia demanded bad-temperedly. It didn’t seem at all unreasonable to her that she’d want to know about a group targeting non-humans after she, a non-human, had been targeted. It kinda made sense.

    “Because they’re nothing new,” Xellos said dismissively. “Oh, this group just formed, but this kind of thing has been going on for centuries. It’s only that now they’ve cast off their hoods and decided to meet in public buildings and claim free-speech protection.”

    “They’re not smart though,” Xellos threw in, “or even at all organized. They’re generically for humans, as you might think, but they can’t even seem to agree on what ‘human’ entails. Some of them are fine with human-chimeras, some consider them outside the human race. Some think that everything non-human is scum, but others say that there are hierarchies, and not all the non-human races should be treated with equal hatred. Some want the non-human races to be exterminated, and some merely want them out of their neighborhoods so that they won’t bring the property values down.” He flashed a smile. “It’s not exactly one big happy family over there.”

    “But are they dangerous?” Filia asked.

    Xellos thought about this for a moment. “…Tricky to say,” he finally answered. “As stupid and disorganized as they are, they could possibly be. But at the moment I’d say that the group they present the largest danger to is themselves.”

    “So you don’t think someone from that group is after me?” Filia asked. First Cleon, now Xellos. And she’d thought it had been a pretty good theory.

    “Ah, your would-be killer,” Xellos said, sounding happy that they’d reached this point in the discussion. “It’s a real whodunit, isn’t it Filia? Don’t you just love a mystery?”

    Filia might be more inclined to love this mystery if it weren’t for the fact that if she didn’t solve it, she’d probably wind up dead. “You didn’t see anyone did you – in the back row? The shooter must have been somewhere near you.”

    “I didn’t see anyone,” he answered calmly.

    Filia slumped. But then, it was never that easy, was it?

    “If you want to find out who’s after you, you have to make use of the information you’ve been given,” Xellos said, over his steepled fingertips.

    “But you haven’t given me any information!” Filia pointed out, knowing in her heart that she sounded sulky.

    “No, but your assassin has,” Xellos countered.

    “What? When?”

    “At every attempt,” Xellos went on. “He told you all about himself.”

    Filia glared at him, wondering how long he was going to spool this whole thing out before he told her what he thought. “What did he say?” she asked flatly.

    “Well, let’s go take this one step at a time,” Xellos said, noting Filia’s desire to get the bottom-line and outright denying her it. “Think of the poisoning attempt first. What did you find out about the assassin from that?”

    Filia grumbled to herself. He could just tell her what he had on his mind, but oh no. He had to have his little guessing games. But nevertheless she tried to follow. She conjured up the memory of that night in her mind. Now… who could it have been? “I was sitting with…” she began.

    “No,” Xellos said, cutting across her before she could even get started. “It doesn’t matter who you were sitting with. If the assassin had tried to stab you then proximity would matter, but in this case the means of his attack was poison. There’s no special reason to suspect your seatmates. After all, none of them even touched your glass.”

    “Except you,” Filia pointed out coldly.

    “Except me,” Xellos allowed. “The point is not to shrink your suspect pool just yet. That would be too easy. The fact is, the poison probably was in your drink far before you reached the table. The crime may have originated in the kitchens, hours before dinner. Possibly even before you arrived at the hotel.”

    Filia’s expression soured. She felt strangely angry at Xellos for complicating the facts even though she knew deep down that the facts were complicated all by themselves. Xellos was just pointing them out. But it would have been so much neater if she could focus on her seat-mates.

    “Now,” Xellos said, surveying her closely. “What does the fact that he chose to use poison tell you about your assassin?”

    “That he’s a coward?” Filia asked bitterly.

    “Ha! Close, very close,” Xellos said with an appreciative smile. “Fear is a good reason to choose poisoning. He’s afraid of being caught.”

    “Well, most people are,” Filia pointed out because she thought this was quite obvious.

    “Most, but not all. And some more than others.”

    “So... what you’re saying is… he was being extra careful,” Filia summed up.

    Xellos nodded fervently. “And he would have to be. Poisoning requires careful planning. Do a slipshod job of it and you could wind up killing the wrong person.”

    Filia nodded slowly. Assassins don’t like messes.

    “If the poison was applied to your drink in the kitchens,” Xellos went on, “then your assassin would have to find a way of making sure that the poison made it to you. All the glasses look more or less the same, and unless the killer was masquerading as a waiter he couldn’t be sure which glass would end up with which person.”

    “So maybe the poison wasn’t meant for me?” Filia asked. It seemed too much to hope for, especially after the not-so-friendly fire from last night.

    “Doubtful,” Xellos said. “Your would-be killer probably hit on the fact that kings and queens are used to having things their way. As such, special orders are practically standard here. To make things easier for the kitchen and wait staff, food and drink are paired up together for each individual instead of being carried on a separate tray. Your assassin would just have to find your plate in the kitchen and poison the wine next to it. As luck would have it, you were dining on a particularly dragonish dish.”

    Filia groaned. She knew she would’ve been safer with a nice stir fry.

    “So, that attack taught us what about your assassin?” Xellos asked in about the same tones that a school teacher would use when asking his students to repeat the times tables.

    “He’s a good planner,” Filia answered thoughtfully. “He wants to make sure none of this traces back to him and he’s… smart?” Filia looked to Xellos for confirmation on this last one.

    Xellos nodded slowly. “Fairly so, I would say.”

    Filia couldn’t really see how this helped. It wasn’t a name or even a physical description. It was just basically what you’d expect from a cold-blooded murderer.

    “Now, let’s talk about the shooting which raises even more questions,” Xellos went on before Filia had a chance to comment on the pointlessness of this exercise. “Why did the killer shift to that means?”

    “Because I hired food-tasters,” Filia said, playing the question-and-answer game as best as she could.

    “But why guns?” Xellos pressed on. He gave a sigh at Filia’s look on incomprehension and then went on, “Let me ask a different question. If you were trying to kill a dragon, would you use a gun?”

    “Well, I’m not the expert on that am I?” Filia asked with all the bile in her liver.

    “No, you’re not,” Xellos said, dropping his light, inquisitive tone for only just a moment before getting it back. “Now focus. If you were trying to kill – not wound – a dragon, would you use a gun?”

    Filia thought about it. “No…” she said.

    “Because?” Xellos prodded.

    “Because…” Filia shook her head, “because dragons have strong regenerative powers. Bleeding to death takes time, and a dragon could easily heal up a wound that size before they lost enough blood to die. The only reason Rasmus is still recovering is because he got hit in the spine and nerve damage is always fiddly to repair. But even he’ll be fine before too long.”

    “So…” her brow crinkled. “It wouldn’t make sense to try to shoot a dragon.”

    “Oh Bravo, Filia!” Xellos said, giving her a little bit of mocking applause. “I knew we’d get there eventually.”

    “But it doesn’t make sense!” Filia said again.

    “No, and it’s not the only thing about that little crime that didn’t make sense,” Xellos said, looking suddenly serious again. “What trained killer would think a good hideout would be in the back of an auditorium full of people? If only one person had gotten bored during your speech and looked behind them, they would have caught him in the act.”

    “Well, I guess he was lucky that I’m such a riveting public speaker then,” Filia said haughtily.

    “Hmm. I think the audience was more riveted by your cleavage than your words.”

    Filia made a sound that, if you were to write it out, you could only express as: “!!” and shot back in her seat. If she’d been wearing her cape she would have pulled it tighter to herself, but since she was without it she had to content herself with merely going red with anger and shouting: “You—!!”

    “Now tell me,” Xellos said, stemming the tide of the wave of anger before it could crash to shore, “what does this tell us about your assassin?”

    Filia glowered and tried to pull herself together. Some bits resisted, but she managed in the end. “That he’s stupid!” she said harshly.

    “Fairly so, I would say,” Xellos echoed himself. “The poisoning attempt showed us a smart, detail-oriented planner who wanted to remove all suspicion from himself. Yet, the shooting attempt shows us that the killer stupid, impulsive, and seeking attention.”

    He smiled broadly. “So basically your assassin is an intelligent, idiot, mastermind, reckless, attention-seeker loner!”

    She scowled at him. What made him think she had time to waste talking in circles with him?!

    “Well that’s just great,” she said sarcastically. “What am I supposed to do with that?”

    “Were you expecting it to be easy?” Xellos asked with no little amusement. “Maybe the killer should’ve signed him name to make it simpler for you? Is that what you were expecting?”

    “I was expecting something a little more helpful,” she shot back. “Something more specific.”

    “Then you need to think motive,” he said. “Ask yourself who would want to kill you.”

    Filia was somewhat beyond frustrated at this point. Either Xellos knew something and wasn’t going to tell her, or he didn’t know anything and just wanted to make her feel stupid for awhile. “I haven’t done anything!” she said exasperatedly. “Why would anyone want to kill me?!”

    Xellos clucked his tongue scoldingly at the increasingly upset Filia. “Haven’t you learned anything yet? It’s not about you; at least not you as an individual. Take a page out of Amelia’s book: you’re not yourself here. You’re representing your people. Here you are the dragon race.”

    Filia sniffed and pulled herself together yet again. She didn’t need Xellos to tell her. She knew all that. It was just that she was feeling a little persecuted lately on account of the fact that someone was trying to kill her.

    And you know what? she thought, feeling her resolve strengthen once again. Forget about Xellos and his twisted logic. He certainly hadn’t come up with any really clever ideas. No, he just liked to criticize other people’s. But no one had yet given her a more likely suspect than the Pro-Human League. She didn’t see any real reason that they couldn’t be behind this besides the fact that Xellos thought they sucked which wasn’t altogether compelling.

    “Well, I suppose all we’ve really gleaned from this talk is that it certainly seems like someone out there is up to no good,” Xellos summed up cheerily. Leave it to a monster to delight in wicked deeds.

    “Maybe more than one someone,” Filia muttered, still thinking of the Pro-Human League.

    Xellos gave her a sharp look. It was a little surprised, deeply suspicious, and perhaps even slightly impressed. “That’s a very insightful thing you just said,” he said slowly. “Taking into account your average level of perception, I won’t expect another comment like that for quite some time.”
    Filia ground her teeth together angrily. She was at least perceptive enough to know when he was calling her stupid.

    “If that’s all the help you’re going to be, Xellos, then you can just go bother someone else,” Filia retorted crossly.

    Xellos paused, looking as though he was preparing to frame a suitable comeback. He opened his mouth and said: “…Okay.”

    He started getting up to leave as Filia found herself taken aback. “Okay?” she repeated disbelievingly.

    “Okay,” he confirmed simply, and then walked away.

    She watched him retreat for a moment and then hastily returned her gaze to her teacup because it would’ve been weird if she watched him until he left the room.

    What—But—? She hadn’t actually expected him to leave. Telling Xellos to go away never actually works. Who could have seen that coming?

    And suddenly he wasn’t gone. Suddenly he was right behind her. Very close behind her.

    “By the way,” he said conversationally into her ear, “I just thought I’d let you know before I leave that it’s been more than half-an-hour.”

    And then he was gone again.

    Half-an-hour? What was he… Oh, she remembered. His quip about poisons. Very nice. Well at least that meant that she’d live to see another tea time.

    Not if you keep having these minor heart attacks all the time you won’t, her circulatory system informed her to the desperate beat pounding against her rib cage.

  13. #13
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    Chapter 13. Ambassador Allies.

    Filia wasn’t entirely sure what to do since Xellos had abandoned her. Her talk with him had left her with more questions than answers. And… even though it stung to admit it, she’d actually felt a lot safer with him. Knowing that he was the most dangerous thing in the room and being reasonably confident that he wasn’t trying to kill her had somewhat diminished any lurking threat. Now she felt exposed.

    Plus she was getting hungry. She hadn’t had anything besides the tea all day.

    Food was available in the dining hall… but it also carried the possibility of poison. She wasn’t ready yet to go back to her food tasters and Cleon to defend herself for going rogue. And chasing after Xellos to ask him to play the part was an intolerable thought.

    It was looking like she’d have to crawl back to Cleon with nothing to show for her gambit when she had a sudden brainwave.

    I’m not out of friends yet, she thought.

    *****

    It only took a little bit of checking around to find Amelia’s room. She only had second thoughts after she knocked on the door. Maybe I shouldn’t be bothering her, she thought. Seyruun’s an important nation. She might be busy.

    But she needn’t have concerned herself. When Amelia opened the door she seemed very pleased to see her indeed and said that she’d been worried after she’d heard about what had happened the night before. She’d kindly invited Filia inside and, after hearing of her food-taster woes, offered to share her non-poisoned room-service lunch.

    With a cold drink in hand, food before her, and a companion that wasn’t insulting her or glibly mentioning her cleavage, Filia felt much better.

    “So, are you okay?” Amelia asked, all concern, after Filia recounted the events that had put her bodyguard in the infirmary.

    It was nice to be asked that. When you get shot at, you feel you deserve a little worry. Between suggestions that were more like orders from Cleon and sarcasm from Xellos, she hadn’t been asked that yet. …Well, to be fair, Cleon probably did ask that right after the attack. She knew he’d said something to her, but her ears were ringing from the gunshot and she was much more focused on the injured Rasmus. But Xellos hadn’t. Not that he’d do anything like that anyway.

    “I’m fine,” Filia said, and then because this was Amelia and she could be honest, she added: “It’s just scary to know someone’s out there trying to kill me.”

    Amelia nodded sympathetically. “It must be awful for you right now. Doesn’t anyone have any idea who’s behind all this?”

    Filia scowled into her half-sandwich. “Well, Cleon – my assistant – has got it into his head that it’s Xellos.”

    “What?” Amelia exclaimed, nearly choking on a slice of tomato. “That’s crazy!”

    “I know,” Filia said, feeling validated. See? she thought to herself. Miss Amelia’s traveled with Xellos before and knows what he’s capable of. She understands how utterly laughable it is to think that someone with that kind of power at his disposal would stoop to poison and firearms.

    “Mister Xellos wouldn’t kill you,” Amelia went on, shaking her head at the very thought.

    That statement caught Filia a little off guard. “I don’t know about that,” she said. “I just meant that if he wanted to kill me I’d already be dead.” Skewered is the word you’re looking for, her brain not-so-helpfully supplied. She shuddered mentally. “Anyway, what do you mean he wouldn’t kill me?” she asked sharply.

    “Oh,” Amelia said, blinking as though lost for words for a minute. Then she shrugged her shoulders and said, “I guess I just always thought that Xellos kinda liked you. In as much as he can like anyone,” she added after seeing Filia’s expression.

    “I mean, even in the old days you two were always hanging out together,” Amelia chattered to fill the enraged vacuum of silence from Filia.

    “Only when we couldn’t avoid it!” Filia snapped. “And anyway, we were always fighting!” She honestly didn’t know where Amelia got her ideas from.

    “Yeah, but,” Amelia began doubtfully, “It always kinda seemed like you two had a lot of fun fighting. Like it was a game or something.”

    “It wasn’t a game!” Filia thundered.

    Amelia was giving her the small smile of someone determined to be reasonable in the face of obvious unreasonableness. “Come on,” she said. “It’s okay to admit that, deep down, you two like each other a little.”

    Filia let the anger bubble up in her for a minute before siphoning it slowly between her teeth by saying: “Look, I’ve already got Cleon giving me odd looks. I don’t need this from you too. I think it’s pretty clear that we hate each other.”

    “My Great Aunt Myrtle always used to say that there’s a thin line between love and hate,” Amelia said thoughtfully, as she stirred her straw in her drink, “right before she hit my Great Uncle Edmund with her purse.”

    “I don’t care what your Great Aunt Myrtle said!” Filia shouted. “There is no love. There is always and only hate.” Cleon, Gardenia, and now Amelia. Where do these people get off casting aspersions on my character?

    “Of course not,” Amelia said, holding up her hands in a conciliatory fashion. “I wasn’t really saying that anyway. What I was trying to say was that I don’t think he’d kill you unless he was ordered to.”

    “And that’s all you were trying to say?” Filia asked suspiciously.

    “Yep!” Amelia chirped with a smile.

    You liar!

    Anyway, talking of love and… ugh, Xellos (those two words should not be used in the same sentence!), that reminded her. “Your friend Miss Gardenia has a crush on him, you know,” Filia said. “Xellos,” she added, in case ‘him’ wasn’t clear enough.

    Amelia sighed. She looked like she was barely keeping herself from rolling her eyes. “I thought she might after she asked about him. She does this all the time, you know.”

    “I thought so,” Filia answered. Because a girl would have to be crazy to be attracted to Xellos!

    “I’ll have a talk with her,” Amelia promised. “Don’t worry about it.”

    “I’m not worried!” Filia shot back a little too quickly.

    Amelia stared at her for a minute. “Of course not,” she said again. She coughed. “Anyway, we were talking about who the assassin might be?”

    “Oh, right,” Filia said. Yes. There were much more important things here to be discussed than Xellos and his (hopefully) only admirer.

    “So,” Amelia went on, “we’re pretty sure it’s not Mister Xellos because of—”

    “Various reasons,” Filia said, cutting across her just in case.

    Amelia nodded. “Various reasons,” she repeated. “So who does that leave us with?”

    Filia was debating with herself whether to share her suspicions about the Pro-Human League with Amelia just yet. After having to deal with both Cleon and Xellos shooting her down, she wasn’t really in the mood to hear Amelia give her ten best reasons why it wasn’t them.

    She was still thinking it over when Amelia appeared to rouse herself from some inner cognition. “This is just a shot in the dark, umm… so to speak,” Amelia said, a bit embarrassed by her turn of phrase, “but do you think it has anything to do with the Daius Seed?”

    Filia hadn’t been expecting that. “No,” she said, “Why?” Then she furrowed her brow and added, “How?”

    Amelia shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know, it’s just that everyone’s talking about it. It’s a big issue for this summit, so I just wondered if it’s related.”

    Hmm…, Filia thought. She couldn’t really see how killing her would get anyone closer to the Daius Seed. Now, if they knew that she knew where it was then she could understand maybe kidnapping her or threatening the information out of her. But killing her? No… But maybe… they weren’t after the Daius Seed. Maybe they wanted to keep the Daius Seed hidden by killing everyone that knew about it.

    She felt a bead of sweat trickle down her spine. If that was the case then the two groups that most wanted to get rid of the Daius Seed were the monsters and… her own race.

    She shook her head. No. That was too big a conclusion to jump to. Anyway, she’d already been over why Xellos couldn’t be the assassin. He’d had too many chances where he could’ve easily killed her and hadn’t. That proved it couldn’t be him.

    …Unless…

    Unless Amelia was right and Xellos did… ‘kinda like’ her and was putting off the moment of killing her.

    No. No. That was all wrong. Amelia was wrong. She was… an optimist about people and got all kinds of funny ideas. The only thing Xellos liked about her was that he got to insult her. His behavior made that utterly, utterly clear. He couldn’t stand her and the feeling was more than mutual. In fact, Filia thought with growing distaste, I bet he’d be positively thrilled if he got the order to kill me. He wouldn’t beat around the bush like this.

    As for her own race, well, they’d been the ones to send her to the summit, right? It seemed like a bit of a waste if they were just doing it to get her killed. She could be killed at the temple much more easily. It’s not like they’d even have to do a cover up or anything. She was an outsider and wouldn’t be missed.

    And there was the fact that Amelia, who also knew the location of Valgaav’s base, was not receiving any unwelcome attentions from assassins. They’d be trying to get her too if they were knocking off everyone that knew.

    So… yes. It was unlikely that the Daius Seed was actually involved in the plot to have her killed. But that did get her to thinking about it. She’d heard what Xellos knew about the Daius Seed (or at least what he was willing to share about it), but a lot of the humans had a completely different idea about it. It might be worth knowing what more of the humans thought about it if it was such a big issue.

    “I can’t see how it’d be related,” Filia said. “What umm… what do you know about the Daius Seed?” she asked casually.

    “Not much,” Amelia admitted. “It’s just a rumor. Why?”

    “Oh, it’s just that Xellos mentioned it and I wanted to check that he wasn’t just making things up,” Filia said hurriedly.

    An expression passed over Amelia’s face very quickly. It might have just been the fact that Filia was feeling a bit paranoid and edgy, but she thought she read the look as saying rather too knowingly: ‘Oh? He mentioned it, did he? Seeing a lot of him these days, are we?’. But it was gone too quickly to be sure.

    “All I know is that it’s supposed to be a high energy magical device,” Amelia said. “Some people say it can grant wishes, some people say it can be used as a power source. But no one seems to know where it is or even if it’s real.” She sighed. “Rumors like these crop up from time to time, about mythical items and stuff like that. Usually it turns out to be nothing. The only reason people are so excited this time is that they think it’s got to be true just because so many people are talking about it.”

    Trust the mob, Filia thought bitterly. It must know what it’s talking about.

    “Is that what Mister Xellos said?” Amelia asked.

    “Something like that,” Filia said vaguely. Xellos was a sneak. It figured he knew more about what was going on than anyone else. He spent a lot of time at it. Spying. She snapped out of this thought-line. Amelia deserved the truth. “Actually, it sounds like it’s pretty dangerous. One of the reasons I’m here is to help to decide what’s to be done with it.”

    “Wow!” was what Amelia came out with. “If that’s the case, then are you sure someone isn’t trying to stop you from making that decision?”

    “Pretty sure,” Filia answered. The only people who know about it are people who’ve already been cleared of responsibility, so it should be okay.

    “So who else could it be?” Amelia asked, tapping her fingers thoughtfully against the tabletop while trying to conjure up a mental suspect list.

    “I was thinking,” Filia ventured hesitantly, “that it might be that Pro-Human League.”

    Amelia stared forward for a minute. “That would make sense!” she said, plummeting her fist into her cupped hand. “They’re a wicked, awful bunch. I wouldn’t put anything past them.”

    “So you know about them?” Filia asked, relieved that she’d at least found one person who agreed with her.

    Amelia nodded fiercely. There was a fire burning in her eyes from some way off. “They’ve been making a lot of power plays ever since they formed – trying to get the backing of the rich and powerful,” she said. “They even came to Seyruun looking for support.”

    “What did you do?” Filia asked. She actually felt a bit sorry for whatever recruiter had made the mistake of coming to Seyruun. He probably got an earful about the equal rights and peace between all creatures.

    “I threw a fireball at him,” Amelia said levelly.

    Filia felt her eyes bulge. Ah, that’s right, she thought. Miss Amelia is very fond of Mister Zelgadis, isn’t she? And she’s a dab hand with those fireballs. Yikes.

    “It wasn’t that bad,” Amelia explained, noting her expression. “It just burned all his hair off.”

    Filia coughed. “Well, I guess if we see one in a toupee there’ll be a good chance that’s him,” she said lightly.

    “So,” Amelia said, cupping her chin in one hand and looking thoughtful. “Those Pro-Human villains are behind this. I bet they’ve chosen you as a target to show how strong they are to those reluctant to join them. If they can afford to target the golden dragons, it makes them look powerful.”

    Filia thought about this. It made sense. It didn’t matter that the League didn’t actually have the resources to take on the Dragon race. Psychologically, if they killed the Dragon race’s ambassador, it would look to the rest of the world like they did. And it would spread fear among the other non-human races. If they could kill dragons then no one was safe. And then they could reap profits for their group from that fear.

    “I bet you’re right,” Filia said.

    Amelia stood up, pointing dramatically in front of her. “We can’t let these evil doers perpetrate their foul deeds in the darkness! We must cast a light on them, so everyone can see the black character of their tainted souls! Yes! You and I must confront them with their crimes so that they can face the burning brand of JUSTICE!”

    “Umm,” Filia said, feeling the need to move slightly away that most people feel when faced with an Amelia justice speech. “I really don’t think we should do that.”

    But Amelia had been fired up and she wasn’t about to be stopped. “And let them get away with their evil plot? As an ambassador of peace, I cannot stand for that!”

    “Right,” Filia pointed out. “You are an ambassador. You can’t go around beating people up here just because they’re bad.”

    Amelia began to deflate. She knew this, somewhere in her head. But the smoke of the burning fires of JUSTICE had clouded her brain. “…You’re right,” she said, sinking down in her chair and looking none too pleased.

    “What we need,” Filia said, “is evidence. But unfortunately we don’t have any of that.”

    Amelia pounded a fist against the table. “We can’t just do nothing! There must be something we can do in our role as diplomats to unmask them as the cowardly villains they are!”

    Filia was thinking. Yes. There was something that diplomats could do. It was something that they did all the time. It wasn’t strictly ethical, but it was… well, almost part of the job.

    “I think I might have an idea,” she said.

    …Now, what had Xellos said about ‘information gathering’?

  14. #14
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    Chapter 14. Spying.

    Filia and Amelia had camped out in the hallway where Pro-Human League leader Cask Vitrain had his room. They peered around the corner at his door with deep focus, waiting for him to leave on his business for the afternoon. Whenever anyone passed they would talk nonchalantly to each other to put off suspicion.

    Finally, after what seemed like an hour, but was actually seven minutes, the door opened and Cask Vitrain headed out with his entourage, whistling in a cheery, but nevertheless villainous manner. As soon as he was out of sight, Amelia and Filia raced to the door.

    “Do you know an unlocking spell?” Filia asked, as she tried the door.

    “No, but don’t worry, I think I can handle it,” Amelia said. She pulled out what looked like a hairpin and fed it into the lock.

    “Where’d you learn to do that?” Filia asked in surprised and slightly impressed tones.

    “I got Mister Zelgadis to show me,” Amelia said, fiddling with the lock, her tongue sticking out in concentration.

    “Oh,” Filia said. She hesitated for a moment, and then, because she had to ask, said: “Isn’t that a little… unjust?”

    “Well…” Amelia said, a little reluctantly, “Not always, but just sometimes, you need to use unjust means in the pursuit of the ultimate justice.”

    Filia frowned. The logic was twisted and probably wouldn’t hold up under the metaphorical ethical microscope, but that’s what traveling with Miss Lina and her friends does to you. You learn that sometimes it’s better to bend rules… more diplomatic.

    Anyway, she wasn’t in any position to judge. What they were doing was spying – and now breaking and entering. It wasn’t in any way on the up-and-up. It was a sneaky, no-account Xellos-approved strategy. But this was politics. It’s not like real life. You can’t just confront the problem and expect it to go away. This was… tangled. She needed evidence or she’d never win. Sure, this was… breaking the rules, but they’d broken the rules first by trying to have her killed!

    “Got it,” Amelia said, withdrawing the pin and pushing the door open.

    Filia took a deep breath and tried to get her act together. “We’d better hurry,” she said. “There’s no telling when he’ll come back.”

    “He’s probably gone off to the forum,” Amelia said, putting the pin in her pocket. “We should have plenty of time.”

    “Good,” Filia said, and stepped forward into the room.

    When Cleon had told Filia that the expansive room that she’d been given was actually one of the smaller suites assigned to diplomats, she’d found this hard to believe. After seeing Amelia’s room and Cask Vitrain’s, she’d had to revise this opinion. But the size wasn’t the major thing that stood out in the quarters of the Pro-Human League’s leader…

    “Is everything in this room made from the fur or skin of some previously living animal?” Filia demanded in horror.

    Fur and leather was the theme in both the clothing hanging out of the closet and the luxurious furniture strewn about the room. The heavy fur blankets covering the canopy bed practically screamed ‘Endangered Species’.

    Amelia tugged on her sleeve and nodded upwards with an unreadable expression.

    “What?” Filia followed her gaze. “Oh my—!”

    It seemed that the heads of things figured largely into Mister Vitrain’s decorating sense. There were the usual hunting trophies: birds, bears, and even a lion. But you could tell by the unique bone structure of several of them that they weren’t all low-beasts. There was the head of a wolfman, posed in an expression of manic defiance. There was the head of a lizard man, stuffed tongue lolling out in reptilian menace. And, perhaps saddest of all, over the fireplace hung the entire body of a fish person.

    “This is…” Filia began. “This is… monstrous.” And that was usually a word she only reserved for one person.

    “It is,” Amelia agreed, with eyes steely enough to sharpen any blade.

    “Why does he have all this here at a hotel room?” Filia demanded, taking refuge in small details where larger ones were too horrifying.

    “Most diplomats just use the furniture that comes in the room. But some like to have their own stuff shipped ahead of them. They want to feel more at home,” Amelia said in disgust.

    Filia shuddered. She could feel the eyes of the taxidermy puppets on her from all over the room. They’d been posed to look as animalistic and unintelligent as possible, but all she could feel from their glass eyes was sadness and fear.

    She mentally pinched herself. He’s a despicable man. You knew that. You expected that. So get going. You have a job to do.

    “Alright,” Filia said, tearing her eyes away from the mournful set belonging to a tiger-man. “Let’s start looking. And remember what you move. We don’t want to leave anything out of place.”

    And so they commenced to searching Cask Vitrain’s room. In doing so they found more unpleasant things including, but not limited to: several unidentified teeth, ivory figurines of Olympian humans in hunter poses, and enough rabbit’s feet to make Mister Vitrain a very lucky man indeed. All of which they were very careful to move back to their original positions as soon as they were done searching around them.

    “I’ve got something!” Amelia said, excitedly as she opened the bottom drawer by Vitrain’s nightstand.

    Indeed she did. When Filia went over to look, she saw, well, not a smoking gun, but definitely a gun.

    “Bringing a gun to a diplomatic function doesn’t really show good intent, does it?” Filia asked, holding it.

    “It most certainly doesn’t!” Amelia agreed emphatically.

    “He’s obviously a hunter,” Filia said, being brought down by this thought. “He’d probably just say that he brought it along in case there was anything interesting he wanted to kill in the area.”

    “But he shouldn’t have it, anyway,” Amelia pointed out. “They’re not allowed.”

    True, Filia thought. But they hadn’t been searched. When she’d pulled out her mace at the start of the summit, it’d just been confiscated. It seemed like the kind of rule that everyone knew would be broken, and that’s fine: as long as no one sees you break it.

    Amelia had pulled out the box at the bottom of the drawer. “Here are the bullets,” she said. She furrowed her brow. “But they look kinda… strange.”

    “Strange?” Filia said, suddenly interested. Cleon had mentioned something about the bullet that had hit Rasmus being unusual. Now she wished she’d asked how so. She should’ve asked the investigators herself, damn it!

    “They’re not the usual lead ones,” Amelia said. “They’re shinier.”

    Filia was about to have a look herself when she suddenly froze. She pricked up her elongated ears. “Footsteps,” she mouthed.

    She and Amelia slammed the box and gun back where they’d found them and were about to make a run for the door when they heard the tell-tale sound of a key being inserted into a lock.

    “What do we do?” Amelia mouthed frantically.

    Filia stared around for some cover. It was limited. Somehow she didn’t think pretending to be one of Vitrain’s hunting trophies would work. “The closet!” she mouthed, pointing. It wasn’t creative, but it was their only option.

    They brushed aside the voluminous coats and squeezed into the darkness of the closet. It really wasn’t the right size for hide and seek, so Amelia was pretty much being suffocated by the fur coats in the back, and Filia was pressed against the door with her eye to the crack between the wall and the closet door. Both of them tried not to breath (in Amelia’s case, this was easy) as the door opened.

    “…think you’ll appreciate the décor,” Vitrain was saying as the doorknob turned and he entered the room.

    Despite the fact that the terror of being caught kept rocketing Filia’s heart into her ribcage, she was curious. Vitrain was talking to someone. If it was another Pro-Human Leaguer then they might mention the assassination attempt.

    “Ooh. I like it. Very classy,” said a voice without a trace of irony.

    Filia had to cover her mouth with her hand to smother her surprise. Xellos. There. In the room. Talking to Vitrain. It was undeniable. She could see his stupid purple head through the space between the hinges of the closet door.

    What are you doing talking to him, you detestable creep!?

    Of course, they were both detestable creeps, so the question could be addressed at either of them. Right now she was more concerned about Xellos’s presence, though. What was he doing there?! …Best not to jump to conclusions right away. Maybe they’re just having a detestable creep club meeting.

    “You know, it’s so nice to actually meet someone who appreciates what the League is trying to do here, Mister Xellos,” Vitrain said. “Support for our group’s mission is, sadly, getting rarer.”

    “Standards are falling everywhere,” Xellos agreed cheerily.

    “I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Vitrain agreed gravely. “Do you know, some little fleabag threw a shoe at me earlier today? They have no respect for their betters!”

    “They’re especially riled up lately,” Xellos commented. “Your speech bothered them, but they expected it. It was the attack on the dragon girl that really got to them. Right now they’re feeling solidarity with the dragons that they’ve never felt before.”

    Filia saw Xellos shrug. “Of course, there isn’t any direct evidence linking the attack to your group. But, well… some people think the circumstance is enough,” he said.

    “I’m afraid if that kind of information is what you’re looking for, I can’t help you,” Vitrain said. Filia couldn’t see his face, but his tone implied that there was a twinkle in his eye when he said that. “The League is preparing a statement at the moment to address the issue.”

    “Well, I’m sure everything will be fully explained soon enough,” Xellos said lightly. “Personally, I’d consider it a little bit odd if the League were responsible for the attempt.”

    This seemed to throw Vitrain. “Why would you say that?” he asked.

    “First of all,” Xellos said, holding up one finger, “I understand that there’s a bit of a schism within your group in regards to those non-human species that can freely take on human forms. Some of your members consider them less repugnant because they’re at least trying to ‘better themselves’.”

    Filia felt the hair bristle down her neck. She spent a lot of time in human form. But this was because she interacted with humans on a regular basis and because thumbs come in handy! It wasn’t because she was trying to ‘better herself’!

    “Ah, but there are plenty of others that think those species are even worse,” Vitrain pointed out. “The pretenders give real humans a bad name and take away economic opportunities meant for us.”

    “Still,” Xellos said, “It seems odd to pick a target not entirely demonized by the whole group. One would expect your first target to embody everything that the whole group is against. Perhaps even someone who had made a move against the group. It would send a better message than going after a dragon. Half your group might even somewhat accept her if she could be civilized.”

    Civilized?!

    “I’d just expect a more consistent decision-making process from a group like yours,” Xellos said.

    Vitrain didn’t respond. Filia got the feeling that he was less thrilled with his guest than he’d initially been. Welcome to the frustration and disappointment-laden activity known as ‘talking to Xellos’!

    “Then there’s the fact that your group only just started and your resources are limited. It would be very unexpected for you to take on a race as strong as the dragon race, which would take retribution against you and definitely win. An outside observer would expect you to choose a weaker target to start,” Xellos went on.

    “The human race,” Vitrain answered stiffly, “can stand up to any foe.”

    “I’m sure,” Xellos said in a way that indicated he was not. “But then there’s the mode of attack itself. Surely, if your target was a golden dragon you’d have prepared better. After all, who would expect a golden dragon to be brought down by a single silver bullet?” He laughed. “I can’t imagine associating as great a group as yours with such a pathetic assassination attempt.”

    Vitrain was silent.

    “Of course, no matter what the beastmen think, there are plenty of other options. There was that poisoning attempt earlier, so clearly someone is after her,” Xellos said. “They say that there’s supposed to be a monster around here, so he’s likely the guilty party. There’s bad blood between those two.”

    You son of a—!

    “Filthy creatures,” Vitrain said disapprovingly. “Something ought to be done about them.”

    “Oh, I quite agree,” Xellos said, and Filia didn’t have to be squinting at him to know that he was grinning.

    What are you trying to pull here you lying, manipulative, evil—?

    “Well, I suppose that’s about all I had to say, so I’d better be going,” Xellos said, interrupting Filia’s mental diatribe against him and heading for the door.

    Filia could only see the back of Vitrain, but she saw his shoulders relax. He looked relieved, as though he’d just escaped something deadly. Which, in a manner of speaking, he had.

    Xellos stopped. His hand had been almost on the doorknob and he just stopped. He paused and then turned around in one smooth motion. “Oh, and there was just one more thing,” he began.

    Filia saw Vitrain’s shoulders tense up again.

    “That statement you were busy preparing,” Xellos said, “considering that you’ve found yourself in a rather unpredictable situation… don’t you think it might be better to wait a bit and see what happens?”

    Vitrain took a handkerchief out of his pocket and applied it to his forehead, but what he said was: “I assure you, we have the situation entirely under control.” He paused, looked at his sweaty handkerchief as if he didn’t remember taking it out, and then said: “But… I might just take your advice and be a bit more cautious with the statement.”

    Xellos was silent for just fractionally longer than was comfortable. “Of course,” he said.

    “And now I really must be going,” Xellos said, turning. Mid-turn he stopped. He wasn’t faking out Vitrain this time. Filia knew that with a pang of pure, stomach twisting terror. One of his eyes was opened and it was locked straight onto hers as she peered between the closet door and the doorframe.

    He knows. She didn’t need to think any farther than this. She didn’t need to think of what would happen if he went to the summit guards, or worse if he didn’t. She didn’t need to think of what would happen to her and happen to Amelia, who shouldn’t have been involved in this at all. She didn’t need to think of what this would mean for the dragon race and for Seyruun. Those two words were horrifying enough all on their own.

    He knows.

    And Vitrain was turning around to see what Xellos was staring at with such intensity.

    “On second thought,” Xellos said, reeling Vitrain’s head back around, “I’ve heard your undersecretary is a powerful man in the Outer courts of Renz. Would you mind introducing me to him?”

    “Oh, Zarus? He’s an old buddy of mine,” Vitrain said, sounding relieved not only to be off the topic of the assassination attempt, but also glad to get a chance to flaunt his connections. “Sure, I’d be glad to. He’s probably down in the dining hall having his third lunch, the ol’ glutton!”

    “Sounds good to me,” Xellos said.

    And the two of them walked out the door and closed it behind them.
    Five seconds (to be safe) later, Filia and Amelia burst out of the closet. Amelia was getting her breath back and occasionally coughing up clumps of the fur of an unidentified animal. Filia just stared at the door in front of her.

    “What the hell was that all about?” she said aloud.

    *****

    It was several hours later and she still had no idea what the hell any of that had been all about. She and Amelia had said good-bye awhile before. They weren’t entirely sure what to do with what they knew, especially since if they told anyone then they’d have to admit to spying. It seemed best at the moment to… well, to take Xellos’s advice to Vitrain and just be cautious.

    They’d found a gun and bullets. But… Xellos’s refutations and the way Vitrain had reacted well… she wasn’t sure what it all meant.

    She stared out one of the large windows in the hallway she was loitering in. It was getting dark. She’d spent the whole day either with Xellos or spying on Vitrain. She’d basically torn to shreds all of Cleon’s well-meaning suggestions. Perhaps that was why she wasn’t so eager to find him again.

    He was probably worried though… and she’d have to go back eventually.

    She was tired, she was confused, and perhaps this would all make more sense in the morning. Cleon would whine, but he wasn’t the boss of her. It was the other way around. So she sighed and made her wandering way back to her room.

    When she’d found her room and was just about to open the door, she heard an all too familiar voice behind her say: “Had enough fun for one day?”

    “You!” Filia said, turning around and visiting her full you-have-displeased-the-gods wrath upon Xellos. “You’ve got a lot of explaining to do!”

    “Do I?” Xellos asked, raising an eyebrow.

    “Yes!” Filia answered angrily. “What were you doing talking to Vitrain?!”

    “You know, I don’t really see why you’re so upset,” Xellos said, not answering the question. “Especially considering I got you out of that jam. There’s no rule against spying, Filia, but there is one against getting caught.”

    Filia hesitated. It was so typical of him to unfairly corner her with the truth.

    “If you had been caught, the penalties would have been steep,” Xellos continued. “And by steep I mean, you’d pay with your life. A firing squad is generally the favorite method for dealing with spies, which might have been a familiar experience for you.” He smiled and stepped closer to her. “Why, if I hadn’t saved you back there, you wouldn’t even have had time to blow one last kiss before they pulled the trigger.”

    “Don’t expect me to be grateful,” Filia snapped.

    “I rarely do,” Xellos commented dryly.

    “But still, Filia, you’ve surprised me,” Xellos said. “Spying on another diplomat,” he said, shaking his head. “I really wouldn’t have expected it of you.”

    “You do it all the time!” Filia pointed out.

    “Yes, but I’m me,” Xellos countered. He had a sudden evil thought and turned his head to the side speculatively. “Although, I suppose I shouldn’t jump to any conclusions about you. Who am I to ask why you were in some man’s room?”

    “Stop saying things like that,” Filia said through gritted teeth.

    “Things like what?” he asked playfully.

    “Things like you’re implying something!” Filia shouted back.

    “Whatever the case,” Xellos said, “I can’t have you running around getting into trouble, now can I? After all, if you’d been caught you would’ve given the Pro-Human League all the ammunition they needed against the ‘interfering’ non-humans.” He paused. “No pun intended,” he added.

    He smiled again. “I can see I’m going to have to keep a closer eye on you,” he said, tapping his cheek and pointing at his own eye as Filia seethed with rage.

  15. #15
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    Chapter 15. Watching You.

    Wasn’t it enough that her life was being targeted? Wasn’t it enough that she was being forced to walk on a political tightrope? Wasn’t it enough that there was some crazy bit of energy out there that could transform the world into a twisted dreamscape? Apparently not. Because Mister I’m-Here-To-Complicate-Things just had to butt in and promise to ‘keep an eye on’ Filia.

    “I don’t need your help,” Filia hissed.

    “Help?” Xellos asked, raising an eyebrow. “Who said anything about help?”

    “What else did you have in mind?” Filia asked. Not telling Vitrain about her and then immediately saying he’d be watching over her seemed an awful lot like trying to help. Why he’d want to would be the big question there.

    “I only want to keep your famous penchant for messing things up in check,” he said with a shrug, as though he was merely stating the facts as they were and meant no offense.

    Filia gritted her teeth. She didn’t mess things up!

    “After all,” he said with a gesture of his hand, “if I just let you do whatever you want then the next closet I find you in might be mine!”

    Filia snorted. “As if I’d have any desire to be there,” she retorted.

    He tilted his head to the side. “Oh, if only I could believe you, Filia,” he said with a sigh. “But you have been acting uncharacteristically dishonest lately.”

    “Maybe I’ve been spending too much time around you,” she shot back. She meant it to be an insult, but she was actually getting a little worried about that. I mean, would she have stooped to espionage without his influence?

    “It’s good to know I’m having an effect,” he said with a smile.

    And then he reached a hand out toward her and gently tucked her hair behind her ear in a gesture that she knew – she knew – was designed solely to make her feel uncomfortable.

    …It worked.

    “Your chaperone’s found you,” he whispered, his hand still cupped around her ear and eyes locked with hers.

    “What?” Filia asked uncomprehendingly.

    Xellos nodded to somewhere behind her, and then Filia heard the footsteps. They were close. She probably could’ve heard them coming before, but apparently her attention was focused somewhere else.

    “Miss Filia! Oh thank the gods!” came a voice, and then the footsteps stopped.

    “I’d better go,” Xellos said, and vanished, because walking down a hallway is for mortals.

    Filia glared for a moment at the spot Xellos had previously occupied and then turned around. Cleon’s expression was in transition. An initial expression of relief was rapidly retreating to an expression of bewilderment and… yes… anger.

    “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” he said disapprovingly. “Why didn’t you stay in your room like I asked? You’ve put yourself in horrible danger!”

    “I’m fine,” Filia said firmly. “I just wanted to go out on my own for a bit.”

    “Why?” Cleon repeated, dumbstruck and irritated at the same time. “I thought we agreed that you’d—”

    “I didn’t agree to anything and I’m the diplomat,” Filia snapped. Pipsqueak Cleon’s rage didn’t intimidate her one bit, and she was too fed up with this day in general to humor him. “Anyway,” she added, on a stroke of inspiration, “it doesn’t look good to the other diplomats if I just hide in my room. We want to show that we don’t scare easily and not have people start rumors that I’m dead or anything.”

    Cleon appeared flabbergasted. “Well— You—” he began nonsensically, apparently not satisfied by Filia’s awesome reasoning. “What were you doing with him?” he demanded.

    “What? Xellos?” Filia asked. “He just shows up and bothers me. I don’t know, maybe he’s bored. I tell him to go away. What more do you expect me to do?” Cleon’s reaction was really starting to irritate her. She’d gone against his advice and that was one thing. She hadn’t exactly expected him to be thrilled with her or anything. But he didn’t have to keep giving her that look like she’d kicked his puppy.

    She didn’t want to deal with him anymore, so she gave a put-on yawn. “I’m tired,” she said, with every intention of shutting him off. “Why don’t we wait and discuss this in the morning?”

    “I’m not sure that’s a good idea!” Cleon answered, voice rising hysterically.

    “Why?” Filia asked sharply.

    “Because every time I leave you, I come back and find you with him!” he declared.

    Filia narrowed her eyes at him. “Look, I’m sorry I worried you today,” she said flatly. “I can see that it’s made you upset and paranoid. I’m sure we’ll both make more sense in the morning.” She turned back deliberately toward her door.

    ...And if you don’t I’m getting my mace back to teach you a lesson, good intentions or not!

    “Miss Filia?” he said, as she grasped the doorknob.

    “What?” she said wearily.

    “Please,” he said, sounding a lot calmer than he had before. “I have to know: Did the Supreme Elder give you any instructions pertaining Xellos that he didn’t tell me about?”

    Filia revolved slowly and gave him a perplexed look. “No,” she said. “What would he have—”

    “It’s nothing,” Cleon said, scraping backwards. “I’ll, uh, I’ll let you get that sleep you wanted.”

    Filia gave him a piercing look, but when no more information appeared to be forthcoming, she turned back to her door and opened it.

    “I, um… I’m glad you’re safe,” Cleon offered meagerly as she stepped across the threshold.

    Too little, too late! Filia thought, and closed the door.

    *****

    Filia slumped down on her bed, not even bothering to light the lamps. It was just one thing after another at this summit. Was it really too much to ask to just have a few cups of tea and discuss quota restrictions or something? Sure, it’d be boring. But boring was really starting to look attractive at this point.

    And she really didn’t need Cleon being combative with her. He was supposed to be her ally. He was supposed to be a nice guy. It said something that Xellos of all people had probably been much more help to her on this whole crazy trip than Cleon.

    Speaking of Xellos…

    She caught her reflection in the mirror. Her hair looked all stupid and lopsided with her bangs tucked behind her ear on one side. She hurriedly fixed it, averting her eyes from her own reflection.

    That… jerk. How would he like it if she just randomly started touching his hair?

    …Not that she wanted to or anything.



    Not that there was anything really wrong with his hair, she reflected. I mean, yes, I’ve already said the hairstyle is stupid. But there’s nothing wrong with the hair itself. In fact, she went on, if I didn’t know anything about him, I’d be inclined to ask what conditioner he uses. It’s all sort of… silky and smooth.

    She ground her knuckles against her forehead. It was clear to her that her exhaustion was leading her into some kind of mild delirium and that the thing to do would be to stop pursuing this line of thought immediately and just get some sleep.

    So she changed into her nightgown and curled up under the covers. But try as she might, she couldn’t persuade her brain to stop thinking; not about Xellos’s hair, about… the events of the day; about what came next.

    Should she tell someone about what she and Amelia had found in Vitrain’s room? There were limited people that she could share this with without exposing herself as a spy. Telling Cleon was completely off the table given his reaction from earlier. She wasn’t having that conversation.

    …And was Vitrain really responsible? He had a gun; that was for sure. He certainly looked guilty. But she couldn’t shake the idea that she just didn’t know the whole story yet.

    …And what about Xellos? It kept coming down to that. What was he playing for in all of this?

    When he’d been talking to Vitrain he’d seemed almost like he was threatening him. In, of course, that very polite, conversational way that Xellos likes threatening people with. Was he trying to tell Vitrain to back off in his attempts against her?

    No. It hadn’t really seemed like that. It’s more like he was telling Vitrain why he couldn’t be responsible for the attempts when Vitrain seemed to have other ideas. The only actual advice that he’d given was in delaying a statement. And if Xellos was trying to secretly help her, then stopping the Pro-Human Leaguers from confessing seemed like an odd way to go about it.

    And why would he help her? Was it just that he needed her for negotiations later?

    But maybe he was telling the truth when he said he wasn’t trying to help her. Goodness knows, Xellos never does anything except for completely selfish reasons. Was she really ‘messing up’ his plans like he’d said? If that was true then why hadn’t he just thrown her to the wolves when he’d seen her in Vitrain’s room? Why was he… taking an interest in all of this?

    And just how close, she wondered as she surreptitiously pulled the covers over her head, will he be watching me?

    *****

    The next morning at breakfast the world didn’t make too much more sense to Filia. However, she was at least viewing it after getting in a few hours sleep so she was no longer having any weird tangential thoughts related to Xellos’s hair. So that at least was an improvement.

    “I’m afraid I’ve got a busy day lined up for you, Miss Filia,” Cleon said from across the table, shuffling some papers.

    “Is that so?” Filia said, aloofly sipping her tea.

    “Yes. What with the… uh,” Cleon paused awkwardly. “What with us not being able to accomplish anything yesterday for one reason or another, our agenda is kind of packed.”

    Cleon had decided to tactfully cease mentioning yesterday’s little bit of disobedience/fraternizing-with-the-enemy-only-not-really-because-it’s-all-in-Cleon’s-head. Filia, in return, had decided to tactfully cease mentioning that she was his boss and could do whatever she wished and if he ever dared to imply anything untoward about her and that monster again then she’d knock his teeth out. All in all, this made for a much more peaceful, if rather careful, breakfast time.

    “What we’re going to be doing today is a series of one-on-one meetings,” Cleon went on. “Nothing major is going to be decided today. As you’ve probably noticed, diplomacy is a painfully slow process. This just gives an opportunity for you and the other diplomats to feel each other out in a more structured manner.”

    “So, what are we trying to find out?” Filia asked.

    “Basically, when you meet these people, what we want to assess is the character of their leadership. We want to find out how responsible they are in the event that we decide to trade along technology lines with them.”

    “I wouldn’t bring up the technology or technomancy though,” Cleon said. “Of course, if they bring it up you can talk about it a little. But try not to divulge much until we’ve made the decision about them.”

    If only they’d gotten the chance to check Miss Lina out before she got access to that old dragon train line. Then countless of innocent lives might have been saved.

    “Of course, while you’re trying to find out about them, they’ll be trying to find out about you,” Cleon warned.

    “I understand,” Filia said. “Who will I be seeing?”

    “Well,” Cleon said, shuffling through his papers. “A lot more people have requested to see you than I anticipated. I assume it has something to do with the rather public shooting from before.”

    Filia sighed. Apparently getting shot at makes you popular.

    “A lot of them are of the beastman tribes too,” Cleon said. “Of course,” he said dismissively, “the beastmen aren’t really on our agenda and we have limited time, so we won’t be seeing—”

    “Did Lycristy ask to see me?” Filia interrupted. She had a feeling.

    Cleon gave her a slightly slack-jawed look. “Well, yes,” he admitted. “But how did you—”

    “Put her on the list,” Filia commanded. “I want to talk with her today.”

    “But Miss Filia, we simply don’t have time to see every—” Cleon began.

    “I don’t care if you have to bump someone off,” Filia said, crossing her arms to make her point. “I’m going to see her today.”

    Cleon stared at her for a minute and then appeared to give in. “…Alright,” he said. Apparently he wasn’t itching to start another argument.

    Cleon looked back down at his notes. “The first person you’ll be meeting with will be Lopa Ptolera, the Queen of Arcet.”

    “Ah,” Filia said. The woman she’d seen with the Duke of Renz on the first day she arrived. Xellos had pointed her out. Then they’d gotten into an argument about love and politics. It seemed like so long ago.

    “Now, I must warn you, Miss Filia,” Cleon went on cautiously. “Queen Lopa is a shrewd politician. She is known for being able to charm people into doing what she wants. Why, when she was in her early twenties she had already seduced the most powerful general in the outer courts: Jul—”

    Filia had been listening to whatever monologue Cleon had probably copy and pasted from an encyclopedia. She was taking this whole thing seriously after all, and knowing anything about who she was meeting with would help. But she’d felt a strange shiver that had distracted her attention from her assistant.

    …Did you ever get the feeling you were being…

    There he was!
    she thought as she stared with wide eyes at the table in front of them. There was Xellos, perfectly visible beyond Cleon’s still yammering head. Drinking tea and eating a breakfast roll. Watching her. He didn’t even care that she’d seen. He just kept his eyes glued on her.

    “…and returned to Arcet after developing a relationship with Duke Arkon,” Cleon finished. He noticed her looking somewhere beyond him. “Did you hear me, Miss Filia?”

    “Hmm?” Filia’s head snapped back to attention. “Oh, yes. I heard.”

    She looked back at Xellos’s table. He’d vanished. Melodramatic *******…

    “Rasmus’s wounds have healed for the most part,” Cleon went on. “But his strength is completely sapped from all the energy he’s lost in the healing. So I will be escorting you today.”

    Oh perfect, Filia thought. I’m sure you’ll be a lot of help.

    Then again
    , she thought, I was wandering around on my own all yesterday without nearly dying, so perhaps the worst is over. Maybe the Pro-Human League is too scared to try again in case Xellos comes around to critique their work.

    “Alright,” Filia said, pulling herself together for the work that lay ahead. “Assess the character of the people. Make sure we don’t give away secrets to anyone who’d misuse them,” she said. “I think I can handle that.”

    “I’m sure you can,” Cleon said with an encouraging smile.

    Filia took one final gulp of her energy-infusing tea and got up. “Let’s go see this Queen then.”

    The two of them got up and walked across the dining hall. Filia idled for a moment at the table Xellos had been spying on her from. He’d taken his tea with him, wherever he popped off to. Maybe they don’t have very good tea on the astral side.

    She peered closer to the table. It looked like… like he’d written something on his napkin. On closer inspection she saw that it was… an arrow… pointing in the direction she’d come from. She turned to look, and there was Xellos again. This time sitting at the table directly behind the one she’d been sitting at. He waved at her.

    She glowered. Oh, you just think you’re so cute, don’t you?

    *****

    Filia and Cleon arrived at the door of the famous (or infamous depending on who you ask) Lopa of Arcet, Queen of the River Kingdom. And she was standing before them. The urge to step back gripped both of them. Lopa was so beautiful that she seemed to take up more space than was actually due to her. A jade dress was draped elegantly across her shapely form and gold and silver jewelry was woven into her long brown hair. She smiled magnificently at them and batted her long eyelashes.

    “Ah, so pleased to finally meet you Miss Filia,” she said with a slow nod of her head. “I’ve seen you a few times, but we’ve never spoken. What a treat it is for me to finally speak to the dragon that everyone’s been talking about.”

    “Nice to meet you too, Your Majesty,” Filia said awkwardly. Lopa tended to inflict awkwardness on any female in the same room as her. But it was more than that. Everyone was talking about her?

    “Please, just Lopa,” Lopa said, with a wave of her highly toned arm. She looked up at Cleon and batted her lashes once more. “Oh, I don’t think it will be necessary for you to bring in your bodyguard. Not for little old me,” she said playfully.

    Cleon’s tiny chest swelled. Some people were being mistaken for bodyguards.

    Filia would’ve rolled her eyes if she wasn’t watching Lopa. Is that really it? she wondered. Bat your eyelashes and giggle a little? Is that the extent of your charm? Well, I’ve had to deal with Xellos before and he’s at least ten times more manipulative than you. So I’m not at all intimidated.

    “I thought we could talk with just us girls,” Lopa said, returning her gaze with piercing green eyes that were much more intelligent than they pretended to be.

    This is the name of the game, isn’t it? Who will be the first to show weakness? Well, I don’t know what you want Miss ‘Just Lopa’, but I know that I’m not going to lose out to some painted seductress of a politician.

    “Fine,” Filia said levelly. “Mister Cleon can wait outside.”

  16. #16
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    Chapter 16. Kinds of Diplomats.

    When Filia entered Lopa’s suite, she saw that the Queen of the River Kingdom, was one of the many ambassadors who’d tried to take it all with them. Good grief, how many draping curtains does one room need? It was clearly a room for entertaining a large amount of people. In the center of it all was a chaise longue with an overly large fan leaning against it. Filia couldn’t dispel the suspicion that, in her off hours, Lopa was fanned by highly muscular men. She looked like the type. Peeled grapes probably played into the equation.

    Lopa walked over to a man who might well have been one of those muscular fanners and placed her ivory painted nails gently against his chest.

    “You may go Taruk. I wish to talk to Miss Filia alone,” she said.

    The bodyguard nodded and left the room without a word.

    Lopa reached down to a glass fronted cupboard and said, “May I offer you some wine, Miss Filia?”

    “No thank you,” Filia said stiffly, and her expression practically screamed: It’s nine o’clock in the morning!

    “Ah, well then I won’t have any either,” Lopa said with a smile as she took a seat on a less elegant piece of furniture than the chaise longue. “No matter how good the wine, the only reason for drinking in a political meeting is to get the other person to drink.”

    “My true form is a dragon,” Filia said sharply, taking the seat across from her. “My alcohol capacity is many times that of a human. You couldn’t out-drink me.”

    “I’ll assume that wasn’t a challenge,” Lopa said with a little laugh. “But that must come in handy. I bet you win a lot of bar bets.”

    “I’ve never tried it,” Filia said, treating the idea with a certain amount of distaste.

    “Really?” Lopa said, with widening eyes. “Well, an opportunity for hustling is certainly being missed.”

    “The dragon race doesn’t hustle,” Filia said, bristling slightly. You’re thinking of another race entirely.

    “That’s a shame,” Lopa said. “I can’t imagine you being very adept at politics then.”

    “We shall see,” Filia said levelly.

    “Indeed we shall!” Lopa said with a cheery grin as though she looked forward to nothing more. “Though you’ve certainly got more to deal with then most of us did starting out. Two assassination attempts already? For a veritable unknown? It seems you’re very popular.”

    “Apparently not with someone,” Filia commented.

    Lopa shrugged. “You’re never popular with everyone. No matter how many people love a polarizing figure, there’s always someone who hates them just as much.”

    “It’s at least making for an entertaining summit for all of us,” Lopa said. “We’re watching with interest to see what happens next.”

    Filia couldn’t help but scoff openly. “Well, I’m glad my near-death experiences are so enjoyable to you all!”

    “Oh, don’t get us politicians wrong,” Lopa said. “Most of us are rooting for you. We like to see a good assassination attempt. It gets the people interested. But a successful assassination attempt… well, that’s another story. That encourages anarchy. The little people should always view their leaders as slightly immortal.”

    “Now, Filia,” Lopa said, casually dropping the ‘miss’, “in this uncertain time when shadowy forces threaten to snuff out your very life… do you have friends you can count on?”

    Lopa was starting to remind Filia of a snake. “Yes. Yes I do,” she answered.

    Lopa sighed and shook her head. “You don’t, you know. That’s the hardest lesson of politics. You can’t count on your friends. Enemies are much more reliable.”

    The Queen gave Filia a small smile. “Do you have an enemy you can trust, Filia?”

    Filia could feel her blood simmering slightly. How did she… she’s not talking about— “No,” she said firmly. “I don’t trust my enemies. I don’t see how anyone could.”

    “Well, at least you can trust enemies to act like enemies,” Lopa countered. “You know where they stand and what they want. Friends… well, an enemy that you think is a friend is the most dangerous of all.”

    “That’s why I’ve surrounded myself with my enemies,” Queen Lopa said. “I like to keep them where I can see them – on my pay-roll if at all possible. Their ambitions are easy to twist and very… useful.”

    Yes, definitely a snake. “That seems like a big risk,” Filia said after awhile.

    Lopa shrugged her elegant shoulders. “It’s a dance on a knife-edge, but that’s what ruling is all about. I’ve never expected to be loved. If I fall then I was meant to.”

    In contrast to this dark pronouncement, Lopa smiled and clapped her manicured hands together. “I suppose musings about authority aren’t really the point of this little meeting. I actually had a question I wanted to ask you.”

    “What?”

    “Tell me,” Lopa began, “is it true that the dragon race has all sorts of magical devices hidden away in their temples? Like a sort of music box that runs on metal cylinders and can duplicate the work of even the finest of musicians?”

    Filia was surprised. She knew that rumors of the dragon race’s devices had leaked down to the human race, but that level of detail was a bit worrying. “…How would you know about something like that?”

    Lopa smiled a not-so-innocent smile. “Oh, one hears things,” she said loftily.

    Filia grit her teeth. More spying. “They’re music recording devices,” she said.

    “I’ve had my inventors working on this one,” Lopa said, sounding suddenly weary and put upon. “They say the principle is solid, but they haven’t been able to produce results.”

    “You’ll never make one,” Filia said confidently. “You don’t have access to the right materials.”

    “Is that so?” Lopa said, and gave a little sigh. “Then I suppose we’re completely at your mercy.”

    “It would certainly be a boon for the Arcetian economy,” Lopa added. “We really do have world class musicians you know. But,” she sighed again, “I doubt we’ll ever get one.”

    “Why?” Filia asked, surprised by Lopa’s sudden dip in confidence.

    Lopa gave a wry smile. “Because you don’t like me.”

    “I—” Filia began, caught off-guard by the directness of this statement. “I don’t dislike you.” It was… sort of true. Lopa might have been a cunning politician and, yes, a little snake-like, but this didn’t technically make her a bad guy.

    “Well, I’m sure you have much deliberating to do before you make your final recommendations,” Lopa said, getting up. “And more people to see as well.”

    Filia got up as well. If this was going to set the standard for her meetings, then she was in for an odd day. “You as well,” she said politely. “Thank you for taking time to meet with me.”

    “Oh, not at all,” Lopa said. She appeared to have a sudden thought. “By the way, did you like the dress?”

    Filia stared at her open-mouthed. “The… the dress?” she repeated.

    “You know, for the installation,” Lopa prompted in case Filia had too many dresses in her life to keep track of. “I heard your man out there wasn’t able to find one, so I offered up one of my own.”

    It was from Lopa? Really? That was one thing Filia certainly hadn’t expected. In fact, she’d been beginning to think that Xellos was somehow responsible for her getting the dress.

    “What’s wrong?” Lopa said, furrowing her normally crease-less brow in confusion. “You look a little disappointed.”

    “Umm… nothing,” Filia said, shaking herself. “Nothing’s wrong. Just a little surprised. Umm… thank you very much. It was beautiful.”

    Lopa smiled fondly. “It’s always been one of my favorites. And the pearls are exquisite, though I’ve had to replace them on more than one occasion. I keep destroying them.”

    Filia looked shocked. Destruction of pearls that fine probably counted as a material girl sin. “How?” she asked.

    Lopa winked. “A very expensive parlor trick.”

    Filia decided not to ask further, but something else was bothering her. “Didn’t… didn’t you want to go to the installation?”

    “Me?” Lopa said. “Oh no. The Duke of Renz and I had… matters to discuss.”

    ‘Matters to discuss’, huh? Filia thought sourly. I’ll just bet.

    “On that note,” Lopa began, sounding slightly concerned, “will you be meeting with Arkon as well?”

    Filia ran through the list of the people Cleon had set her up with. She should’ve been listening more closely. “I think so,” she said uncertainly.

    “Hmm,” Lopa frowned. “I may have to have a word with him.”

    Filia shifted uncomfortably. “Well, thank you again. I would’ve been in a real bind without that dress.”

    “No trouble,” Lopa said with a wave of her hand. “When I saw you roaming around the hall a few days ago, my first thought was: ‘My God, we must be exactly the same size’.”

    Filia wasn’t entirely sure whether this was a trick or not, but felt her self-esteem soar nonetheless. So she had roughly the same proportions as Queen Lopa, the Flower of the Desert, and seducer of two of the world’s most powerful men? Huh. Don’t that beat all.

    “Well, if there’s anything I can do to return the favor,” Filia said, on a surge of good-feeling.

    “Maybe you can lend me a dress sometime,” Lopa commented in a way in which Filia wasn’t sure whether she was joking or not.

    Filia looked awkward. “Oh, none of my dresses are nearly as nice as—”

    “But I liked that pink thing you were wearing on the first day,” Lopa said. “With the cloak and the headdress. Very cute.”

    “But those are just my traveling clothes!” Filia protested. And they were all muddy on the hem!

    Lopa waved a hand. “Ah, well, Arkon and I are very fond of… costumes.”

    Filia was determined not to understand what that meant. “I see,” she mumbled, blushing slightly.

    “Well, good luck, Filia,” Lopa said, putting a sisterly arm on her shoulder. “I hope you find an enemy out there that you can trust.”

    *****

    What followed that morning was a cavalcade of royalty, duly elected officials, and civil servants. Some appeared to be on to Filia’s purpose in talking with them and did their best to sell their nation. They talked about the good and decent people that lived there, the beautiful architecture, and long history of peace and high culture. Filia intended on getting a history book to check these facts as she held the opinion that 98% of it was bunk. Better yet, she’d get Cleon to do it. That’s what he was for, right?

    Others appeared to be playing an entirely different game. They harangued Filia about the dragon race’s history (like she wasn’t already painfully aware) and grilled her about her race’s future plans. This was not the least bit pleasant. But at least it wasn’t needy.

    And still others were just… weird.

    Lunchtime rolled around and Filia had hoped for a little peace and quiet, but even that had been booked. Still, it wasn’t as bad as it could be. At least she was relieved to see a friendly face, though less relieved since the last time she’d seen it she’d nearly been poisoned.

    “Nice to see you again, Miss Filia,” The President of DASIS said between pulls on his pipe. Oh god, I hope he’s not going to eat with that thing in, Filia couldn’t help but think. “Especially in one piece.”

    “I couldn’t agree more, sir,” Filia said, sitting down to her (non-poisoned, it was checked) meal.

    “How has your day been, then?” DASIS asked. “I always hate these meeting days. It’s so damn awkward.”

    “It’s been… interesting,” was all Filia would say.

    “Ha. I’ll bet,” Dasis said, stuffing a forkful of pasta in past his pipe. “Did you meet my nephew Padu? He’s the envoy for the Valeksor over on the mainland. He said he’d be doing the rounds today.”

    Filia thought back. Yes… she had met the representative from Valeksor. That would be one she’d file under ‘weird’. “Yes, I did.”

    “What’d you think of him?” DASIS asked.

    Filia squirmed. “He seemed very… um… I mean he was—”

    “Oh, he hasn’t got a spoonful of brains in his head,” DASIS said cheerfully. “You can say it. We all know.”

    Filia relaxed. She wasn’t sure if she’d have been able to get around that. But it brought up some questions. “Then why is he a diplomat?” As far as she’d been able to tell, it was a job that required cunning.

    “Well,” DASIS said, playing with his fork so it caught the light. “There are a lot of kinds of diplomats. I suppose you could say Padu was chosen because he’s not hard to look at.”

    Filia stared blankly at him.

    “I suppose it’d be called boudoir diplomacy,” DASIS said coyly.

    Half of Filia was revolted, the other half, which controlled her vocal chords, said: “Is that why he kept winking at me? I thought he had something in his eye.”

    DASIS laughed so hard that he nearly swallowed his pipe.

    “Well that doesn’t seem very honorable to me,” Filia said critically, when the laughter died down.

    “Oh, I don’t know,” DASIS said, wiping at his eyes. “I suppose if we can avoid a war then any tactic works. Heck, I’d take the calling myself. But I don’t look as good as I used to in tights.” He threw a wink her way.

    Filia fought back an impulse to laugh. This was serious. She couldn’t help but think about what Xellos had said about this summit earlier. “But it’s not always about preventing a war, isn’t it?” she countered. “Sometimes it’s about starting a war, or ganging up on someone.”

    “You’re a sharp one,” DASIS said, raising his glass to her. “I’d love to say we’re all good intentions here – and most of us are – but unfortunately we aren’t all good actions.”

    “Anyway, this talk of war is souring my stomach,” DASIS said. “Why don’t you tell me some more about dragons?”

    *****

    “Can I offer you a glass of wine?” the tall man asked.

    People had been asking Filia that question all day, and now it was Arkon Myant, The Duke of Renz’s turn. “No thank you,” Filia said.

    “Sounds like you’ve been asked that question before,” Arkon said, holding up the wine bottle.

    Filia nodded, thought for a minute, and then said, “I… heard from someone that the only reason to drink at a political meeting is to get the other person to drink.”

    Arkon stared at her for a moment. Then he squeezed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “I think I know who told you that.”

    He uncorked the bottle. “Some might say that’s true, and it might sound sinister. But it’s really just a show of strength. Not accepting alcohol is a sign of weakness. It tells the other person that you don’t trust yourself, that with a little push you might slip.”

    “As for me,” Arkon said, pouring a generous dose into a glass. “I just like to drink.”

    He sat down in a chair opposite her. “Though you clearly have good reason to abstain.”

    Filia looked to the side. “I’ve… hired food-tasters.”

    “Been there; done that,” Arkon said. “Oh yes,” he said, noting Filia’s expression. “Promotion by assassination is the bread and butter of the court of Renz. And what I’ve learned is that if someone wants to poison you: they’ll find a way.” He stared into his glass and then took a long drink, like spitting in the face of fate.

    “Now,” he said, leaning forward. “These… magical dragon inventions you all have. Any weapons?”

    He and Lopa probably pooled information. Though it was hard to imagine anyone as clever as Lopa sharing everything she knew… it was also hard to imagine it of someone as tactical as Arkon.

    “The dragon race is a peace-loving—” she began, but the words died on her lips. She looked down. “We’d like to think we’re peace-loving at least.”

    “Wouldn’t we all,” Arkon said. “I just wanted to let you know that if you’re thinking of distributing anything dangerous among the humans – not just weapons – I’d think twice about it. If you dragons have it in your head that you can pick and choose among the ‘worthier’ nations, then you’re living in a fantasy. The world’s gotten too small. Give ‘em to one and soon they’ll all have it. It’s like opening Pandora’s box.”

    “That’s a Renzian story,” he added, giving her a look. “You know? A woman opens a box and unleashes all the evils in the world?”

    Filia knew the story. “At the bottom of the box was hope,” she said in a small voice.

    “I’ve never had time for it myself,” Arkon said dismissively. “All I know is that my army is giving me grief to get the biggest and the best equipment. But every time I turn around the other guys have something bigger and better. And we just get worse and worse. Forget swords, forget goddamn guns. If I had my way we’d still be out bashing each other’s brains in with rocks as the gods intended.”

    Filia was pretty sure the gods didn’t intend that, but didn’t say so.

    “I’ll keep that in mind,” she said.

    I don’t see what Lopa sees in you.

    …Except perhaps an army and strong ties to an extremely powerful empire
    . But that’s not very romantic. And Filia needed a little romance in her soul. And hope too. She still had time for hope, no matter how many shadowy forces were waiting to snuff out her life.

  17. #17
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    Chapter 17. Day to Dark.

    A day of diplomatic misadventures was almost over. There were only a few more meetings to attend and she could be done. No more accusatory conversations or simpering tones or spoiled royals or unrepentant alcoholics. At least for the night she’d be able to just curl up and pretend all this didn’t exist.

    She had about a fifteen minute break until her next meeting and she was trying to enjoy it as best she could. This meant sending Cleon off to get her a (non-alcoholic, thank you) drink. A drink would be nice, but nicer was getting Cleon out of her hair for a little while. Quite honestly, he’d been getting underfoot. He was trying both to advise her and step into Rasmus’s shoes and protect her. To be honest, she thought she was getting better at this diplomat thing and his rather unstudied help wasn’t as appreciated. He probably missed how lost she’d been earlier in the session.

    He hadn’t wanted to leave her to step-and-fetch, but Filia had insisted. Cleon probably thought someone was going to shoot her again or something. Or that Xellos would swoop in yet again. Now, Filia didn’t necessarily think these were crazy things to expect considering what had happened… but she just didn’t think Cleon would be at all helpful if something like that did happen.

    “So, had any regressive urges to hide in the closets of your fellow diplomats?” a voice behind her asked.

    Filia grit her teeth. She didn’t even have to turn around. “No. Have you been stalking any other diplomats just trying to go about their business?” she returned.

    Xellos sidestepped into her view line and sat across from her. “Don’t worry, Filia. You’re the only one,” he answered with a grin.

    “How lucky for me,” Filia responded with as much venom as she could muster. “What do you want?”

    “I was just wondering how much longer you planned on carrying on this tiresome charade of the goody-two-shoes diplomat,” Xellos asked lightly.

    “I’m sorry I’ve been boring you,” Filia said sourly. “Maybe you should follow someone more entertaining.”

    “Well, you could certainly make an effort to liven things up,” he said helpfully.

    “Oh really?” Filia asked guardedly. “And just how would I do that?”

    “Oh, I don’t know,” Xellos said. “You could… incite a civil war… take a bribe… have a torrid love affair with a foreign emissary. Just do something.” He shifted his head quickly to the side as a wooden coaster went whizzing past him and embedded itself in the wall behind him. “It might make you less tense,” he added without missing a beat.

    Go away,” she growled, completely out of tolerance for him.

    How dare he suggest that she… well, act like him! Unlike some people, she didn’t stoop to that kind of sinfulness!

    Well… to be fair, Xellos didn’t do all those things. The inciting civil war thing he definitely did. He probably said to himself: ‘Goodness, it’s Wednesday again! Time to incite another civil war!’ or something. He probably didn’t take bribes. There just wouldn’t be much of a point. As for that last one.

    …I don’t even want to think about that last one.

    “You’re just proving my point. Anyway, there’s no need to get so excited,” Xellos commented as if he hadn’t said anything at all inflammatory. “I just wanted to ask who you’re meeting with next.”

    “The Queen of Zoana,” she said mostly out of relief that they were on a safer topic. Then she remembered that she was mad at him and added: “Not that it’s any of your business.”

    Xellos’s face broke into a grin. “Ah, you’re meeting Miss Martina!”

    Filia blinked. “Miss Martina?” she repeated. “You know the Queen of Zoana?”

    “Well, she was only a princess when I met her,” Xellos said.

    Filia narrowed her eyes. “And just how do you know her?

    “Oh, we met a few years ago,” Xellos said, spare with the details in a way he knew was infuriating. “Be sure to tell her that you know me,” he said, getting up from his chair.

    “Why?” Filia said suspiciously.

    “Oh nothing,” he said, beginning to walk away. “I’m sure you two will have a lot to talk about.”

    *****

    That scheming little…

    Yes, it appeared Xellos was right. Filia and Martina did have a lot to talk about. Or at least Martina had a lot to talk about. Filia hadn’t really contributed much after saying, in a cautious but nevertheless determinedly curious sort of way: “Xellos said to tell you I know him”. After that it was proving impossible to get her to shut up.

    “That monster who stole my affections and toyed with my heart! You have no idea the torment I went through—”

    Yes, Martina had a lot to talk about. And it appeared to be all about Xellos.

    Filia had been… alright, a little worried when she’d gone into the meeting in that special kind of way Filia sometimes worried where she tended to break things she was holding and bare her teeth at people in an absentminded sort of way. All because she’d gotten this… idea into her head.

    It had all been because of Xellos’s little… comment about how she could spice up his surveillance of her by indulging in a few… completely inappropriate acts. She’d refused on the grounds that she wasn’t him. But then she’d fairly reasoned that while inciting violence was one of Xellos’s favorite things, he didn’t seem like someone who’d accept bribes, and then that last thing… the uh… the thing about torrid affairs. Well, she’d decided she did not want to think about that at all.

    Which meant that she was thinking about it quite extensively against her will.

    Did Xellos…? It was practically unthinkable. Strike that. It should be unthinkable. It couldn’t be unthinkable because she was thinking it.

    Did he – she needed to take a sort of mental breath here because she was determined to get through to the end of the sentence without abruptly trailing off – did he… (Oh God I can’t do this. Yes you can!) did he seduce women? Like as part of his evil plots or something? Maybe that’s how he weaseled into human governments inciting chaos. It would be a pretty low strategy, but then again who was fouler than Xellos?

    That was a horrifying thought by itself. And then… well, the whole thing had just been an unhappy combination of ideas from that point on. Xellos had mentioned knowing Martina right while she was thinking that… and that led her to question whether… well…

    Anyway, none of that could be true. Really, it couldn’t. If Xellos wanted to seduce women then he wouldn’t wear his hair in such a ridiculous style.

    “—For a girl with a sweet and innocence heart to realize the man she thought she loved was a creature of darkness! Can you imagine how I felt when I—”

    Filia narrowed her eyes at the still babbling Martina. I don’t like this woman.

    And there was a lot to dislike about Martina. The whiney tone of voice; the shouting; the near constant barrage of words; the way she kept tissues in her bra and then put them back after she’d used them. Filia’s dislike didn’t have to do with… anything else.

    As far as Filia could tell from the extremely teary and self-absorbed monologue the Queen of Zoana had been delivering: Martina had traveled with Miss Lina and her friends during their search for the Claire Bible. In the course of the journey, between trying to kill Lina for destroying her kingdom, she’d fallen in love with Xellos. Because clearly she had terrible taste.

    What had actually happened was a bit hard to nail down though beyond that. All Martina kept saying was how Xellos had ‘stolen her heart’ and then ‘tore it to shreds’. It sounded like Martina had fallen in love with him and then been devastated when she found out he was a monster.

    “—Heartbroken! Deceitfully hiding his true nature from me the whole time!”

    Filia’s eyes narrowed further. He couldn’t have slept with her.

    Just… no.


    Martina appeared to have gotten her ranting done, took a deep breath, dabbed her eyes once more and then said in a calmer voice: “Anyway, that doesn’t matter now because I’m married to the most wonderful man in the world.”

    “Oh really?” Filia asked, finally getting a word in edgewise. “Where is he?”

    “He’s back home,” Martina said in a wistful sort of way that says to all unattached people: ‘Lucky lonely you! You have no idea what it’s like to be separated from the one you love’, “rebuilding the kingdom.”

    “What? The king?” Filia asked surprisedly.

    “Well,” Martina said reluctantly, “most people left Zoana when it was destroyed… we haven’t got a lot of people to help with the rebuilding process.”

    “Which is where you come in!” Martina said, pointing at Filia and using a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity kind of voice. “If you Golden Dragons help us rebuild our fair kingdom, then I, Martina promise as Queen of Zoana that we will forever be your allies!”

    Filia was able to translate that one on her own: Give us free money and free labor, and though we never intend to pay it back, we might be grateful for a little while.

    “I’ll think about it,” she answered tartly. Like hell, Queenie!

    *****

    It was the last meeting of the day: the meeting with Lycristy. Cleon had given it the honor of the lowest priority when Filia had demanded he put her on the list. And she hadn’t been able to shake his company for this one. She had usually been able to coerce him into ‘standing guard’ outside while she had a private conversation with the ambassadors. But he wasn’t about to let her talk with a ‘dangerous werewolf’ alone. Filia supposed that if Lycristy decided to go for their jugulars he’d be there to make a note about imposing sanctions against her in the future. Or at least voting on whether or not to have a resolution to impose sanctions against her sometime within the next twenty years.

    So Cleon stood boldly by her side as she entered what Filia couldn’t help thinking as the den of the wolf-people. Several restive looking muscular wolfmen, whose concession to human clothing mostly involved armor, looked up as they entered. From their center a lone figure stood up.

    And this was the first really good look Filia had gotten of Lycristy. She’d caught glimpses of her throughout the summit but never this close. People didn’t get very close to Lycristy. It might have had something to do with the claws.

    But Lycristy was… attractive in a specialized… hairy sort of way. She gave Filia an open, friendly (gleaming, sharp) smile as she stood up. Her paws… uhh… palms were up in an expression of welcome.

    “We finally meet, Miss Filia,” she said exuberantly in a voice made more for barking than talking. “I have waited for this moment. Welcome sister!”

    Filia liked to think she was learning a lot about diplomacy lately and was getting much better. One thing she’d definitely found out was that pretty much everything was a test. Which was why when Cleon gasped from behind her and looked shocked that such a low beast would dare have the audacity to be so familiar with a dragon, Filia smiled back and said: “I’m very pleased to meet you, Miss Lycristy. I so appreciated the message you sent yesterday.”

    Lycristy waved a furry, clawed hand. “It was the least I could do. Please sit down.”

    “I think it’s clear that you and I have much in common,” Lycristy said as they all took their seats. “We both have come to the negative attention of that bunch of crooks that calls itself the Pro-Human League.”

    “That actually hasn’t been proven,” Cleon piped up as growls shot up from Lycristy’s rank at the sound of the hated name.

    “Ever since the packs began uniting those bigoted b******s have been doing their best to push us out of their ‘civilized society’,” Lycristy hissed this last word angrily between her fangs. “And we’ve been pushing back. We really have no other choice.”

    “They’re an awful group,” Filia agreed.

    “And now that it appears that they’re after you, as one who understands your position better than anyone could, I’d like to offer you all the help I can,” Lycristy said in earnest. “With your leave, I would like to instruct my men to be alert to your safety in the public places of the summit. I respect that we represent independent groups and I would not have them intrude upon your privacy. But in the open air, I’d like to have them look out for you as they would for me.”

    “Your gestures is admirable,” Cleon began with a raspy little chortle of superiority in his throat, “but the dragon race has this entirely under con—”

    “I’m touched that you would do something like that,” Filia said, cutting off Cleon as best as she could. “Thank you so very much.”

    We have not got things under control and even if we did why would we want to offend the nice beastlady who is only trying to help?!

    “It’s no trouble at all,” Lycristy said with a wave of her paw. “The Pro-Human people want war, and we are more than willing to give it to them. I hope I can count on you, who have been on the receiving end of their barbarism, to join us.”

    Ah, here we are. This is what you really want. I’m going to have to answer this one carefully.

    “I’d hope that we can solve this without fighting,” Filia said. “I’d have to discuss a course of action with my people. There is much to consider and now that my life has been targeted I must be even more careful. But,” she added with determination in her eyes, “I personally don’t intend on letting them get away with what they’ve done.”

    Lycristy nodded. It was a refusal, but it was a polite one with a little belly-fire thrown in at the end. It was good enough for her. “That seems like a responsible decision.”

    Lycristy sat back. “Ah, responsible decisions. I’m not used to having to make them. A wolf pack consists of… maybe twelve individuals maximum. An Alpha must be responsible for all of them. Now the packs are uniting and there are many of us. And I must be responsible for them all.” She laughed and it sounded a bit like a bark. “I’m not cut out for politics.”

    “Neither,” Filia said with feeling, “am I.”

    *****

    With the annoying day of meetings behind her, Filia had retired to her room in positive, but weary spirits. And she’d decided to do a very professional thing before she drifted off into dreamland. She was writing a report.

    She’d met a lot of people and she had a lot of opinions about the dragon race’s fledgling formations of trading policies. She wanted to get them out in as easy to understand a way as possible. Because the dragon race didn’t understand this… what had that economist she’d spoken to at dinner called it? Worldization or something like that. It just meant that all the nations really talked to each other now and traded extensively. They couldn’t pick and choose who they traded with without creating international waves of tension. People noticed things like that now.

    And she protested the trade of anything dangerous. Even if they were very careful, it was entirely possible that something could get on the black-market and once the humans figured out how to reproduce the weapons there would be serious trouble.

    And she’d been outlining an extensive section about the opportunities available to them if they extended friendship to the beastmen. Sure, it wouldn’t make them popular with the humans, but the beastmen needed allies right now and they had a lot of the same problems and concerns the dragons did. Anyway, it was the right thing to do.

    But now she was struggling. She was getting groggy and it was hard to string her thoughts together. This wasn’t the normal type of distraction that she faced like when she would go on Xellos-related tangents. No… she just couldn’t seem to finish her sentences without forgetting where she started. The mists of sleep were rolling across her eyes.

    I can finish this tomorrow, she thought at she got up her chair and made for her bed. As she stood up she felt a moment of disequilibrium and a dark spot across her retina. She stumbled to her knees and looked blearily around the room.

    That’s not the mists… of sleep.

    The room was shrouded in a sort of hazy indoor fog. She tried to stand up again, but her head was hurting and she found herself on the floor again. She started coughing and couldn’t seem to stop.

    Where… she thought, trying to break through whatever had been gripping her slowly as the night passed under the guise of exhausted, …is this mist coming from?

    She crawled along the floor following the source of it until she reached her closet door. She jammed her fingers in the edge of the thing and pried it open with her waning strength. There, crouching like pleistocenic doom was a giant partially deformed block of ice shedding fog into the air.

    In a confused and pained daze she reached out to it and drew her hand back abruptly in a wince of pain. It was so cold it burned!

    I have to get out of here, she thought as she felt the sweat across her brow begin to freeze. She threw herself in her stumbling, coughing way toward the door. With her cold face pressed against the wood she reached up to turn the knob. It… it wouldn’t work! Someone had stuck it shut. Not only that, but the edges had been sealed. Filia knew her strength was gone. She couldn’t break the door down. Whatever gaseous poison was filling the room was keeping the oxygen from her blood and robbing her of her strength… and if she didn’t find a way out it would rob her of her life.

    …the window!

    She lurched painfully back across the room, now unable to go about even on her knees. She pulled herself along by her elbows in an army crawl. She grabbed the ledge of the window and struggled to lift herself up to the latch. She prayed and pushed.

    It was no good. Whoever had gotten to the door had gotten to the window.

    She swore and tried to move the latch again. And again. And again. It was her only hope and it was a dead end. She tried and tried until the growing trembling in her limbs prevented her from being able to grip the latch. She withdrew her bloody fingers and slumped her body against the wall.

    She was going to die. That’s what the aching pain in her head, the horrified drum of her heart, the tremors vibrating through her body, and the dark sparks arching across her vision were trying to tell her. She’d survived a poisoning and a shooting, but now she was going to be gassed to death in her own hotel room. She was going to die in the lap of luxury.

    Time was ticking away. She felt in a desperate way that she should send some sort of last message. That was important. But what would she send? A warning to the dragons? Love to Val? Hate to Xellos? It didn’t really matter what… but something should last of her after she was gone.

    But she couldn’t have even that. She wouldn’t be able to lift herself again and the pen and paper were up on the desk. Even if she got a hold of them her hands were too shaky to wield the pen and her mind too oxygen-starved to come up with anything coherent.

    She said a last word. “Help.” It wasn’t creative, but it was from the heart.

    And then she felt herself falling. There was a flash of pain as her skull made contact with the floor and then everything was black.

  18. #18
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    Chapter 18. WHAT?

    It’s possible that Filia dreamed. She seemed to recall images of Cleon shooting Rasmus with the same gun they’d found in Cask Vitrain’s room. Vitrain was there too, wearing a fur coat that was disturbingly similar to the fur that covered Lycristy. Martina was braiding Gardenia’s hair. Amelia was wearing Lopa’s pearls. Arkon and the President of DASIS drank straight out of bottles of poison. And Filia was in the middle of it all. Laying on the floor; unable to move; only able to watch it all until Xellos leaned over her and closed her eyes.

    Filia hoped it was a dream. If it wasn’t a dream then the afterlife had a lot to answer for.

    A renewed sense of awareness and control filled her as the darkness in her mind was lit by the faint glow of light on the other side of her eyelids. She opened her eyes.

    “Oh, Miss Filia!”

    That had been Amelia. Filia was sure of this because the teenaged princess’s arms were currently wrapped around her. Filia looked around blearily, trying to focus against the dull ache in her head.

    She was in a bed, but it wasn’t her bed. It was a sort of cot with very clean white sheets. There were curtains around her and the feeling of a larger room beyond them. She looked up and saw that Amelia wasn’t her only company. Cleon was watching her with a small, relieved smile on his sweaty face. And next to him was someone it’s never nice to see at your sickbed.

    “We were so worried!” Amelia gushed, loosening her embrace and giving Filia some breathing room.

    Xellos certainly didn’t look worried. He just had his highly familiar slightly smug look. Cleon looked worried, but that might have been because he was standing next to Xellos. He didn’t look happy about this, but appeared to be tolerating it.

    “What happened?” Filia croaked out. Her mouth felt unpleasantly dry.

    “Someone gassed your room with dry ice,” Cleon explained.

    “I know,” Filia said, sitting up and clutching her head. “I was there. I meant after that. Why am I… why am I…”

    “Not a member of the choir invisible?” Xellos prompted helpfully.

    Even through the lingering pain in her head, Filia managed to give him a sharp look. “Yes. That,” she said through gritted teeth.

    “Uh… yes,” Cleon coughed. “Actually, what happened is…”

    “Mister Xellos saved you,” Amelia blurted out.

    Filia swung her head around toward Xellos and gave him her best shocked ‘What? You? WHY?’ look.

    “I did say you bore watching, didn’t I?” Xellos asked. “Anyway, we have unfinished business to take care of which would be difficult to carry out if you died of asphyxiation.”

    Filia scowled. It was amazing how Xellos could do something like save your life and still manage to look like a jerk doing so. It probably had something to do with how cheerfully he pronounced words like ‘asphyxiation’.

    “In any case, I’m glad you’re okay,” Cleon said, giving the impression that he wished he could completely white-wash Xellos out of the scene. He blinked at Filia questioningly. “You… are okay aren’t you?”

    “Better than I was before,” Filia said speculatively. “I think I burned my hand on the ice, and my head still hurts a little, but not much. You think I’ll be alright?” she asked somewhat fearfully. After all, she’d been exposed to dangerous chemicals for goodness knew how long before Xellos decided she’d be more useful alive than dead. Who knew what kind of effects that would leave?

    “You could have brain damage,” Xellos suggested cheerfully. “Though in your case it might be a little difficult to tell.”

    She threw her pillow at him. At least she tried to. She was still feeling a bit disoriented (though not brain damaged) so her aim wasn’t exactly straight and true. He didn’t even have to move. The sad thing just ended its arc and flopped to the floor by his feet.

    “Is that any way to say ‘thank you’?” he asked, snapping back to look at her after following the fluffy projectile with his eyes.

    “Maybe I’ll say ‘thank you’ when you do something nice for me that isn’t for entirely selfish reasons!” Filia retorted. They were in the infirmary for goodness sakes. Ample suffering on all sides. Surely he could find some other sick person to annoy?

    “Really? Then it seems to me that your gratitude itself has selfish motivation,” Xellos pointed out, utilizing his hobby of twisting words.

    “You—!” Filia began, actually starting to lunge out of her sick bed.

    “Calm down, Miss Filia!” Amelia said, putting a hand on her shoulder and pushing her back onto her now pillow-less bed. “You ought to get some rest after what happened.”

    Filia adopted a sulky expression. At this time she should be wanting to sleep her pain away and have others bring her cool drinks and tell her not to worry about anything. Now she didn’t want any of that. She wanted to get up, find out who was responsible for this mess, and kick seven kinds of hell out of them. And it was all Xellos’s fault for getting her riled.

    …Of course, without Xellos she’d be very dead. But that’s not important at the moment.

    “Do we know anything about who did it this time?” Filia asked sharply. “Or is it just the usual ‘inquiries are being made’?”

    “Umm…” Cleon said, caught off-guard as though Filia had just stolen a phrase he was about to use. “Well… the summit police have been going through your room and they haven’t found any sign of someone breaking in. Which makes sense because you would’ve noticed if you’d seen anything suspicious. So it looks like someone got a key to your room… umm… somehow,” he finished lamely.

    “Great,” Filia said leadenly. “And what are we doing about this?”

    “We’ve uh… we’ve assigned you another room,” Cleon said, knowing even as he said it that this wasn’t anywhere near good enough.

    Filia sighed. “Fine,” she said. “So we’re no closer than we were before.” Well, that wasn’t entirely true. At least Cleon probably didn’t think Xellos was behind it anymore. That would make him less annoying.

    “Where’s my new room?” Filia asked, starting to get up.

    Cleon held up his hands in what was meant to be a calming way. “Please rest, Miss Filia. I’ve cleared your schedule for today. I think after this third incident we have to seriously think about what we’re going to—”

    “I’m staying,” Filia said firmly. It was war now. “And I’m not going to just lay around in this infirmary. I don’t want people starting rumors that I’m dead or something.”

    “Do you want those rumors to come true?” Xellos asked, raising an eyebrow.

    “You stay out of this!” Filia shouted at him before turning back to Cleon. “We came here to accomplish something, right? That’s not going to happen if I stay in this infirmary.”

    Cleon gave a pained sigh. “Miss Filia, if it’ll make you feel any better, then I will go back into the summit proper and make it known to anyone who doubts it that you are alive and well. But I don’t think you should be roaming around yet. You had a nasty shock last night and you ought to rest some more. And you should wait until we can make a decision about how to handle things from now on.”

    It was probably good advice. She was still not feeling one-hundred-percent well and should probably rest. But it still grated on her nerves. They were basically in the same situation they’d been before. They hadn’t come up with any genius way to handle it then and they weren’t going to come up with anything now. But she decided to just let it go for now. “Fine,” she said.

    “Good,” Cleon said, sounding satisfied that she’d seen reason. He pulled back the curtain that surrounded her bed. “And look: Mister Rasmus is here too,” he said, as Rasmus was revealed in the cot next to her. “He’s nearly all better, but they’re keeping him under observation because of a strange little tic in his hand coordination that tells us his spine may have healed slightly off.”

    The look on Rasmus’s face suggested that ‘strange little tic’ would not have been the phrase he would’ve used. In fact, the phrase he would’ve used would’ve probably been ‘big friggin’ pain’.

    “Did you hear that, Rasmus?” Cleon asked. “Miss Filia’s woken up and she’s doing fine.”

    “I heard,” Rasmus said sourly. He was glaring at Xellos. For a dragon warrior, being in the presence of a monster when wounded is an intolerable situation.

    “I think we should all let Miss Filia get some rest,” Cleon said meaningfully, looking in the direction of Amelia and Xellos.

    “Hope you get better soon, Miss Filia,” Amelia said earnestly, giving her hand a squeeze before she left beyond the curtain.

    Filia’s smile faded as she took her eyes off Amelia’s retreating form and looked at Xellos who was still standing there. She glared. “Don’t you dare even pretend you hope I feel better soon.”

    Xellos shrugged. “Well, I do hope you don’t suffer a horrible, wasting death while I’m gone.”

    “That’s right,” Filia snapped. “You’d want to be there to see it.”

    Xellos blinked his eyes open at her. “I’d say you had an especially nasty mind for a dragon,” he said slowly, “But I’ve known too many dragons.”

    Filia wanted to point out that ‘knowing’ wasn’t the same as ‘blowing up in a shower of explosive magic and rended flesh’, but was cut-off by Xellos approaching closer to her bedside.

    “I can see those gears ticking behind your eyes, Filia,” he said so quietly that Filia could barely hear him. “And it would be a waste of my time to try to stop you from doing something stupid. But you might curtail your recklessness a little, at least for the people who depend on you.”

    “People who…?” Filia repeated, a little taken aback by his knowing tone.

    “Who’d miss you if you got yourself killed,” Xellos whispered. He turned around and started to walk out past the curtain, to Cleon’s relief who had been frowning impatiently at Xellos the whole time.

    “Who knows? I might even be one of them,” Xellos said before he vanished from sight.

    Filia was left to stare open-mouthed at the place where he’d left, Cleon and Rasmus both giving her odd looks as one single thought filled her mind:

    WHAT?!

    *****

    Filia had no intention of staying in the infirmary for long, no matter what she said to Cleon. Judging by Xellos’s little comment he seemed to have largely anticipated her… her recklessness. But she also fully intended on getting some rest first. She’d nearly been gassed to death and needed to get her strength back. She hadn’t even bothered healing the chemical burn on her hand yet. She needed her energy for other things.

    And that was the plan. She’d sleep for awhile and then leave the infirmary to do her job. She didn’t have anything major planned and nothing especially… especially reckless. She’d just sit in on a session or something. Nice and public. If she died everyone would see it at least.

    But sleep was just not forthcoming.

    What the hell was Xellos trying to do with that ‘I’d miss you’ crap? He couldn’t honestly expect her to believe that. He probably had to turn around to say it because he couldn’t say it with a straight face!

    It was just too… too crazy. He was trying to twist her around to some evil purpose, that was for sure. It probably had to do with the negotiations. Well, did he really think she was stupid enough to fall for something like that?

    Granted, he had saved her life. Maybe that was supposed to soften her up to the point that she’d believe… believe that a monster could sincerely be sorry if she died.

    …What if it’s the truth? a stray thought pondered against the tide.

    Filia didn’t like where this line of thought was going.

    Well, it continued, I mean… if I did get killed, I wouldn’t be around for him to bother any more.

    Filia had to confess there was some bizarre sense in that. Xellos could indeed be messed up enough to think that way. But she still tended to think he was trying to trick her into something. Even if he… didn’t want her to die for future teasing purposes, he wouldn’t actually go out and say it, would he? Because even in a warped sort of way that sounded almost… fond. It was probably as close as a thing like him could get to fond.

    No. He’d only say it if he was trying to manipulate me into something, Filia thought. But she couldn’t think of what. She couldn’t even decide whether he was deluded enough to actually think she’d buy his pack of lies or if he was using some crazy reverse-psychology on her.

    …Well, he was after something. That was for sure. She just had to find out what.

    …Oh, and find out who was trying to kill her. But that was the less important mystery.

    She peeked past her covers and over to Rasmus’s bed. He seemed to be napping. She didn’t think he’d stop her even if he was awake. For a bodyguard, he was far less fussy than Cleon was. She got out of bed and smoothed out her clothes – slightly wrinkly, but hey, she’d nearly been killed; let people judge all they wanted.

    And she slipped out of the makeshift infirmary of the hotel and into the lobby.

    *****

    She’d been looking for people – a nice place where she could be shielded by the safety of a crowd, a place where she could do the job she’d set out to do: be alive and be seen to be alive. So she’d naturally been drawn to the loud auditorium with all the shouting. She shuffled in and took a seat at the back.

    An old man at the front podium with iron colored curls and a high voice was saying: “—whose evil rule has beset my poor people with canon fire on a regular basis in clear violation of the peace trea—”

    “That’s a lie!” a deep-voiced woman from the audience with an expansive dress shouted, standing up. “You Alto people are the ones in violation of the peace treaty!”

    “We never!” the man shot back. “It was all you Baritone—”

    Filia tuned out the conversation at this point. This must be the grievance session that Xellos mentioned before, she thought. It would probably be a safe enough place to flaunt her continued existence in; if a little on the annoying side.

    Another familiar face caught her eye. It was the little girl sitting next to her. She had a pink dress and shoulder length blonde hair and was kicking her feet distractedly.

    “Oh hello!” the girl said, seeing Filia looking at her. “Hey! I remember you! You were one of the thieves that helped me get the magical vessels!”

    “I’m not a thief, Miss Sera,” Filia explained in her ‘talking to children’ voice. She’d thought they had this all worked out from before. “So are you here with your dad?”

    “Yes,” Sera said. “Father likes to take me along on his trips so I can observe The Process.”

    The way Sera said ‘The Process’ automatically ascribed it capital letters, and for some reason it gave Filia the uncomfortable feeling of what it would be like learning the royal ropes from a parent. “So is Mister Marco here too?” Filia asked eager to change the subject.

    “No,” Sera said, looking downward.

    Filia wasn’t sure quite how to approach the topic of Marco. Sera had claimed to be desperately in love with him early in their little adventure, but the last time she’d seen the two of them they’d been calling each other ‘stupid-head’ and ‘dope’. “How are things with you and him?” Filia asked tentatively.

    Sera sniffed and then turned two big, teary eyes on Filia and said: “Oh, it’s just awful! I thought we were in love, but now all he does is pick on me and call me names! He hates me!”

    Filia fished around in her pockets for a handkerchief and passed it to the grateful young princess. “I’m sure he doesn’t hate you,” she said comfortingly, patting the girl on the shoulder.

    Sera blew her nose explosively into the handkerchief. “Well why else would he be so mean to me all the time?” she asked in a haze of tears and snot.

    Filia struggled to explain the complications of pre-pubescent romance. She eventually decided on: “Sometimes when boys pick on you it means they secretly like you.”

    Sera sniffed some more, but no more sobs seemed to be coming. “Why do they do that?”

    “I don’t know,” Filia said vaguely. Something about this conversation was bothering her. “I suppose that’s the only way they know how to express themselves.”

    And then something very heavy dropped unceremoniously into Filia’s forebrain.

    “No…” she said softly to herself, then louder: “No. That can’t be true…”

    “You mean he does hate me?” Sera said, fresh sobs winding their way into overdrive.

    “No,” Filia said distractedly. “Just… thinking of something else.”

    That can’t be… she thought desperately, despite herself.

    That’s impossible!

  19. #19
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    Chapter 19. Motivation.

    No, no, no, no, no! It can’t be! Filia thought emphatically as she stomped through the hotel hallways with no real destination and her mind whirling.

    Xellos couldn’t actually like her! That pretty much took the cake for ridiculous ideas. And yet… and yet…

    Why did it make a strange amount of sense?

    …He was always saying mean things to her, always drawing her into arguments, but now that she thought about it… he acted almost like… like a grade school kid with a crush.

    She clapped a hand over her mouth and sank into one of the benches that lined the hall and stared at her reflection in the window pane. She had to be wrong. He was a monster! All the stalking, life-saving, and strangely comfortable teasing he could manage couldn’t add up to… feelings. Monsters couldn’t even have those kinds of feelings.

    …Could they?

    Filia glared at her reflection as though she was irritated with herself. Well, even if they could, she decided, she’d still be the last entity in the world he could ever have feelings for. They weren’t even the same species! And they were enemies, for goodness sakes! He hated everything she stood for. He’d even made a name for himself killing her people. What kind of sick, twisted freak would be attracted to her given all that?

    …Maybe Xellos?

    …And…

    Well, don’t look at me, she thought sharply at her reflection. This is his bizarre perversion, not mine.

    …If he even really felt that way. Which he probably didn’t. It was hard to imagine something like Xellos having feelings for anyone, let alone her. Love and evil just don’t mix. If anyone as malignant as Xellos ever found himself caring for another being he’d just – Filia fumbled at this point – burn away into ashes or something? Probably saying something about his ‘beautiful wickedness’ before crumbled.

    Filia ran a weary hand through her hair. She really was sleep deprived.

    But she couldn’t be blamed if her thoughts meandered into weird territory, could she? Real life had basically become some bizarre twilight zone lately. Never mind all the time she’d nearly been killed. It was enough to have Xellos swanning around her all the time being mean to her one minute and saying he might miss her if she died another minute. That would drive her crazy before any assassin finished her off.

    She… she had to be misinterpreting this, she decided. Sure, he was always teasing her. But maybe that just meant that he didn’t like her. That was fairly reasonable, right? It’s what she’d always assumed. It didn’t have to mean there was any… latent sexual tension between them.

    She bit her fist agitatedly. She really didn’t need to be thinking about Xellos that way at the moment. Or at any moment!

    “Miss Filia!” came the voice of Cleon as the dragon scurried down the hallway toward her bench. He ran up to her and clutched his side as he stopped. “Why did you leave the infirmary? Everyone’s been so worried!”

    “I told you I wasn’t going to wait around there all day,” Filia said, but she couldn’t manage her authoritative ‘I’m the boss; you’re not’ voice at the moment. She was understandably distracted by the prospect of Xellos having impure desires toward her. “I woke up, so I left.”

    “Miss Filia,” Cleon said despairingly, “Someone has just tried to kill you for the third time since you arrived. It’s not safe for you to be wandering around on your own.”

    “You don’t think Xellos would save me a second time?” Filia half-joked in a bitter sort of way.

    Wait. Not even second now that she came to think about it. Hadn’t he protected her from an energy blast during the Alto-Baritone incident? And she’d never forget what had happened during Xellos’s fight with Valgaav for as long as she lived.

    Three times that she could think of right off the bat… that was just… weird.

    “I don’t know, Miss Filia,” Cleon said, his eyes darkening and a frown firmly fixed on his face. “I honestly wouldn’t have suspected the first time.”

    I can’t be crazy, Filia thought as she took in the disapproving look on Cleon’s face, because I’m not the only person suspicious of Xellos’s intentions. For goodness sakes! Cleon and Rasmus had both seemed concerned that Xellos was getting too close to her. And no matter what Amelia said, she’d definitely been implying something about the two of them. Filia had just refused to listen to them because it all sounded so patently ridiculous. But if other people were noticing it then… it might really be true.

    “Look, I don’t want to argue about any of this,” Filia said, deflating in the face of this highly worrying possibility. “I don’t have to do meetings or anything today if you think it’s too dangerous. I just don’t want to go back to the infirmary. Can you at least show me my new room?”

    “I was going to take you there from the infirmary, Miss Filia,” Cleon said in an only slightly chiding way.

    “Alright,” Filia said. “Lead the way.”

    *****

    Cleon guided Filia to her new quarters which were much the same as her old ones except for the fact that an assassin didn’t have the keys to them… at least, that was the idea. She was also shown one of the security upgrades that had been extended to her. Apparently after nearly dying three times, the summit police force had decided to assign her two of their personal guards for her room. A nice gesture, but a little late.

    The guards were introduced to her as Galadrion and Kevin. They seemed quite nice.

    While they were standing guard outside Filia’s door keeping their eyes peeled for anyone lugging a hunk of dry ice around, Cleon was filling her in on what else the summit police force was doing to ensure that her demise was not early.

    “They’ve finally gotten approval to search the rooms of every diplomat,” Cleon said, as though this was an accomplishment to be quite proud of.

    “Why didn’t they do that from the start?” Filia asked perplexedly. It would have saved a lot of trouble, and she wouldn’t have ended up in Cask Vitrain’s closet.

    “These are very important people and they offend easily,” Cleon said in a hushed voice. “There’s going to be a big to-do about it anyway, but the captain of the guard put his foot down.”

    The captain of the guard had certainly taken awhile to put his foot down, Filia couldn’t help but think. But apparently the third time was the charm.

    “Now,” Cleon said, changing gears. “Since I’ve already canceled your appointments for today, you at least don’t have to worry about any of that. But it’s probably best if we use this extra time to prepare for tomorrow.”

    “What’s tomorrow?” Filia asked vaguely, still wondering at the amount of red tape that needed to be cut in an investigation where every suspect was a V.I.P.

    “That’d be your meeting with Mister Xellos,” Cleon reminded.

    “What?!” Filia exclaimed, her eyes flying open and visiting on Cleon an expression of shock and fear. “That’s tomorrow?”

    Time flies when you’re being stalked by an assassin.

    “I can’t see him tomorrow!” Filia squeaked out. She didn’t care if it was unprofessional. She couldn’t see him until she had this mess with him figured out. Otherwise he’d see it all over her face and that would be the end of her.

    “Don’t worry, Miss Filia,” Cleon said soothingly. “Mister Rasmus will be 100% better at that point and both he and I will be sitting in on the meeting. “I’ll be briefing you on everything you need to know today, so you’ll be completely prepared. You’ll do fine.”

    It won’t be fine if he figures out that I think he likes me, Filia thought in a miserable state of hysteria. I can’t even think of him without wanting to hide my head in my hands. This is going to be a disaster!

    And Filia wasn’t even sure if the prospect of having Cleon and Rasmus looking in on her meeting with Xellos was worse or better than being alone with him. It could really go either way.

    But there was absolutely no chance of getting out of this, she realized grimly. The meeting with Xellos was the most important part of the summit. It was what she’d been specially chosen for. If their efforts on this little diplomatic mission were to be a success then she had to meet with Xellos; no matter how awkward it ended up.

    And oh, is it ever going to be awkward, she thought wretchedly.

    “What do I need to know?” she asked resignedly.

    *****

    Cleon had tried to launch into an extensive explanation about the Daius Seed, but was surprised to find that Filia already knew everything he had to say about it. She wasn’t going to spark the discontent that would ensue if she told him Xellos had been the supplier of her information, so she just let him believe that she’d heavily researched since she got to the summit.

    “What we’re going to do about it is what must be decided,” Cleon said after it became clear that Filia didn’t need filling in on the Daius Seed.

    “Can it be destroyed?” Filia asked.

    Cleon winced. “Possibly… but probably not. There’s no way to really tell without accidentally activating it.”

    “So we’d need a powerful barrier then,” Filia said thoughtfully.

    “Most likely,” Cleon confirmed.

    “That shouldn’t be too hard then. It wouldn’t be difficult for our race or the monsters to do something like that,” Filia said. It was a nasty habit of both races to put anything they didn’t want to deal with behind a force field. If they were both in agreement about that then the negotiation shouldn’t be too bad after all.

    “Not the monsters,” Cleon said darkly.

    “Why not?” Filia asked. The monster race could construct magical barriers just as well as the dragons; they just used a different type of magic.

    “We can’t allow a race so grounded in treachery to be solely responsible for something as dangerous as the Daius Seed. We can’t risk them double-crossing us and using it, or changing their minds at a later date and tearing the barrier down,” Cleon said. “That’s why, if a barrier is to be constructed, it must be done by the dragon race.”

    Filia was beginning to see where the problem would lie in this negotiation session. It wasn’t going to be about what they’d do; they’d probably be in agreement about that. It would just be a pissing match over who would do it.

    “Territory is the other issue we want to bring into this,” Cleon said, pulling out a map of the world with x’s and o’s across certain areas to indicate mine and thine. “Now, to be honest we don’t expect much from the monsters. They have little reason to cede territory to us. But it’s worth a try.”

    “These are the territories we’d be interested in trading,” Cleon said, marking a few down with his pen. “These are territories we’d be interested in acquiring,” he marked down several more. “Since it would be an uphill battle to get anything at all, I suggest you concentrate on these two.”

    Filia nodded. This seemed fairly straight-forward. “Is there anything else?” she asked.

    “No,” Cleon said with a smile. “That’s all.”

    Well… that didn’t seem too bad, Filia decided. But then she had a sudden thought.

    “Mister Cleon…” she began. “That’s our agenda. Do we know what his is?”

    Cleon’s smile faded. “If we knew that, Miss Filia, we’d all be a lot happier.”

    *****

    Xellos’s motivation. The negotiation session… the strange things he’d said to her after saving her life… it all came down to that.

    What was he trying to do? What was he thinking?

    Before Cleon had left he supplied her with incident reports that the dragon race kept on the monster race’s actions in case any of it helped her to figure out what was going on. She’d been looking through the papers all day, and even now she was leafing through them as she picked at the remains of her room service dinner.

    Nothing stood out. It all just seemed like the normal amount of mischief from the monster race. It was impossible to pick out a larger plot at work. …Or at least it was impossible for her. And she was running out of time.

    She needed to know what was going on before the negotiations started tomorrow, but she wasn’t getting anywhere. She was sure, deep in her heart, that his ambiguous actions and words to her were not a sign that he was secretly harboring feelings for her. But she was also pretty sure that he wanted her to think he had feelings for her.

    I mean, what else could he have been trying to do with that ‘I’d miss you’ thing?

    But she couldn’t figure out how he planned to manipulate that fact. She just couldn’t see the whole picture…

    …And it made her really mad!

    I mean, who does that monster think he is, vaguely implying that he might like me, Filia thought angrily. What exactly does he think he can trick me into through that? And where does he get the right to think he can mess with people’s feelings like this?

    Filia was largely ignoring at this point that, for a monster, messing with people’s feelings is an important part of a balanced breakfast. She was too busy being infuriating at his unrepentant gall!

    She threw the incident reports to the ground. Well, she wasn’t going to stand for it. She wasn’t going to just sit there and try to put the pieces together of his nefarious plot. It was stupid. It was playing his game by his rules which she had no intention of doing. And she was going to let him know that.

    She’d confront him, let him know she was on to him, and demand an explanation for his behavior.

    “Just you wait, Xellos,” she said out loud in her empty room.
    *****

    Filia swaggered through the hallway with such a charge of enraged adrenaline that any lurking assassin might think twice about trying to pick her off. She might have to play this dumb political game with strangers, but she wasn’t going to with Xellos. She reached his door and pounded on it.

    Xellos opened the door and sighed, surveying her trembling rage as she sought for an opening line. She was currently trying to top: ‘You won’t get away with it, you creep!’

    “Don’t tell me you’ve come to hide in my closet now?” he asked.

    “Will you stop mentioning that!” Filia snapped, both irritated by his comment and by the fact that he’d denied her the first line. She was starting to really warm up to ‘You won’t get away with it, you creep!’. It had the right sort of ring to it. “That was only that one time!”

    “You should take care that it doesn’t turn into a habit,” Xellos said, for all the world sounding like he was enjoying himself. “Since that’s not the case, what can I help you with? Another profiling session on your assassin? He’s got a new technique, I see.”

    “No,” Filia said curtly. She realized she probably should be more concerned about her assassin. It just didn’t make her top priority at the moment. “I want you to tell me what’s going on. Now.”

    Xellos raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

    “Oh, don’t play dumb with me!” Filia snapped aggressively. “I know you’re up to something! What are you trying to trick me into with this routine of yours?”

    Xellos furrowed his brow in a manner that made Filia want to punch him in the face more than she already wanted to punch him in the face. “Routine?”

    “You know!” Filia spat. “This pretending you care about me thing! That ‘I’d miss you’ ********! What? Am I supposed to fall desperately in love with you or something? Are you that delusional?” She glared at his unmoving features. “What are you trying to manipulate me into, you *******?!”

    Xellos stared at her for what seemed like forever, then his face broke into a grin and he laughed.

    “Nothing’s funny,” Filia snapped, petulance creeping into her tone.

    “Oh, it’s very funny,” Xellos refuted, taking a step out the door and leaning his face down toward hers.

    Filia only really noticed that he was taller than her when they were up close like this. She cursed herself for dwelling on this. She was mad at him. His height had nothing to do with anything!

    “Have you really not figured it out yet, Filia?” Xellos asked in a maddeningly condescending tone. “Your supreme elder chose to send you here for one purpose and one purpose alone: to tempt me. And you’re telling me that you still think you’re the one being tricked?”

    Filia’s mouth opened in surprise. She just honestly didn’t know what to say or do or even think at the moment. If WHAT?! had been her go to response before, she was now in a state where words couldn’t express confusion.

    And he took that moment to lean in further and press his lips against hers. She couldn’t resist in any way. It was like a light had been switched off in the control center of her mind. He pulled her into his arms and she could feel a helpless sort of rumbling from her brain of a something-must-be-done sort of nature. But she couldn’t act on it; she couldn’t even formalize it into thought. All she could do was reel and react.

    His hand, which had been gripped around her waist a moment ago, was migrating quickly down toward an out-of-bounds area. Up until about a minute ago, she would’ve considered any part of her body an out-of-bounds area to Xellos.

    A few stray neurons sparked into action for just long enough to grab the steering wheel in Filia’s brain and cause her to slap away his hand. But it wasn’t much of a reprimand considering that his tongue was in her mouth and she wasn’t doing a damn thing about that.

    Filia gasped for air as they finally broke apart. The crumbling dust of her psyche was trying to form a thought; any thought, but it wasn’t meeting with much success.

    Xellos cupped his hands around her elbows, leaving her hands to lean against his chest. He made only the slightest nod backwards and said, “Would you like to come in?”

    Filia couldn’t stop her head from turning to look at the gap in the open doorway; couldn’t stop herself from staring into the darkened room beyond and all that it represented.

    “Miss Filia?” came a voice from down the hallway.

    Cleon’s voice had the effect of a bucket of very cold water being dumped directly on her brainstem. She immediately took three very large steps away from Xellos.

    “We weren’t—” she began guiltily. “We were just—”

    “Discussing matters?” Xellos supplied helpfully when it seemed like Filia wasn’t able to finish the sentence.

    “Discussing matters!” Filia agreed.

    Cleon surveyed the scene with a perplexed expression. “Umm… okay,” he said, not particularly wanting to delve in farther than that. “I just wanted to find you because there’s news on the search.”

    Filia turned to glance at Xellos, and cursed herself a minute later for doing so. It was like she was asking his permission or something.

    “I wouldn’t dream of keeping you from that,” Xellos said, but his tone seemed to disagree.

    Filia turned and followed Cleon as he led her away from the scene. She willed herself not to look back at Xellos. Her face felt hot enough to fry an egg on as it was.

    And as she was walking away an absurd little thought occurred to her as she remembered something Xellos had said earlier:

    You’re not yourself here. You’re representing your people. Here you are the dragon race.

    Going off that line of thinking, the monster race had just gotten to first base with the dragon race.

  20. #20
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    Chapter 20. The Terms of Our Meeting.

    Filia drifted down the hall after Cleon in a daze. She’d tripped over her own feet about three times since they’d left Xellos and her hands were still shaking. She really needed to sit down, but she wasn’t about to give Cleon any indication of what had happened.

    “Miss Filia?” Cleon began inquisitively.

    “Hmm?” she responded distractedly.

    “Don’t you want to know about the news from the search?” he prompted.

    “Oh,” Filia said. To be honest, that was the last thing on her mind. “Yes. Did they find something?” Like a gun in the leader of the Pro-Human League’s room?

    “They didn’t exactly find anything,” Cleon said. “But shortly after the search was announced, the Pro-Human Leaguers packed up and left before their rooms could be processed.”

    “Hmm,” Filia said again.

    “I was wrong and you were right, Miss Filia,” Cleon said contritely. “It’s clear that they didn’t want their guilt to be discovered.”

    “I guess so,” Filia said, still only seeming to be half there.

    Cleon looked a bit troubled at his boss’s apparent lack of relief in the fact that the group trying to assassinate her had fled. “I suppose you’re wondering whether or not we’ll be able to catch them or not,” he went on, in a tone that implied that he didn’t really suppose this, but would have liked to suppose it.

    “Will we?” Filia asked, idly touching her arm and looking at the walls as they went past.

    “It’s possible,” Cleon said on this rather thin prompt. “But it’s also possible that they’ll take refuge in a country sympathetic to their cause and then we may never bring them to justice.”

    “Oh,” Filia said.

    Cleon once again gave her a side-long look of puzzlement as though he wondered how the woman who’d been so determined to triumph against her hated enemies could be so blasé about their possible escape from justice.

    “At the very least, you won’t have to worry about them anymore,” Cleon added from the bright side.

    “Yeah,” Filia said. Cross being killed off her worry list. Too bad the top five slots of her worried list were already marked ‘Xellos’.

    She hadn’t been prepared for any of that. Honestly, how could anyone be? In her wildest and craziest ideas of possible scenarios confronting Xellos might bring (including the one where he takes off his gloves and reveals that he has no hands), she had never even considered that he would just randomly start kissing her and ask her if she wanted to… to…

    What would you have done if Cleon hadn’t shown up? The thought dropped heavily into her mind, casting ripples across her subconscious.



    I would’ve said no! Filia practically screamed in her own mind. Of course, I would’ve said no. I was just… building up to it, that’s all.

    Look, you just wait until Xellos invites you into his bed, and we’ll see how quick to react you are
    , Filia snapped red-faced to herself.

    And then she thought: Who am I arguing with?

    …This is not a good sign.


    “Miss Filia?” Cleon asked as they reached her room which was still being guarded by Galadrion and Kevin (who must have been doing a good job because it hadn’t been stolen yet). “Are you okay?” he asked, voice etched with concern. “Did he say something to you?”

    She was just in shock. That’s all it was. Shock.

    “I’m fine,” Filia said. Then she tried to put on a weak little smile. “Just tired.”

    Cleon didn’t look like he quite bought this. “The meeting’s tomorrow. Are you sure?”

    Filia was so not-sure at this point that a mathematical equation might be necessary to pinpoint her exact uncertainty. “I’m sure,” she said.

    “Alright,” Cleon said, still not sounding like he 100% believed her. “Good night,” he said.

    “Good night,” she said.

    She shut the door and collapsed against the carpet.

    *****

    She’d tried to undress like three times and just couldn’t manage it; which was stupid, but she wasn’t going to deal with it. Instead she just kept her day clothes on and crawled under the covers of her bed to wait for sleep. She knew that it would be a long, painful wait.

    But how could she ever get to sleep when she knew that her meeting with Xellos loomed in the near distance? She just… couldn’t face him after what had happened. But there was no way she could back out of this.

    The idea of having Cleon and Rasmus with her might have dispelled some of the worries about meeting with Xellos again that she wasn’t anxious to verbalize, but it also introduced a whole new set of worries. What would Xellos say in front of them? Would they find out about what happened between them?

    She buried her head in the pillow. It was just too unbearable to even think about. She’d kissed a monster. Not only that but, though she’d hate to admit it, there was a slight chance that if Cleon hadn’t shown up she might have been swept away and… been a bigger disgrace to dragon kind than she already was.

    She cringed. What would her mother say if she was alive? Worse yet, what would her father say?

    …Best not to even think of that.

    What a minute, Filia thought, lifting herself on the bed by her elbows. I can’t start thinking like this. This isn’t my fault! I didn’t ask for this!

    …But Xellos said that the Supreme Elder only sent her to… to tempt him. Which didn’t make any sense really! If he wanted to send her for… that kind of purpose, wouldn’t he have told her so she’d better play her part?

    …Except for the fact that she’d definitely have said no if he asked for that.

    Anyway, she’d been doing pretty damn well at the summit considering her life had been targeted. She’d been able to handle things much more diplomatically than Cleon had (at least most of the time) because of her experiences traveling with Miss Lina. She couldn’t believe that that was the only reason she’d been sent. Xellos just thought the world revolved around him.

    Yes. It didn’t have to be the only reason. It didn’t even have to be one of the reasons. It was just what Xellos thought.

    All that what he’d said had really told her was… that he found her tempting.

    Which was also crazy. But there it was… a confession basically. Both in words and actions.

    What kind of messed up monster wants a dragon?

    Of course, none of this disproved her initial idea that he was just trying to trick her. His actions had certainly completely thrown her off and left her vulnerable concerning the meeting the next day. There was always the chance that he didn’t really want her and this was just a ploy to manipulate her into whatever the monster race had on their agenda.

    …But… hadn’t he taken it a bit far if that was the case?

    Maybe she was wrong. But it just seemed to her that this went somewhat beyond distraction. It didn’t meant that this wasn’t all some plot against her, but… well, really, what could he bring up at the meeting that he would really feel the need to sleep with her to accomplish?

    It just seemed like maybe he had… long term plans for her. But what could he possibly want from her besides… the obvious notion which she was choosing not to entertain at this point.

    She unconsciously crossed her arms over her chest as if cold. Hadn’t Xellos talked about ‘political alliances’ when they’d first met at the summit? Yes… when he’d pointed out Lopa and Arkon. He was the one that said then and there that love and politics didn’t mix. How could a relationship with her benefit him?

    …Well, in lots of ways now that she thought about it. Even though she largely lived apart from her race, she was still a dragon and having frequent contact with her would give him insight into what the race was up to. Especially since there was always a chance that she’d be asked to stay in her post as Premier of Foreign Affairs. The dragons might need her as they started up their new trading program. And… she might actually accept, especially if the Supreme Elder could guarantee that Val would never be targeted.

    And Val… Oh, Val, Filia thought with a chill. Getting close to her would ensure that Xellos would also be close to the last ancient dragon in existence; just in case.

    And then there was herself. Xellos might brag that he thought black magic was better than holy magic, but there were things you couldn’t do with black magic. Breaking through holy seals for one. And then there was the big thing… light-dark fusion magic. If Xellos could get her by his side then he’d have access to a power few could wield. And that would be worth a lot.

    That must be it, she thought to herself. Everything around the summit is politically motivated anyway. There. Isn’t it better now that I know why he’s trying to manipulate me?

    No
    , Filia thought quietly, a completely unauthorized tear trailing down her cheek. No it’s not, she thought louder this time. When someone kisses you it’s supposed to mean something.

    She tried to fight against the stream of tears cascading from her eyes, but to no avail. She hadn’t cried when she first got to the summit. She hadn’t cried when Rasmus had been shot. She hadn’t cried any of the times she’d nearly been killed. But she had to cry over this.

    Choking back sobs she collapsed again onto her mattress and eventually fell into a fitful and exhausted sleep.

    *****

    Filia and Cleon stood in the anteroom of the conference center of the hotel. Filia’s eyes were raw from crying and from unrestful sleep, but she stuck out her chin. She was going to get through this.

    …Somehow.

    “The meeting should start at nine o’clock sharp,” Cleon said, tucking away a pocket-watch he’d been examining. “So we’ve got plenty of time. I’m going to get Rasmus from the infirmary. Would you like to come with me?”

    That was right. Now that her assassins were gone she actually got a little autonomy. “No thanks,” Filia said. “I think I’d rather just… get my bearings.”

    Cleon nodded understandingly. “Don’t worry,” he said, patting her on the shoulder. “Rasmus and I will be there to help you along when the time comes.” And then he went off down the hall.

    Why do I think you’ll do more hindering than helping? Filia thought sourly.

    She stared around at the crowded lobby. There were plenty of people there and quite a breakfast buffet spread. But Filia couldn’t bring herself to eat.

    They’d reserved a conference room to meet Xellos in. It would be much more formal than the meet and greets Filia had been on before. Which was good because she certainly didn’t want to be in his room or for him to be in hers.

    “All alone?” said a voice behind her.

    Damn that punctual *******!

    She abruptly moved away from him and turned around to fix him with a glare. “Mister Cleon,” she said stiffly, “has gone to get Mister Rasmus from the infirmary.”

    “Three days in the infirmary?” Xellos asked, raising his eyebrows. “I must say you dragons have fairly fragile bodies.”

    Filia closed her eyes for a moment and breathed out. Xellos liked to leave little… stepping stones in conversations. She knew it. She could see where she was going with this and she was not anxious to have a conversation and dragon’s and monster’s bodies.

    She opened her eyes and he gave her a twisted little smile. Damn it! He knows what I was thinking!

    “Speaking of—” he began.

    “No,” she said firmly. “I don’t want to speak of it.”

    Xellos shrugged. “Fine by me,” he said, and then vanished.

    Filia turned around and looked wildly across the room for where he’d reappear. But it was no good. She should’ve known that he’d appear…

    “You don’t have to talk,” a voice said in her ear.

    …right behind her.

    “I do so wonder what you’ve been thinking lately, Filia,” he said.

    She tried not to lose her cool as he draped his arms around her. “Get away,” she said in the strongest voice she could manage, which wasn’t very strong.

    “Oh, so you do want to talk,” he said cheerfully, the side of his head against her neck.

    Filia was not doing well. If this wasn’t even the negotiations, she dreaded what would happen then. But she’d have Cleon and Rasmus with her and he wouldn’t do this around them.

    Umm… would he?

    She couldn’t wrench her way out of his arms, so she used the last threat of any woman in a public place: “Stop it,” she breathed, “or I’ll scream.”

    “I certainly hope you do,” he answered.

    There was a delayed reaction, but then Filia went red.

    “Shut up,” she barely managed to get out. “I’d never ever do something like that with you.”

    “Why not?” Xellos asked into her neck.

    “Because,” Filia said, trying to overpower that chill down her spine with anger, “you’re only trying to use me for political purposes. It’s not because you actually love me or anything.”

    “There’s no reason why both can’t be true,” Xellos said calmly.

    Filia’s eyes flew wide open in surprise. She wanted to turn around to see what kind of expression he was pulling, but he was holding her fast. Finally she gritted her teeth and said: “Don’t throw my words back at me. It’s not clever.”

    “It’s pretty clever,” Xellos said fairly.

    Cleon and Rasmus walked down the hall and into the lobby and to Filia’s surprise and intense relief, Xellos released her from his arms. Though it was also true that he did this slowly enough that Cleon and Rasmus certainly saw him withdraw and he still remained quite close.

    “Oh,” Cleon said nervously, as he reached them. “You’re early.”

    Rasmus scowled at both of them. Filia didn’t really think she deserved that from her bodyguard, but she was unsure if Rasmus had another expression so she let it slide.

    “Well,” Cleon said, clapping his hands together awkwardly. “Shall we get going then?”

    “We?” Xellos repeated. “I understood that this was going to be a one-on-one negotiation.”

    Filia let Cleon take this one and simply marveled at Xellos’s audacity.

    “We never indicated that,” Cleon said worriedly.

    “Well, I haven’t brought anyone, so it seems only fair,” Xellos pointed out.

    Yes, Filia thought to herself. But I haven’t killed thousands. You have.

    “Nevertheless,” Cleon rallied, “Miss Filia must have the protection of Mister Rasmus considering the resent assassination attempts.”

    “But her assassins have fled; isn’t that right, Mister Rasmus?” Xellos asked. “Perhaps you did not hear while you were resting in the infirmary.”

    Rasmus merely glowered in response.

    “Well, uh,” Cleon began, seeing his excuses evaporating before him. “There’s… well, I mean, obviously what with the uh… the history of our two races it would seem, well, prudent too…” he trailed off.

    Xellos snaked a hand around Filia’s waist. “Oh, I think you’ll find we get along surprisingly well,” he said. “Isn’t that right, Filia?” he said, grabbing her hand and kissing her palm.

    She cried out.

    Damn it, she swore after she’d wrenched her hand away from him. It wasn’t that she’d been affected by the kiss (…much). He’d just chosen to kiss the chemical burn from the dry ice that she’d never bothered to heal. That’s why she cried out.

    Stop making it look like I want you, you jerk!

    But she knew from Cleon and Rasmus’s mortified and suspicious expressions that a negotiation would never work with them there. They weren’t in the mood to compromise with Xellos. Not after what they’d seen. Xellos had seen to that.

    Plus there was something Xellos wanted to tell her in private. And she really wanted to know what it was.

    “Have it your way,” Filia snapped at him, disentangling his arm from her waist. She started to move toward the conference room they’d reserved down the hall.

    “Miss Filia, I must protest!” Cleon said, now sounding rather panicked.

    “It’s fine,” Filia said. “I can handle myself.”

    Though not necessarily him…

    She got one look at Cleon before she abruptly turned back. What she saw surprised her. Rasmus, now, he looked angry enough to burn a forest down. That was to be expected. But Cleon didn’t look angry. He just looked… sad.

    And that’s when it hit Filia. All that… being nervous around her… and all worry and coddling that had been annoying… Cleon loved her. And she’d never even noticed.

    But Xellos had. That’s where that whole display had come from. He was… he was showing off! It was a little song that went: Nya-nya-nya-nya-nya-nya! Look what I’ve got!

    “You didn’t have to do all that,” Filia said quietly as they walked along. “It was just cruel.”

    “Oh please,” Xellos said dismissively. “As if you constantly ignoring him wasn’t at least as cruel.”

    Filia didn’t want to think about that, so instead she put on her game face. She didn’t want Xellos to think he’d won this one. “Look, I just want you to know that I did that for the negotiation,” she said firmly. “And negotiation is all we’re going to do. Whatever sick ideas you’ve concocted; I’m not interested in them.”

    “Alright,” he said agreeably.

    Filia frowned. That hadn’t been the response she’d expected. Perhaps a faux-innocent denial of having any such ideas, coupled with a suggestion that it might be Filia herself who was the one with the sick ideas. He was agreeing too easily.

    “What sick ideas did you have in mind, anyway?” she asked suspiciously.

    “You mean the one’s you’re not interested in?” he asked.

    “Yes,” Filia said.

    “Let me get this straight,” Xellos said slowly. “My supposedly sick ideas. The ones you’re not interested in. You want to know what they are?”

    “Yes!” Filia said impatiently.

    “You could say that you’re interested in knowing more about them?”

    “That’s why I asked!” Filia said, now almost completely out of patience. “AND WHAT ARE YOU SMILING LIKE THAT ABOUT, YOU MONSTER?”

  21. #21
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    Chapter 21. Negotiation.

    Xellos practically pushed Filia into the conference room which was, she reflected, both cruel and juvenile behavior, and of course completely out of character for him. She might have had time to be mad at him for that if it weren’t for the fact that, as soon as he stepped in, he closed the door and locked it.

    Click. The sound echoed in Filia’s brain, causing the part of Filia that had been raring to fight to scamper away and hide behind the nearest available lobe.

    Filia began to wonder just what exactly Xellos thought of as ‘negotiation’.

    When Xellos started taking off his cape it did nothing to assuage her fears. In fact, she might have let out a small squeak; she wasn’t sure. But she certainly did take a few steps backward for all the good it would do her.

    He laid his cape on the table in a meaningful way, and Filia couldn’t help but think that… well, soon the same thing could be said of her.

    He looked up at her and gave her his most good-natured smile. He clapped his hands together eagerly. “Well,” he said, “it’s time to get down to business.”

    Her imagination let out a flood of completely unauthorized images, which traipsed across her mind with no care to the damage they were doing to her as he came closer and closer…

    …and walked right past her.

    “Now, where are the markers?” he muttered to himself as he looked speculatively at the many roll-up maps on the wall before him. “Ah, here they are,” he said, picking up a black marker from a tray, rolling down one of the maps, and busily marking it up.

    Filia let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. But instead of feeling relief, all she could do was stare slack jawed at the back of his head.

    “Alright, so these—” Xellos began, stopping abruptly as he turned around to look at her. “…Something wrong?” he asked.

    Filia nearly rocked backwards off her heels. She put a hand to her head and tried to regain some equilibrium. She sniffed, pulled herself as back together as she’d get, said: “I’m fine,”, mentally chided her stupid, over reactive imagination, and willed herself to join him by the maps.

    He gave her one lingering odd look before turning back to the map. “These circles represent the territories of the Dragon race,” he said, pointing with the marker toward areas he’d marked out.

    “…Are you sure you’re allowed to write on this?” Filia asked, looking doubtfully at the permanent looking marks.

    “And these,” Xellos said, completely ignoring her question as he pointed to the X’s on the map, “are the Monster race territories.”

    “…That you know about,” he added, snapping the cap back on the marker.

    She scowled at him. He’d probably still have said that even if they knew them all.

    “Now these,” he said, tapping several of the X’s with the capped marker, “are territories that the Dragon race is interested in acquiring.”

    Filia let her mouth fall open again. Those were exactly the territories that Cleon had shown her yesterday. She closed her mouth and narrowed her eyes. “Have you been spying on me?” she accused.

    “Of course,” Xellos said unabashedly. “But I didn’t find this out from spying on you.”

    “Oh really?” said Filia, who found this to be a likely story indeed. “Then how did you find out?”

    “From spying on other dragons,” Xellos said simply. He tapped her lightly on the nose with the capped marker. “Try not to be too jealous.”

    She let out a few incoherently angry sounds. What he should have said was ‘try not to want to murder me too much’ because that would honestly have been more appropriate.

    “Anyway,” Xellos said, cutting through the violent cloud encircling Filia, “the deal I’m offering you is this,” – he paused for a moment – “…you can have all of them,” he said with a theatrical shrug.

    “What?” Filia couldn’t help but spouting out. She hadn’t even expected to get one territory through rigorous negotiation, and now he was just going to give her all the ones she’d wanted? There had to be some kind of…

    “There is one catch,” Xellos said, holding up a finger.

    Filia glared at the ‘one condition’ finger. I’m not going to like this, am I?

    “The trade program with the humans you’ve been planning…” Xellos said, “…end it.”

    “What?” Filia said again.

    “If you’re willing to agree not to trade with the humans, then we will cede you these five territories,” Xellos explained patiently. “If not, there can be no deal between us.”

    Filia thought about this carefully. Coming back with all five territories would be a boon to the dragon race. Control of land meant new power… and it would be an unexpected acquisition of power considering the attitude they’d gone into the negotiation with. …On the other hand, trade could bring power too, and improving the dragon race’s relationship with the human race was one of the main objectives of the summit. Could they really abandon that?

    On the… other other hand, trading with humans could bring them a great deal of trouble. So many of the people she’d met at the summit wouldn’t be responsible trading partners. And even if the dragons blockaded them… they’d still find a way of acquiring dragon technology.

    On the… well, another thing to consider was that if the monsters didn’t want them to trade with the humans, it was probably a good idea to trade with the humans.

    She took a deep breath. “I…” she began, “I don’t have the authority to make that decision,” she said. “I’m sure you already know,” she said sharply to Mister Spies-on-people, “but opening trade with humans is very important to the dragon race right now.”

    Xellos shrugged. “Parts of it.”

    “When I get back to the temple I will relay your deal to the Supreme Elder,” she said. “This one is going to have to be his decision. But Xellos,” she said warningly. “I wouldn’t expect him to say yes if I were you.”

    He nodded. “Good enough,” he said.

    He steered her hurriedly back to the long table and guided her into a chair. She desperately tried not to look at his cape still spread out on the table. He folded his hands neatly over the table-top. “Now to the issue of the day,” he said energetically, “The Daius Seed.”

    Filia braced herself. This was the big one.

    “It seems clear to me,” Xellos said, “that the Daius Seed is an annoyance to both our races. To the dragons it’s a ticking time bomb, to the monsters, well, if it was activated it would make it impossible for us to get anything done. So we both agree that something much be done about it.”

    Filia nodded.

    We haven’t found any way of destroying it,” Xellos said. “I don’t suppose you dragons have come up with anything?” he asked with a clear expectation of the answer.

    “Not without accidentally activating it,” Filia said, shaking her head.

    “So, the thing to do then,” Xellos said, “would be to encase it in a powerful barrier. But which one between our two races should take the job?”

    She’d been thinking about that one long and hard the day before and was ready with her answer: “Both of us.”

    Xellos beamed at her. “That would solve a lot of our problems,” he said, grin still hanging around. “But can you find a dragon who’s willing to work with a monster?”

    “I’ll do it myself if I have to,” she said firmly.

    “Good to know,” Xellos said. “I’m sure you know that finding a dragon to whom the idea of working together actually occurs is quite rare.”

    “Oh, as if cooperation is the first thing on the Monster race’s agenda!” Filia shot back.

    “Well, the two of us have managed to cooperate fairly well,” Xellos said, sounding pleased. “In barely any time at all and with little difficulty we’ve managed to work through all the issues that would’ve had others of our number squabbling for hours.”

    “That’s it?” Filia asked in disbelief.

    “That’s it,” Xellos said. “Unless you had something else for the dragons?”

    “No,” Filia said, still reeling. How could it have possibly been this easy? she asked herself, then she caught his expression. “What are you smiling for now?” she asked sourly.

    “I was only thinking,” Xellos said. “And I think I have to admit that your Supreme Elder might have had a few other reasons for choosing you besides the one.”

    Filia scowled at him, but it was a weak scowl. She didn’t like him bringing that up again but… was that a compliment?

    “Speaking of which,” he began significantly.

    Filia felt a chill go down her spine. She’d thought she could avoid this, but oh no…

    He enveloped his hands around hers. “I believe an annoying clerk interrupted us last night?” he said.

    “He’s not—” Filia began. “Well, he’s not very—” she broke away again, not quite able to lie about the situation. “Well, he means well,” she settled on forcefully, wriggling her hands out of his grip. “Which is more than I can say about you.”

    “Oh really?” Xellos asked, snatching one of her hands back again and kissing it, though this time not on a part with a wound. “Then it’s a wonder why you prefer me.”

    “I don’t even like you,” she said, but without her customary venom and without withdrawing her hand.

    “But of the two of us,” Xellos said, pulling her closer to him so that she was practically off her seat, “which one of us have you been seeking out, and which one have you been trying to avoid?”

    “That’s just a coincidence,” Filia said weakly, as he pulled her onto his lap. One of his arms was snaked around her shoulders and the other was rubbing the hand in her own lap with his thumb.

    “It’s not,” Xellos said certainly, his hand moving along her shoulder.

    Filia tried to find something to use against him, but she was losing both the verbal and physical components of this argument. “At least Cleon loves me!” she struck out.

    “He does,” Xellos said wearily, pushing her off his lap and standing to face her. “And if you feel even the slightest thing for him in return, beyond pity, then go ahead: run to him.”

    All Filia could do was stand there.

    “That’s what I thought,” Xellos said.

    “Well, he does love me,” Filia snapped again. “And he’d say it if I asked him.”

    “I never said I didn’t love you,” Xellos said.

    That stopped Filia for a moment.

    “Oh come on!” Filia finally shouted. “You can’t have it both ways, Xellos!”

    “I don’t see why not,” Xellos said. “I’ve neither claimed to love you, nor denied loving you. Doesn’t that present you with an acceptable level of doubt?”

    Filia felt so frustrated with him. But at this point it wasn’t frustration that would lead to violence, but frustration that would lead to tears if it wasn’t curtailed. “I don’t want doubt!” she said in a voice that she knew sounded childish. “I want to be certain of things!”

    “How sad for you,” Xellos said without a trace of sympathy. “You dragons are great proponents of faith, aren’t you? Well, doubt is just faith from the other side. On some level, you doubt that I only want you for political convenience. So, on some level, you have faith that I want you because I care for you.”

    “Who could believe something so ridiculous?” Filia asked, anxiety heightening the pitch in her voice.

    You,” Xellos said, putting his hands on his shoulders and gently but firmly guiding her into a sitting position on the table.

    His hands left her shoulders, slid up her neck, and rested on either side of her face. And she realized she wasn’t just sitting on the table; she was sitting on his cloak. The very same cloak that she’d had the inescapable feeling that she’d wind up on top of before the meeting was over. I guess someone owes their supposed ‘stupid, over reactive’ imagination an apology…

    His eyes were open, violet and piercing into hers. And he was leaning over her so close that it was only a matter of time before…

    She fell backwards onto the table. She probably would’ve cracked her head painfully against the wood if Xellos hadn’t caught her head before the impact, and set her gently into the folds of his cloak.

    And maybe, she thought as he kissed her and toyed with the buttons on her dress, I do believe it. At least a little. But that might just be because I’d like to think that the same force that’s keeping me here is what’s drawing him to me.

    …He never said he didn’t love me
    , she thought in her own defense.

    …He never said…

    “Why?” she breathed out, the minute he broke contact.

    “Why what?” he asked.

    “Why can’t you say that you love me?” she asked.

    He gave a twisted little smile. “You’ve certainly recovered your self-esteem,” he said. “But is it right to assume—”

    “I don’t mean it like that,” Filia said in a slightly frustrated tone. It was hard to put together her thoughts in a coherent way with his hands on her. “I mean… if you don’t love me… then why wouldn’t you just say it anyway?”

    He gave her a blank look. “I don’t—” he began.

    “You don’t mind being dishonest!” she exclaimed. “Maybe you prefer half-truths, but that’s just because you feel clever using them. You wouldn’t shy away from a lie if it was more expedient. So why not just say you love me even if you don’t mean it?”

    “It would certainly make things easier for you,” Filia went on. “And you’ve had me so twisted around your little finger the last two days that I’d be dumb enough to believe it,” she admitted bitterly.

    “But you won’t say you love me,” Filia said fervently. “And the only reason I can think of why you won’t is because you’re afraid it’s true. You can deal with toying with my emotions and using me for political purposes; but loving me?” she said, her voice practically breaking at that point. “You can’t reconcile that with who you think you are.”

    He stared at her, and there was a special difference in his expression that only those who spent a lot of time around Xellos would pick up on. Because Xellos thought he knew people. He thought he had them pegged. He ran through conversations before they happened and knew exactly what he’d say and exactly how he’d act. But occasionally someone would say something he hadn’t expected and it would throw him. This was Xellos taken aback. This was Xellos unrehearsed.

    He reigned in his expression almost as quickly as he’d lost control of it. “Believe whatever it is you need to believe,” he said with an undertone of harshness in his voice.

    She reached up a hand to his face and pulled him down to her, lifting her head up to his ear.

    “You too,” she whispered, her own lips grazing his skin.

    It appeared, at that point, that the negotiations were well and truly over. And even as Xellos slid her out of her dress she couldn’t be entirely sure which one of them had won.

  22. #22
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    Chapter 22. He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not.

    Filia self-consciously picked up her dress from the sad little pile in the corner where Xellos had tossed it. He shouldn’t have done that. A dress like that is meant to be hung up or folded neatly. It was made of a high quality fabric. Now it’d be all wrinkled. It was… it was downright inconsiderate. And…

    …And maybe this wasn’t really what she should’ve been thinking about. But what could she say? She’d come to this summit an honorable, virtuous dragon, and now, just a few short days later, she’d brought eternal shame to her race. How do these things happen?

    And she should’ve felt guilty, but she didn’t. Not really. She felt a little scared, but not guilty.

    Doubt was as good as faith, he’d said. Well, she’d had both. For just a second, though, she’d been able to believe that he could love her. Then she knew for certain that he couldn’t. But then she’d thought again that he must. And… well, two out of three aint bad.

    There was a good chance that all this was just one of his mind games. ‘Do I love you or don’t I love you? I’ll never tell!’ But to be able to believe just for a moment that someone like Xellos, someone who was all that Xellos was and had done all the things that Xellos had, could actually be capable of loving her? That had been powerful. Irresistibly powerful.

    She’d never know. She changed her opinion every other minute. Sometimes faith was strong, sometimes doubt was strong, but she’d never know for sure.

    No… she would know for sure if… If he told her he loved her then she could be absolutely sure that he didn’t. Her mind couldn’t imagine him saying those words without them being dishonest. But yet, if he outright said he didn’t love her... then that would be for his benefit alone, and she’d know that to be a lie too.

    It struck her that in all this, she’d been so concerned about how Xellos felt toward her that she’d never bothered to consider whether she loved him or not. An easy answer would’ve come a few days ago, but not now. She wasn’t sure; which was just her subconscious’s way of telling her that she wasn’t ready for the answer yet.

    She finished buttoning up her dress. She really needed to say something. She could feel the silence pulling at her. But she didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know what came next.

    “that uh…” she began awkwardly, not turning around to look at him. “That doesn’t usually happen during negotiations, does it?”

    There was a thoughtful silence. “Not in my experience,” Xellos finally said.

    Her shoulders relaxed as she turned to face him. By all rights, he should’ve been strutting. He’d achieved… well, she couldn’t think of any greater victory he could have over her. Killing her certainly wouldn’t have topped it. That would’ve been easy. But seducing her? Winning her and having her under his power? He should’ve been bragging. He should’ve been smirking. But he wasn’t. That meant that he was worried. And the fact that he was worried made her feel a lot better about the situation.

    He caught her looking at him and she looked down. “You,” she began, talking just for the sake of talking, “you got my dress all wrinkled.”

    There was another silence, as though extensive calibration was going on. “Oh dear,” he said, starting to sound more like himself. “We wouldn’t want people spreading vicious lies about your character.”

    “That’s because you’d prefer them spreading vicious truths about my character!” Filia shot back.

    “Ex-actly!” Xellos said, and it felt like they’d got the old rhythm back, but something lurked underneath the familiar pattern and it would never go away. Perhaps it had been there all along.

    “Well,” Filia said, hand running up and down her arm awkwardly, “I suppose we should just…” – throw ourselves into each other’s arms again in a desperate effort to stop this feeling that we’re losing something that we’ve only just found – “…go then.”

    “Yes,” Xellos agreed. “We’ve been in here for awhile. I’m sure you’re eager to find out if your clerk friend still holds you in such high esteem.”

    “Don’t be such a jerk,” she said sourly, glaring at him as she walked over to the door and undid the latch. It was then that it occurred to her that the lock was on the inside. She could’ve left at any time. Xellos had never locked her in; he’d locked the rest of the world out.

    As they walked through the hall and the noise of the busy crowd echoed to greet them, Filia knew she had to ask something. It was something that was occupying a lot of her mind, but all the ways she could think of to ask it were unbearable. She had to disguise it or he’d know for sure just how much he’d won.

    “I’ll uh… I’ll talk with Cleon or Rasmus about getting a message sent to the Supreme Elder,” she said, trying to shift into a business-like voice, “about your offer on the territories. And then I’ll be able to tell you for sure either way.” She hadn’t been able to meet his eye through that last sentence, but she hoped he didn’t notice.

    He just watched her.

    “And,” she said, trying desperately to fill the silence, “we still have to seal up the Daius Seed. So…” she trailed off.

    He tapped his staff idly against the ground and said, in a maddeningly condescending tone: “Yes, Filia: we will be seeing each other again.” And then walked away.

    She stared at him as he walked away and cursed his ability to hear questions that hadn’t been asked.

    *****

    Filia strode through the lobby with apparent confidence. The general idea was for people to think: ‘Wow. Look at how confident that woman is. Why, I’m so struck by how obviously in-control of her destiny she is, that I can scarcely find time to notice her wrinkled dress, tussled hair, or how long she was in the negotiating room with that man, let alone draw any conclusions from these facts.’

    She hoped it was working. But she was pretty sure she saw Lopa wink at her from the open bar, and that was not a good sign at all.

    She located Cleon by searching for the meekest looking figure reeking of a crushed spirit. Some of the guilt she probably owed for sleeping with Xellos materialized.

    “Oh, um… hello again Miss Filia,” Cleon said, and she could tell by his crestfallen expression that her confident air had not distracted him from the facts as they were. “How uh… how did it go?” he asked, with a look that said he really didn’t want to know.

    ‘Amazingly’ would’ve been an extremely insensitive thing to say in the situation. “Pretty well, considering,” she said with almost manic cheerfulness to cover up for the all-kinds-of-bad that this social situation was made of. “We reached an understanding about the Daius Seed and will have the territorial issues worked out as soon as I can check something. He didn’t want to talk about anything else.” Well, she added to herself, not anything I’m going to tell you about.

    “Oh,” Cleon said. “But you were in there for a long—” He stopped. He mopped his brow with a handkerchief and appeared to decide to abandon this line of inquiry. “Anyway, we’ve gotten a message about the Pro-Human League while you were with… while you were negotiating.”

    Filia silently thanked Cleon for not putting scare quotes around the word ‘negotiating’, and now she was curious. “Have they been caught?” she asked.

    “Unfortunately not,” Cleon said. “They’ve taken refuge in Bulraez and their government will never turn the League over to the police. But they have released a statement about you. They’ve taken complete responsibility for all three attempts on your life.”

    Filia let out a breath. It’d been pretty clear they were responsible when they fled, but it was nice to have this all cleared up; though admittedly not as nice as having them behind bars.

    “Well, that’s that,” she said rubbing her forehead. “At least we know for sure.”

    “And Bulraez will have the dragon race to contend with,” Cleon reminded her, as if that would cheer her up.

    Filia clawed at her own hair in frustration. “There is no room for razing whole countries in our new foreign policy!” she insisted.

    “But they tried to kill you, Miss Filia,” Cleon said in a voice so concerned that it increased Filia’s guilt levels once again. “How could we not strike back against those who tried to harm one of our diplomats?”

    “Well that sounds very well and good, but if we just jump out there and start fighting how will that look to the rest of the—” she paused as if struck dumb. Oh my word. I’ve actually started thinking like a politician.

    She straightened up. This was all okay. She had to get a message out to the Supreme Elder anyway, and she’d just mention the problems swift justice could bring about in there. No problem.

    She looked around. “Where is Mister Rasmus?” she asked.

    “Oh,” Cleon said, now looking more uncomfortable than ever. “He was a little… out of sorts.”

    Filia nodded grimly. She’d seen the look of pure disgust on Rasmus’s face when she’d left with Xellos. He’d already jumped to the conclusion of what would happen in that negotiating room besides negotiating.

    “He went off to his room,” Cleon said. “He was… very angry; saying all sorts of horrible things that I wouldn’t care to repeat.”

    “I think I can imagine,” Filia said, burying her face in her hand. “Did the word ‘harlot’ come up?” she asked in a sort of detached way.

    “Four times, I’m afraid,” Cleon said miserably.

    Well that was it. That was just it. She had enough on her plate without having to deal with Rasmus’s never-ending disappointment in her. Where did he get off judging her for sleeping with Xellos? What, did he think he had the right just because that was an extremely judgable thing to do? Well she was done with him. She was damn sure that she wasn’t going to be treated that way.

    “You go and get him then,” she said, neglecting to add ‘because I’m certainly not going to’. A better thought struck her. “Wait. First get me a pen, paper, and an envelope.”

    He fished around for a pen and paper in his bag, and if Xellos had been there he would’ve made a ‘glorified secretary’ remark. Filia took the items from him and leaned against the table to write. She drafted out a letter to the Supreme Elder outlining Xellos’s offer of exchanging their trading policy for territory. She added her arguments both for and against it. Then towards the end she advised caution in dealing with the Pro-Human League, particularly if it involved outside parties. She signed it with flourish, and stuffed it into the envelope Cleon had offered.

    “Take this to Rasmus and tell him to deliver it to the Supreme Elder,” she said, passing the envelope to Cleon. “Since my assassins have fled I don’t have much need for a bodyguard, so he can be a courier instead.” Because if that’s going to be his attitude then I don’t want him around, she thought savagely. “I want to be able to get back to Xellos as quick as possible on this territory issue.” She ignored the weasely, disconcertingly Xellos-like voice in her head that snidely asked if that sentence would still be true without the ‘on this territory issue’ part.

    Cleon took the note and for a minute Filia was sure he was going to say something like: ‘Rasmus won’t like this’ which would force her to pull rank on him again. And she really didn’t want to snap at him after breaking his heart. But he just nodded and went off.

    Filia crumpled slightly, her shell of strength cracking now that there was no one around to bluff in front of. It was probably stupid to send Rasmus back to the temple now. He’d probably spread all kinds of rumors… and unfortunately not false ones. But she couldn’t stand the idea of having him around if he was going to treat her like an abomination. Someone had to go send the message, and it might as well be the person Filia really didn’t want to have to deal with anymore.

    Anyway, she thought angrily. Let him say whatever he wants at the temple. I don’t care.

    …That’s just because you’re mad, her common sense pointed out. You might regret this when you’ve calmed down a bit.

    I won’t!
    Filia thought back petulantly.

    Fine. You might regret it when they stone you for having sex with a demon.

    Filia just glared at the wall.

    “Miss Filia?” came a tentative voice.

    She looked up. Cleon had come back, still holding the envelope and looking extremely uncomfortable.

    “I just wanted to say…” he began, “that if the Supreme Elder asked you to… If you… for the dragon race…” He stopped, gave her a wretched look and tried again. “You didn’t have to…”

    Filia sighed. Cleon thought the best of her, which was why he was convinced that she’d selflessly surrendered her body to the enemy at the command of her leader and for the good of her people. It was much nobler sounding to him than the truth. But she wasn’t about to disillusion him. It would be cruel, and she’d been unintentionally cruel enough to him already.

    “Don’t worry about me,” she said kindly, but firmly. “Just get that letter to Mister Rasmus.”

    “Yes, Miss Filia,” he said, looking almost relieved not to have to more clearly articulate what he was thinking.

    She watched him leave again, her jaw set in determination.

    What I could really use right now, she decided, is a drink.

    She cast her eyes over to the open bar and caught sight of Queen Lopa and Duke Arkon, still enjoying a few drinks on the basis that it was five o’clock somewhere.

    And Filia realized there was something that might make her feel better than a drink.

    *****

    “Oh, hi there, Filia!” Queen Lopa said as Filia approached. “Just the girl we were talking about.”

    Filia took that as an extremely bad sign. She exchanged a grim look with Arkon.

    “We heard some cranky looking old dragon call you—” Lopa paused, tapped a manicured fingernail against her chin and said, “Well, a lot of things. But the main impression I got was that something besides discussion was going on in that negotiating room. Good job!”

    The fact that Rasmus’s not-so-glowing comments about her had been loud enough for the entire room to hear was just another column in the monument to Filia’s endless embarrassment over the whole situation. Hearing Lopa congratulate her on having an affair with a fellow diplomat was not doing anything for her mental health either.

    “You know what they say,” Lopa quipped as she sloshed around her wine glass, “politics make strange bedfellows.”

    Filia winced. Arkon gave her a look that said: ‘She’s got about five of these’.

    “I guess that you could say that you had diplomatic relations with—” Lopa began.

    “I actually had a question for the Duke, Miss Lopa,” Filia cut-in just a little too late.

    “Oh?” Lopa said, looking puzzled that anyone would want to talk to Arkon of all people when there were much juicer topics to discuss. “Carry on then, I guess,” she said, waving her hand. “I suppose we’ll have to save our girl talk for later.”

    Filia frowned, but put that in the category of ‘problems I don’t have to deal with right now’ and let it go. She turned to Arkon who was giving her his wary attention. She knew this was going to be awkward, but she had to ask now. It might not spell out an absolute, but it would give her some peace of mind.

    “It’s… well, it’s fairly common knowledge that you two are… in a political relationship,” she said carefully.

    Lopa nodded. “That’s true,” she said. “Arcet and Renz are trading partners so we frequently… collaborate on matters of state.”

    “But it’s also common knowledge that you two are…” Filia wilted for a moment under the stony glare from Arkon, “…otherwise involved.”

    There was a crowded silence.

    “I think she means that we’re having sex,” Lopa said in a stage whisper to Arkon.

    “I got her meaning, Lopa,” Arkon said harshly.

    “Look, I know it’s none of my business,” Filia said, looking down from Arkon’s expression that agreed with this. “But I need to know: Your Grace, do you love her?”

    Lopa suddenly looked extremely interested in her wine glass, or at least, more interested than she’d been before. Arkon gave her a look of pure suspicion.

    “What is this?” he asked. “Did Ottovan put you up to this?”

    “No,” Filia said. “No one’s asked me to. I just need to know. You two have diplomatic reasons for being together and I don’t want to judge, but I think that would be fine for both of you. But I want to know if that’s the only reason. I can’t tell you why, but it’s extremely important to me. Do you love her?”

    Lopa ran her finger around the rim of her glass as though to indicate that, against all reason, she wasn’t paying any attention to the conversation going on before her eyes. Arkon gave her a sidelong glance and then looked back at Filia as if utterly taken aback by the directness of her question.

    Finally he said in a quiet, sullen sort of voice: “Yes.”

    The universe tried this answer on for size.

    Lopa looked up from her glass. “Of course, we’re practical people, so yes or no doesn’t matter to me,” she said. But she smiled a smug little smile nonetheless.

    And Filia smiled too. This didn’t prove anything, and she’d probably never be certain, but there was this:

    Love or politics? Can’t it be both?

    Yes. Yes it most certainly can.

  23. #23
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    Chapter 23. Ruined.

    After having batted off Lopa’s more embarrassing personal questions, Filia had finally ditched the crowd. All she wanted now was to go to her room and lie down. She couldn’t stand being around other people now, not with everything that was swirling around inside her head. She just wanted a little peace.

    But she couldn’t go back to her room; not yet. If she went, she’d risk running into Rasmus, and she didn’t want to have to deal with him. She wanted to keep away from there until Cleon found her and told her that Rasmus was gone; then she could crawl into her room and escape for a little while; maybe figure things out.

    But there was no escape yet. Maybe Rasmus was being difficult. So, deciding that she at least had to sit down, Filia found a nook in a less populated hallway, and sat down.

    She didn’t know whether to try to think or to try not to think. Maybe if she could just string a couple thoughts together then this whole thing wouldn’t be as confusing as it was. Then again, maybe if she strung a few thoughts together she’d realize what trouble she was really in.

    And she still didn’t feel guilty! That was the thing of it. Even after she’d had all this time to reflect on it, even after hearing about Rasmus’s rant, and even after seeing Cleon’s face. Sure, she felt bad for hurting Cleon, but she didn’t intrinsically feel that what she and Xellos had done was wrong. While it had been happening it had all seemed so… clear that that was the right thing to do.

    Which was crazy. And might have been a sign that she’d completely thrown out her moral compass and just didn’t care anymore. But this didn’t feel like… stealing.

    Maybe she did love him. Maybe she didn’t feel bad because she’d acted out of love.

    But what sane person could honestly fall in love with that evil, manipulative, obnoxious, arrogant, no good—

    She realized at this point that she was standing again and clenching her fists. She self-consciously sat back down.

    How did he always do that to her? He could rile her without even doing anything, damn him!

    But it had always been like that. Now that she came to think about it, even when she’d hated him… or at least only hated him, she probably had expounded more thought and more energy on him than any single other person in her life. She’d… she’d cared about him more.

    Of course, most of that caring had involved desperately wanting to knock the smug out of him, preferably with something both heavy and sharp. But it was a sort of caring, nonetheless.

    She wondered if it had started out that way with him too. She was absolutely sure that when they first met he couldn’t stand her. But, while things had never been friendly between them (uh… at least before the negotiation room incident), there had been a… change in how he treated her.

    All that negative energy between them… how did the desire to tear each other limb from limb transform into…?

    Good Lord, Filia thought with a detached sort of horror, what kind of people are we? I mean, Xellos has an excuse: he’s a demon. But I’m at least supposed to be above dark and dangerous obsessions.

    And Xellos thought she was attracted to danger…

    It had to be something like… like magnets. Like charges repel. Cleon was disturbingly similar to how she’d behaved when she’d just gotten out of the temple (although she liked to think she was less sweaty), and she had absolutely no interest in him; Xellos had gotten that right at least. Unlike charges attract. Could you get more opposite than a dragon and a monster? Than a priestess and a murderer?

    This pull between them… the fusion magic… all of it. Could it all be because they were so deeply, fascinatingly, different from each other than they couldn’t help but be drawn to one another? It sounded like the type of things that stories were made of.

    She folded her arms. No. It would’ve sufficed as an explanation, but the more she thought about it, the more dissatisfied she was with it. Maybe it said something, but it just wasn’t enough.

    Because when she thought about it, it didn’t go all the way to the core. Opposites, were they? True opposites… not exactly. By that logic they should’ve been as far apart along the spectrum as it was possible to be. Filia had once believed herself to be as virtuous as the temple had brought her up to be. But she couldn’t be pure as light. She wasn’t even sure if she wanted to be.

    And a priestess in this fairy-tale union on dark and light would have to be as pure as light. A priestess like that wouldn’t disobey her people to raise the last of a race they’d called enemy; a priestess like that wouldn’t be willing to play politics with a bunch of criminals just because they could claim royalty; a priestess like that wouldn’t quit being a priestess; and if a priestess like that did sleep with Xellos – because of the aforementioned principle of opposites – she would at least have the decency to be ashamed of herself.

    And if Xellos thought he was in the deep end of evil – which she wasn’t even entirely sure he did at this point – then he was dead wrong. Certainly, he was all those despicable things that she’d called him before. But he nevertheless managed to crack jokes, protect people he needed to, and save the freaking world on one occasion. Sure, he did those things for the wrong reasons, but Filia reflected that her sins had been committed for the right reasons. That didn’t make the things she did less wrong, and by that token, Xellos’s darkly motivated deeds still carried as much good.

    They weren’t really opposites when you looked carefully. They were both nearer to the center… and nearer to each other. Which was… amazing when she thought about it.

    Is it… she thought, almost dumbfounded; is it okay if I love him?

    Of course it’s not
    , logic kicked in. You can’t even say for sure if he loves you. And whatever the case, he’s not going to miss an opportunity to use a connection to you. If you’re not very careful you could end up endangering your entire race. And you saw Rasmus’s reaction. Do you think it’s going to be easy when he gets to the temple and everyone finds out what you’ve done? You’ve committed the biggest taboo in history! Your people will shun you and spit at the sound of your name at the very least, and kill you at the most. And don’t think you’ll be any safer when it comes to Xellos’s crowd. Those monsters will cut you down as soon as you stop being useful.

    Yes
    , Filia thought. But that’s all… outside stuff. I can’t control that. I meant… is it okay with me if I love him? Could I be okay with that?

    She stood up, as if in a dream, and began to walk down the hallway.

    She was going on. She wasn’t going to walk on eggshells anymore. And if she ran into Rasmus or anyone else along the way, what of it? Who cared what they thought? They hadn’t been there from the beginning. They didn’t know.

    But Filia was pretty sure she knew. And the surprising thing was that she was okay about it. She was finally okay.

    *****

    Filia strode down the hall on a rush of newfound self-acceptance. At this point she almost wished she’d run into Rasmus with his letter. Then she could tell him off. She really wanted to tell someone off, and for once, Xellos would not have been her first choice. Telling Rasmus what she thought of his high-and-mighty attitude wouldn’t really be closure, because if anyone at the temple found out what had happened between her and Xellos, it would be just the beginning of that kind of treatment. But it would have at least made her feel better to shout at him a bit in the here and now.

    She walked up to the room Cleon and Rasmus shared and was surprised to see the door open. Did that mean Rasmus had already left and she’d be denied the chance to confront him? …It seemed kind of careless for a bodyguard to leave his hotel door open. Maybe that had been Cleon. Goodness knew he was distracted lately.

    The light was off, and the thick line of trees outside the window meant that the room was somewhat dark even though it was barely midday.

    She took a hesitant step forward. “Is anyone in there?” she called. “Mister Cleon? Mister Rasmus?”

    When no answer came back she slowly sidestepped the door, careful not to brush against it and cause it to creak open even further, and quietly walked into the room. She gasped as she turned the corner.

    “Mister Cleon!” she cried, running up to the prone dragon’s side.

    He wasn’t moving. He was breathing, but he was otherwise still and completely unresponsive. A tiny puddle, barely more than a trickle, of blood was by his head, staining her hand as she reached out to him.

    She drew back in horror. “What’s going on?” she asked in a shaken voice. “Who did this to you?”

    She didn’t have much time to contemplate this, as an arm shot around her neck, banging against her throat so hard that her vision was clouded by scorching navy spots for a moment. She coughed.

    “You just had to ruin everything, didn’t you? You and that monster,” hiss a voice in her ear. It was an angry voice and desperate too. Gruff and horrifyingly familiar.

    “Rasmus?” Filia croaked out, against the hold choking away at her throat. “What are you doing? What have you done to Cleon?”

    “Just put him to sleep for a little while. I don’t think he’s dead,” Rasmus said in a tone of barely suppressed rage. “But then again, who cares? He’s just like you and that so-called Supreme Elder when you get down to it. All of you are trying to degrade the good name of dragon. I won’t allow it. Not anymore.”

    Filia struggled just to keep breathing. She couldn’t take this. She’d finally thought she was safe and now…

    “I had it all planned out so carefully,” Rasmus said, the edge in his voice getting sharper as his grip around her tightened. “As soon as the new Supreme Elder rigged his way into the job, I knew something must be done. And when he announced his plans to send a diplomat to the human world summit… I knew I couldn’t wait any longer.”

    “Imagine,” Rasmus practically spat derisively. “Dragons kowtowing to monsters, relying on weak and worthless humans, and trading our secrets for their rubbish. A true dragon could never allow this!”

    “All I needed,” Rasmus said, anguish rising in his voice, “was one spark. Anything to throw the unrest of the dragon community into a call to war. Even the new Supreme Elder wouldn’t be able to stop it. Only a war with the monsters could bring us back to what we always should have been.”

    Filia swallowed laboriously. She was being held against her will by a crazy person. Anyone who wanted to restart the War of the Monsters Fall had to be out of their mind. She hoped none of the foam that must’ve been shooting out of his mouth would end up in her hair.

    “If the monsters killed the diplomat sent out to accomplish all those awful things, it would solve everything,” Rasmus went on fervently. “The Supreme Elder’s policies would be destroyed and war between our races would recommence.” An angry silence followed. “But I couldn’t rely on the monsters to do that. Both our races have clung onto life so long that we’ve forgotten our principles: forgotten that the only way we can deal with one another is through warfare.”

    Filia couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She thought it had been all neatly sorted out. How could Rasmus have been… “The Pro-Human League—”

    Ha!” Rasmus barked with venom. “Those clowns almost destroyed the entire thing before it was off the ground with their interference. Bad luck and intrusions have dogged me this entire time. First there was that old commander. I hadn’t counted on him being there. The old man can probably smell cyanide a mile away. Then there were those trigger-happy Pro-Human Leaguers. And worst of all Xellos. He’s been on to me since the poisoning, and has succeeded, along with your half-wit assistance, in bringing down the entire plan.”

    “He… does that,” Filia barely managed to get out against the pressure on her throat.

    “And you’re proud of that, are you?” Rasmus asked, sounding utterly incensed now. “As much as I’d love to kill you, it wouldn’t do me any good anymore. You and Xellos and those Pro-Human Leaguers saw to that.”

    Filia tried to see this as a good sign through her haze of pain and fear. At least it meant she wouldn’t be dying… yet.

    “Those damn Pro-Human Leaguers,” Rasmus growled. “How could I possibly sell these assassination attempts as plots of the monster race to the other dragons with those idiots claiming responsibility? One lousy shot. All they were responsible for was one lousy shot. They’re just out to bolster their reputations now.”

    That sparked a recollection in Filia’s mind. “But you saved me!” she shouted in disbelief. “You took a bullet for me!”

    “Yes,” Rasmus said sourly. “Because a war with some fanatic human group means nothing to me. I needed to kill you and frame the monsters for your death. I couldn’t do that if you were gunned down by some speciestist sniper.”

    It was twisted, it was insane, but somehow it worked. And Filia had trusted him so much after he took that shot. She hadn’t counted on the fact that he’d been saving her to kill her himself.

    “Getting shot was a major set-back,” Rasmus grimaced. “But at least asking for extra medical care was a good alibi.”

    Another remembrance shot through Filia’s brain. “You were pretending to be more hurt than you were that whole time!” she declared, slightly numbed. “Xellos said you were taking too long…”

    “That’s because he was paying attention,” Rasmus said, in a tone suggesting that paying attention should be punishable by death. And even if the Pro-Human Leaguers hadn’t interfered, even if their claims could be refuted, that monster has destroyed my plan beyond salvaging.”

    “I knew, I knew,” Rasmus said, almost as if scolding himself. “I knew something wasn’t right the moment I saw you two. Too… close. But how could I have possibly guessed the unspeakable truth? I thought you were a know-nothing pawn of the Supreme Elder, just like Cleon, but I couldn’t believe that you were that much of a disgrace.”

    Filia would’ve pointed out that trying to murder people and frame others for it to start, of all things, a war is pretty disgraceful in and of itself. But it hurt to talk and she was certain the comment wasn’t worth the reaction.

    “How could I possibly frame him for your death?” he asked. “When it became ridiculously clear as each day went past that you two were involved? It got to the point where absolutely no one close to you would have believed it.”

    “We weren’t involved,” Filia choked out.

    …At that time.

    “You’re lying,” Rasmus said firmly. “And after what you’ve done I wouldn’t expect you to be above lying. I wouldn’t expect you to be above anything.”

    “Of all the diplomats that could have been chosen, the Supreme Elder picks the one dragon low enough to throw her lot in with a monster,” Rasmus said bitterly. “Knowing him, I’m assuming it wasn’t a coincidence. I suppose it’s not enough that our species has already gotten screwed by them, you just had to literally—”

    “Shut up,” Filia ordered in a strangled voice.

    “You’re in no position to make demands,” Rasmus said. “There’s no way I can salvage my plan now, but I’ll be damned if I let the dragon race fall to dishonorable dragons like you and the Supreme Elder. So all I have left is one final plan. And for that I need you.”

    Filia closed her eyes. She had a feeling that when her usefulness was over, then so would be her life.

    “Where is the Daius Seed?” Rasmus asked in a low voice. “Cleon said you knew where it was. So tell me!”

    Filia cried out as his grip tightened around her neck. She didn’t know what he wanted with that information, but there was no way she could help someone like him; even if she had to give up her life.

    “Now why would a dragon want to know that?” a familiar voice from nowhere asked.

    “X-Xellos?”

    “You?” Rasmus spat, looking around the room for the source of the voice. “Stay out of this! It doesn’t concern you!”

    “Oh, I’m pretty sure it does considering all the effort you’ve put into trying to frame me,” Xellos said, appearing out of thin air. “Though I suppose it was a bit careless of me to interrupt your little monologue.”

    “I will not allow this!” Rasmus shouted. “With the Daius Seed I can stop the campaign you and this girl have cooked up. Peace between the dragons and the monsters? Your blood should boil at that prospect! That, at least, we should have in common!”

    “What you don’t seem to grasp, Mister Rasmus,” Xellos said, as though making a polite correction, “is that peace is just preparation for war. Diplomacy is just a different way of twisting the knife in. Peace can be much more vicious and unforgiving than war could ever dream of being. And in many ways it’s more satisfying. If you don’t believe me, then you should read your race’s own history. It’s full of colorful examples of just what I’m talking about.”

    “I’m not going to listen to this,” Rasmus hissed. “You can’t fool me as easily as you can fool her.”

    “Well, whatever the case,” Xellos said, scratching at his hair, “I don’t see how the Daius Seed is supposed to help you accomplish your goals.”

    “The Daius Seed is an object of unlimited potential,” Rasmus explained in a frustrated tone. “With its power I can restart the war.”

    “Oh! You’ve fallen for the story that it’s a wish granter!” Xellos said, clapping his fist into his hand.

    “I haven’t fallen for the fiction that your kind and the Supreme Elder have concocted because you don’t want anyone to use it, if that’s what you mean,” said Rasmus coldly.

    “And what if you’re wrong about it?”

    Rasmus took a deep breath. “I’d rather destroy causality than see a world where dragons are subservient to monsters.”

    Xellos leaned his index finger against his brow and made some clucking noises with his tongue. “Oh dear,” he said. “Another dragon with a messiah complex.”

    “What?”

    “Nothing,” Xellos said, and the cheerful pantomime was broken as he opened his eyes and gave Rasmus a calculating look. “So, I suppose this is the part where you threaten to kill her if I don’t tell you the location of the Daius Seed?” he asked, as though Rasmus was tiresome and predictable.

    Filia had a strange realization that she’d been held hostage by both men in the room. Ironically enough, she’d been treated more gently the time with Xellos. Though in this case, ‘gently’ just means that he didn’t nearly strangle her every five seconds.

    “I wouldn’t dream of it,” Rasmus answered.

    “Oh?” Xellos said, raising an eyebrow.

    “It wouldn’t make a difference what I threatened to do to her. This idiot girl may not have figured it out, but I know you’re only using her. It would be a waste of my time to try to get the answer out of you,” Rasmus explained bitterly. “But I’ll get her to tell me herself in the end.”

    “Are you sure?” Xellos asked. “You should know that she has a lot of really stupid noble ideas in her head.”

    “She either tells me or she dies!” Rasmus screeched.

    Really stupid,” Xellos emphasized.

    Filia was feeling insulted. Keeping your mouth shut so the world doesn’t turn into a nightmare from which there is no awakening is not a stupid noble idea. It’s a smart one! Anyone could see that.

    Xellos sighed. “You know Veize?”

    Filia felt Rasmus’s grip on her relax slightly. “Yes,” he said hesitantly.

    “There used to be a little shrine there on top of a mountain that looked like—” Xellos paused. “Well, it was a very distinct looking mountain. Anyway, running around that mountain is Kipler River. Along that river is a system of caves.”

    “And?”

    “And that,” Xellos said. “Is Valgaav’s old base camp. Where the teleportation device to the former site of the Pillar of Light is.”

    “Xellos no!” Filia shouted, trying in vain to escape from Rasmus’s grip.

    Rasmus looked doubtfully from Filia to Xellos. “You’re telling the truth,” he said almost disbelievingly.

    “The whole truth,” Xellos agreed wholeheartedly. “The place where the Daius Seed stands is too far away and too destabilized for even we that can teleport to reach in one go. The teleportation device is broken, and will only take you part of the way. You’ll have to fly the rest.”

    Rasmus hesitated for a moment, and then vanished in a flash of gold, leaving Filia to fall to the floor, gasping for air and clutching her neck.

  24. #24
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    Chapter 24. Memory Lane.

    Filia coughed several times, trying to get some life back into her airway after it had almost been crushed by Rasmus. “Xellos, you—” she began, staggering to her feet. “You idiot!” she screeched, rising up to her full height, fists clenched by her side.

    Xellos stared at her. “Excuse me?” he said in his ‘Oh, I know I didn’t hear you right’ tone.

    Filia glowered at him. What had he expected? For her to gush ‘My hero!’ and throw her arms around him? In his dreams!

    “How could you just tell him how to get to the Daius Seed?” she raged, storming over to him.

    “Well, pardon me for saving your life,” he said unrepentantly.

    “My life?” Filia repeated angrily. “You know what’ll happen when he gets to that thing! It would’ve been better for me to die then for that to happen!”

    She paced off to the side of the room, almost in a daze. Impending doom was approaching; and not even the kind she was familiar with. “It’s all over,” she said almost numbly to herself. “A complete breakdown of the rules of the universe. It’ll be nothing but nonsense from here on out!”

    She turned around to face him, arms flailing expressively in the air as she really worked herself into a lather. “Rabbits in waistcoats! Smoking caterpillars! Anthropomorphic playing cards! Complete and utter chaos!” Her hands pressed against the side of her face.

    Suddenly her expression sharpened and she glared at Xellos. “You like chaos!” she reproached, rounding on him.

    “Well, admittedly that’s true, but—” Xellos began, holding up his hands in a placatory way.

    “You meant to tell him this whole time!” Filia declared, her fists clenched as though she was ready to box. “Didn’t you?”

    “Easy,” Xellos said, taking a half-step back before he realized he was doing it. Such was the power of Filia’s tears-to-towering-rage mood swings. “The general idea is that chaos should be a little less… whimsical,” he tried to explain. “I never really intended to tell him.”

    Filia’s rage lessened and she seemed to shrink back to her normal size. “Well, now he knows,” she said almost sulkily. “And once he gets there, there won’t be anything anyone can do about it.”

    “And, maybe if you stopped throwing an immature fit, you’d realize we still have a chance to catch him,” Xellos prodded.

    “Oh, get serious!” Filia said, gritting her teeth. She’d noted the ‘immature’ part. “He’s already teleported! Sure, he still has to fly to the Daius Seed, but so would we! We’d never catch up!”

    “If you’ll recall,” Xellos said, holding up his index finger in his standard lecturing pose, “Valgaav’s old base is a rather labyrinthine system of caves. We’ve been there before; Rasmus hasn’t. We not only have a chance of catching him, but of beating him to the Daius Seed.”

    Filia stopped. Now that she thought about it… that did make sense. There might be a chance yet.

    “Come on,” Xellos said, holding out a hand. “You dragons are terribly inefficient teleporters.”

    Filia ignored that little slight. If they were going to catch Rasmus then they had to hurry. But…

    She cast her eyes over to where Cleon still lay unconscious on the floor, blood dripping from his head.

    She approached him, knelt over him, and held out her hands, letting a peaceful golden glow pass through her and to him.

    “I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that we don’t have much time,” Xellos reminded, still holding out his hand.

    “Quiet,” Filia said. “I’m just going to heal his wound really quick. I don’t want him to bleed to death. Anyway… it’s my fault this happened to him.”

    Xellos gave this due consideration. “N-ooo,” he finally said. “I think it was Mister Rasmus’s fault for bludgeoning him.”

    “But I sent him to talk to Rasmus,” Filia said, completing her spell. The bleeding stopped. Cleon’d wake up with a headache, but he’d be alright.

    “Oh, well then, pardon me,” Xellos said. “I guess it is your fault.”

    “Shut up!” Filia snapped, getting up.

    She turned to him, still angry but knowing they both had a dragon to catch, and took his hand. He smiled, gripped her hand more tightly, and pulled her in close to him.

    And then the world disappeared.

    *****

    When the world reappeared it was much darker and rockier. Also Filia was fighting the urge to throw up.

    “What is wrong with you?” she shrieked, breaking away from him and catching her breath. “At least when dragons teleport they do it so nobody gets sick!”

    “Right,” Xellos said, unperturbed. “Inefficiently.”

    She scowled at him. It would serve him right if she threw up on his stupid shoes. But they didn’t have time for that at the moment. They had to beat Rasmus to the Daius Seed.

    “See?” Xellos said, gesturing at the rock formations with his staff. “There are many passageways he could’ve taken. But we know the right ones.”

    “We’d better hurry anyway,” Filia said, placing a hand on his outstretched arm. “There’s always a chance he found the way. Dragons have very good intuition.”

    “Oh, I’ve seen your ‘intuition’,” Xellos said. “And I’m not worried.”

    “Is that so?” Filia said through gritted teeth, removing her hand quickly from his arm. “Well then, let’s just get going then.” She stomped off to a passageway, arms pumping angrily.

    “Filia,” he called idly.

    “What?” she exploded, turning around.

    “It’s that passage,” he said, pointing with his staff to the cavern next to the one Filia had been about to go down.

    She looked at the passage, then she looked back at him with a scowl. “I knew that,” she said petulantly. “I was just… making my way there.”

    “Of course,” Xellos said, walking up to her. “And now I think that we had really better move quickly. I’m sure Mister Rasmus must be hurrying now, especially since he’s probably heard your shrill voice echoing through the caverns.”

    My voice?” Filia shot back. “You’re going to criticize my voice when you—”

    “Let’s get going,” Xellos said calmly, urging her into the tunnel.

    *****

    Filia was experiencing an terrible sense of déjà vu. She’d passed through these tunnels with Xellos before under different circumstances. Of course, she’d been mad at him then too, but some things probably never change.

    She’d been so… she’d been muttering angrily to herself about the indignity of being forced into the company of one of the world’s chief abominations. It had been an unpleasant time. All she could do was give him dirty looks and occasionally pout to herself in a teary-eyed way. While he on the other hand, acted almost savagely polite to her. The monster.

    At that time, they’d been trying to retrieve Mister Gourry’s sword of light after Jillas had stolen it and… trying to find answers about Valgaav, Almayce, and the Dark Star weapons. Well, she’d been trying to do those things. Xellos was trying to find Valgaav and offer him a place on the monster race’s side by bribing him with Lina Inverse’s death and, failing that, kill him. You know, all in a day’s work for a servant of darkness.

    Now they were trying to stop a rogue dragon (okay, that part was kind of similar) from unleashing the kind of chaos that Xellos didn’t approve of onto the world – the kind of chaos that makes destruction hard to get done. And things were so much more… complicated between them.

    She nearly gasped as they stepped into a larger chamber. This was the place, she thought as she stared at the dozens of man-sized stalactites hanging precariously overhead; the place where Xellos fought Valgaav.

    She didn’t know what to feel. At first she couldn’t even look at Xellos. Even in the depths of her hatred for him she’d have given most anything to forget the brutality she’d seen from him in that place. Whenever she thought of it she… it was almost like she couldn’t even hate him; like hate was suddenly too hot; too intimate of an emotion to have with him. It made her want to cry.

    But yet… she couldn’t keep her eyes from being drawn to a crushed stalactite that had smashed against the ground and now lay as rubble. That could very well have been the one that nearly killed her; the one that Xellos had whisked her away from just in time, interrupting his fight with Valgaav, which should have been his number one priority.

    Of course, this act had been a little hard to appreciate at the time considering he’d dropped her after that. Then he’d let loose with some explanation about him trying to surprise Valgaav. Because it’s perfectly normal to move from completely heartless, sadistic behavior one minute to life-saving and practical joke level stunts the next minute.

    Come to think of it… the battle had all gone wrong for Xellos shortly after that. He’d been winning beforehand.

    Even then he’d saved her. Even in the midst of the horrible revelation of his true nature. It was the contrast that was most startling… to be capable of two such disparate acts.

    And that was long ago. That was before all the time they’d spent together at the summit. That was before they were meant to really work together. That was before he’d embroiled himself in the mystery of the plot against her life. That was before they’d become… involved.

    And he’d still saved her. Thinking of it like that… it almost seemed like the summit wasn’t important; like he would’ve tracked her down for the rest of her life; coming to her shop, occasionally breaking things, teasing her, and daring her to decide whether he loved her or not.

    …But… maybe she was being overly sentimental. It turned out he had needed her later on as a user of holy magic to fuse powers with. Maybe he just considered it… wasteful to let her die.

    But now because he’d saved her again the Daius Seed might go active, which was something that the monster race did not want. Even if he still thought that they could get there before Rasmus… that was a pretty risky decision. Had he made it in bias?

    …Which led back to the same old question…

    Are we really lovers or is this just a tactical move for him? Filia asked, feeling irritation welling within her.

    She was seized by a slightly irrational thought. If we’re lovers then we should be able to hold hands.

    She chided herself. He wasn’t really the kind for that whether he had feelings for her or not. Anyway, it would be too weird for both of them.

    And then a stubborn voice nudged her. Do it anyway, it said. Just to see Mister Expects-Everything’s reaction.

    She reached over, trying to feel no fear, but nevertheless feeling it, and clasped his hand. She had to remind herself that she was doing this to look for his reaction and turning away in embarrassment would defeat that purpose.

    He looked surprised for a moment; that was unmistakable. Then he laced his fingers through hers. His hand had been cold when she first touched it, but now it was warming.

    “Bad memories?” he asked, looking ahead.

    “Well, you should know,” Filia retorted.

    “We’re almost there,” was all he said.

    They walked along in their awkward, hand-holding, not-really-sure-where-we-stand kind of way. Filia stared at the ground. Xellos watched her out of the corner of his eye.

    Finally they reached the teleportation device. Xellos left Filia in the center of the teleportation area. It seemed horribly strange not to be holding hands anymore; like she could still feel the phantom of his hand in hers.

    As Xellos walked over to the device to activate it, Filia let her hopes rise. The last time they’d been there, they’d had Jillas to fix and operate the mechanism. Maybe the device was too complicated. Maybe Rasmus wouldn’t be able to figure out how to make it work.

    But that hope was dashed as Xellos clicked a rather obvious looking switch and joined her by the teleportation area.

    “You think Rasmus has already been here?” she asked.

    Xellos shrugged. “I can’t tell by the mechanism, if that’s what you’re asking.”

    Filia hesitated. “Because if he hasn’t been here already, we could just—”

    “We could destroy the device,” Xellos allowed. “But we don’t know if he’s been here or not. And we can’t chase him if we break it.”

    “I know you’re right,” Filia said grimly as she felt herself fade, pulled to a distant place over the sea.

    “Transform as soon as we reappear,” Xellos advised.

    Filia nodded, and, for the second time that day, felt herself vanish.

    *****

    The stomach-dropping sensation of falling was instantly erased with the soaring joy of flight, as the gold sparks left her and she emerged fully transformed. Normally she might have experienced some dread over the necessary nudity-laden transformation process, but well… it was a bit late now to worry about that.

    She flapped her wings through the open air. It was colder than the cave, though less clammy, but it was still a relief after the stale air of the cave.

    Xellos flew beside her, looking deceptively small and crushable.

    “Hey, Xellos,” she said, because she knew he was cooking up a size or weight-based insult to hurl at her and she wasn’t going to have any of that.

    “Hmm?”

    “I’ve been thinking,” she said, “everyone thought that the Pro-Human League was the group that kept trying to kill me… but it was really Rasmus all along…”

    “They were a rather obvious scapegoat,” Xellos commented.

    “But even you were watching them,” Filia pointed out.

    “Yes,” Xellos allowed. “They were obviously behind the shooting attempt on your life. But at that point I already suspected Mister Rasmus was connected to the poisoning attempt. After the league’s clumsy attempt, it was hard for anyone involved to search for a more careful, lone assassin.”

    “But when you were talking to Vitrain,” Filia said, trying to get the facts in order, “you were saying how I wouldn’t be someone they’d want to kill. I mean, I know they hate non-humans, but the way you were telling it, it just seemed kind of stupid to target me.”

    “It was, and they are,” Xellos said. “Tell me, Filia, what did you find when you preformed your illegal and extremely reckless search of Mister Vitrain’s room?”

    “A gun and some bullets,” Filia said.

    Xellos held up a finger. “What kind of bullets?”

    Filia thought back. “Silver bullets,” she said slowly.

    “Exactly,” Xellos said. “Can you think of a diplomat attending the summit that would make a better target for the Pro-Human League. Someone with a weakness for silver, perhaps?”

    Filia gasped. “You mean… Lycristy?”

    “It’s a legendary weakness of werewolves,” Xellos affirmed. “Not that a silver bullet through the heart doesn’t usually kill a human too,” he added.

    “So… they didn’t even mean to shoot me?” Filia asked, mind reeling.

    “You weren’t their original target,” Xellos said. “Miss Lycristy was scheduled to speak after you. I don’t know if the gunman they hired was stupid enough to lose count and blind enough not to see that you had less hair than expected, but there you go. My guess is that the gunman was a zealot who was angered enough by the prospect of non-humans at the conference that he took matters into his own hands and shot the first non-human that took the stage.”

    Filia thought this over. Well, the Pro-Human League had seemed like an overly zealous band of disorganized hotheads. Clearly they’d given one of their most zealous, disorganized hotheads a gun. Good management.

    “But they took credit for all the attempts,” Filia pointed out.

    “Well, that looks better, doesn’t it?” Xellos asked. “Better at least then saying: ‘Yeah, we only tried to kill her one out of the three times, and we didn’t even mean to do it’, at least. Anyway, they bit off more than they could chew when they tangled with you, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t benefit them in unexpected ways.”

    “Like what?” Filia asked.

    “You and I both know that the dragon race is not exactly beloved by the human race. But few would actually pick a fight with a short-fuse, violent race like that.”

    Filia dearly wanted to laser-breath him out of the sky, but she realized that would prove his point. Plus he’d probably dodge, the creep.

    “They may have picked a foe that was too strong for them. They may have picked a foe that they never would’ve been able to kill with the resources they had available. They may have picked a foe that was from a race that could crush them like insects,” Xellos said. “But they did get press. People were talking about their group. People wanted to join them. Most importantly: people were donating money.”

    “They ended up raking in a lot of notoriety and money by targeting you,” Xellos said, lounging in the air as they flew on. “Much more than they would’ve gotten from taking down the likes of Miss Lycristy. She just wasn’t as high profile as you. She couldn’t generate the interest you did; she couldn’t generate the controversy that you could; she couldn’t look as stunning in a low-cut linen dress as you could.”

    Filia nearly fell mid-air, just out of surprise. She blushed and said in a weak, but nevertheless sardonic tone: “That helped, did it?”

    “Never underestimate the power of cleavage to incite conflict,” Xellos said sagely.

    “I’ll keep that in mind,” Filia said dryly.

    “Did you ever find out who gave you the dress?” Xellos asked.

    “You mean, you don’t know?” Filia asked. “I thought you saw everything that went on.”

    “I suppose I was a little too busy keeping an eye on both your body-guard and the Pro-Human League to solve the mystery of your wardrobe,” Xellos said in an ‘I can’t do everything, woman!’ tone.

    Well, he had answered her questions. “Lopa,” she said.

    “As in Queen Lopa?” Xellos asked.

    “Yes,” Filia said.

    “My, my,” Xellos said, surveying her with interest. “You do make powerful friends, don’t you?”

    “She’s nice,” Filia said guardedly. For a conniving, sex-obsessed snake of a woman, that is.

    They flew on in silence for awhile.

    “For awhile… I thought that you sent it,” Filia said, almost for something to say.

    He looked at her. She blushed and turned away, wishing she hadn’t felt the need to fill the silence, but knowing it was too late to get out now.

    “Because it fit so well and it was… and you were…” she floundered at this point. Not being able to look at the ground, she instead looked at the pile of clouds below her.

    They flew on in more silence. Then Xellos finally said: “I wouldn’t have gotten you a dress like that.”

    She looked up at him. “What?”

    “If I was going to get you a dress it would have to have a much shorter skirt than that one,” Xellos said with absolutely seriousness.

    “You—!” Filia began. The urge to either knock him out of the sky or to hide her face resurfaced. She didn’t have much time to dwell on it.

    “Look up ahead,” Xellos said, pointing.

    Filia tore her gaze away from him to look ahead. There was no longer a pillar of light there, but you could still see a structure in the distance that was all that remained of that place.

    They were nearly there.

  25. #25
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    Chapter 25. The Daius Seed.

    Filia stared at the structure ahead of them. Though no pillar of light now stood there, it still filled her with the same sense of fear it had when they’d first arrived there. War of the Gods and Monsters… Darkstar’s summoning… and now Rasmus and the Daius Seed. There was just something… unstable about the place. It seemed to attract terrible conflict.

    “Xellos,” she said quietly against the onrushing wind as a horrible thought struck her, “you don’t think he’s already there, do you?”

    Xellos cupped his chin in his hand and appeared to give the matter some thought. “Well,” he finally said, “there’s one way to check…”

    Filia waited, but all Xellos did was fly on.

    “…And?” she prompted after a minute’s silence.

    “Oh, sorry,” Xellos said. “I just started wondering about something and got distracted.”

    “What could you possibly be thinking about that’s more important than making sure Rasmus isn’t at the Daius Seed?” Filia asked incredulously.

    “I was just wondering whether you had table-sex with all the other diplomats or if it was just me,” he said mildly.

    A column of charged energy shot out of Filia’s mouth at him. It wasn’t even a thought thing. If it had been a rational decision then she would’ve realized that he’d dodge and not even bothered. It was more of a ‘you slimy, miserable creep! Do you really think you’re going to get away with that?’ decision.

    When the burst of laser breath had disappeared beyond the clouds and the red haze faded from Filia’s vision, Xellos cheerfully floated back up to her side.

    “I think it’s safe to say that effect still follows cause,” he said.

    Filia got it just barely before she lashed out at him again with her tail. “You MONSTER! You didn’t need to do that to check! You just did it to be obnoxious!” she shouted, gripping her taloned fist and glaring at him.

    “Now, now. There’s really no need to get upset,” Xellos said, shaking a finger at her. “After all, I think we both know that the truth is that you’re not exactly practiced when it comes to table-sex.”

    “Stop saying ‘table-sex’!” she screamed, with a hint of desperation in her voice. It wasn’t something she wanted to hear in Xellos’s voice even once. “And anyway,” she added, calming down from her hysteria slightly and remembering his shot about her not being ‘practiced’, “I hope to never be.”

    Xellos turned his head slightly as if she’d said something puzzling. “Why?” he asked.

    “Because I’m not a gigantic ****!” she exploded. She almost added ‘like you’, but that was out of being on edge and disagreeable and probably not really true. Although, to be fair, Xellos was at least more of a **** than her. But again, to be fair, before the whole… (sigh) ‘table-sex’ incident, most everyone was more of a **** than her.

    “…But you already did it,” Xellos pointed out.

    “That’s because you talked me into it!” Filia shot back defensively.

    “I don’t recall doing that much talking,” Xellos said pensively.

    “You know what I mean,” Filia said, blushing slightly.

    They flew on in their own silences for a minute. Filia’s was embarrassed, Xellos’s was thoughtful.

    “So…” he began, withdrawing from his cerebration. “No more table-sex then?”

    “I told you not to say that ever again!” Filia practically shrieked.

    “I’ll take that as a ‘no’,” Xellos said.

    Good, Filia thought in her now embarrassed and fuming silence. So you can take a hint.

    “What’s your position on beds?” Xellos asked.

    Filia really hated herself for understanding that pun. She opened her mouth to say something, she wasn’t sure what it would be, but damn it! It’d be something. But she never got a chance to say it. At that moment from behind her a blinding flash scythed through the sky and directly at her. The light immediately turned to searing pain on contact with her wing and she lost control.

    She screamed as she tried to flap her crippled wing to regain stability, but it was no use. She plummeted through the clouds, her right wing curling and uncurling in agony. It felt like a hole had been punched straight through it and she knew she was bleeding badly. As she looked up through the blur of her own tears, sudden in her eyes, she saw a golden streak shoot past Xellos and toward the place where the Daius Seed was.

    She tried to focus on Xellos. He had his sharp little eyes targeted on the retreating shape of Rasmus, then they slid from Rasmus to her. Even from Filia’s quick decent she could make out what they were saying. One shot and he’s dead, they said. The dragon cannot be allowed to activate the Daius Seed, they said. Priorities, they said.

    No way to teleport. They were too close to the area of destabilization. The sea lay somewhere below her, but from the height she would be falling from, there wouldn’t be that much difference between sea and ground. She closed her eyes.

    There was a tug, and pressure on her claw, and she felt herself stop falling. She opened her eyes and looked up.

    Xellos was there. It looked so… bizarre. He was holding her by the talon. He was holding her against gravity by less than her little finger and he was winning. But then again, she had to remind herself that he was so much stronger than he looked.

    “I thought dragons were supposed to be hopeful,” he quipped. “Do you not espouse that philosophy in freefall?”

    Filia transformed back to her human form, her wounded body bathed in golden light. After all, with a damaged wing her dragon form was much more useless now even in mid-air. She could feel the wound still. It was on her shoulder-blade and bleeding into her dress. At least in her scaled down form, it too was scaled down. She looked up at Xellos, now holding her by the hand.

    “Why?” she half-sobbed, not knowing if what she was feeling was closer to terror or relief. “You could have stopped him easily! Now he’ll activate the Daius Seed. Why? Why didn’t you just let me fall?”

    Xellos appeared unmoved by Filia’s emotional outburst. He just shook his head, said: “Dreadfully cynical,” and began flying again toward the structure that held the Daius Seed while towing her.

    “Answer me!” Filia shouted, still feeling the disequilibrium of her fall.

    “You always have had a melodramatic streak,” Xellos commented as he flew. “Why do you assume you need to be a sacrifice?”

    “You can’t have it both ways this time, Xellos!” Filia retorted, annoyed that he still managed to insult her even when he was the one being irrational and stupid. “It was me or the Daius Seed!”

    “‘Both’ is a perfectly relevant option,” he answered calmly. “Mister Rasmus may be ahead of us, but he can still be stopped.”

    “How?” Filia demanded.

    “It’ll take both of us,” was all he said.

    HOW?” Filia repeated.

    “By closing off the universe,” Xellos said.

    Filia stared up at him.

    “The Daius Seed is basically a pocket universe. It expands and overtakes this one. If we can seal it off, then we can stop its expansion,” he said simply.

    “…How?” Filia said again, but calmer this time.

    “The same way we always planned to,” Xellos said, “barriers. Though with a bit of a twist which I think will work much better. We just have to encompass Rasmus and the Daius Seed before he activates it.”

    “But he’s got a huge lead on us!” Filia pointed out. It was true that Rasmus hadn’t quite reached the platform yet and that Xellos was closing the gap, flying remarkably fast for someone towing a passenger, but still.

    “If I’m right, he’ll slow down considerably as he gets closer to the destabilization point,” Xellos said, narrowing his eyes at the speeding Rasmus.

    “You shouldn’t have taken the risk,” Filia said, still determined to be angry with him. “You know what he’s trying to do. It would’ve been safer just to deal with him then to go through all this.”

    Part of her didn’t know why she fought so hard. Was it that part of her just couldn’t accept being his priority?

    “He’s heading straight for the Daius Seed,” Xellos pointed out. “If I’d attacked him and he’d managed to dodge, there’s always a chance that the ricochet could have activated the Daius Seed.”

    And that’s why there would always be doubt. Xellos always had multiple reasons for doing anything.

    “Why hasn’t he thought to do that?” Filia asked. She shivered. One clear shot and Rasmus would win.

    Xellos sneered. “He thinks it’s a wish granter. He’s not about to blow it up.”

    Filia stared ahead at Rasmus’s flight. He had a wish. What kind of person wishes for war? Not even victory over your hated enemies, but the chance to be locked in combat with them. For an old soldier like Rasmus, that was all he could think of. That’s all the dragon race had taught him to think of.

    “Hey,” she said shyly, looking at the cloud bank below and not at Xellos. “Do you think you could carry me?”

    She could feel his eyes on her. “Now’s really not the time to be getting distracted, Filia.”

    “It’s not that!” Filia said emphatically. “It’s just that… well, if you keep dragging me like this then my arm’s probably going to stretch to twice its length. It hurts, you know,” she said reproachfully.

    “And… and,” she added, somehow feeling that her argument was not strong enough. “And we’ve got to catch Rasmus and we can’t be going very fast this way. If you carry me then we can be more… aerodynamic.”

    “Aerodynamic,” Xellos repeated.

    “Yes,” Filia said. “Dragons know a lot about aerodynamics,” she added defensively.

    “They do indeed,” Xellos said. “In that case, I’m sure you know what’s best.”

    He hoisted her up into his arms. She strove to think of this as the best course of action in the situation and not any kind of profoundly awkward experience because, as Xellos himself had said, this wasn’t the time to get distracted.

    He was flying fast now, so Filia held on tight. It struck her as horribly ironic as they continued their chase. She was out to stop the man who was supposed to be her protector from destroying causality, while being aided by her most hated enemy; someone who had such a bloody history with her own race that he should by all rights have ‘murderer’ tattooed all across his body. She knew for a fact that he didn’t, though, because—

    I can’t think that! Filia mentally screamed at herself. Not while he’s holding me!

    Yes. Best keep her mind on… relevant things. Or at least things that were relevant at the moment.

    “Xellos!” she called over the rushing wind.

    “Yes?” he asked. One arm was around her shoulders, the other slid beneath her knees. Somehow he was still managing to hold onto his staff.

    “There’s something very important I need to ask you to do,” she said.

    Xellos’s eyes left Rasmus’s retreating figure and looked into her eyes. She took a deep breath.

    “Xellos, this time… don’t drop me!”

    He smiled.

    *****

    The two of them landed on that strange green platform, with ruinous half-columns sticking out on all sides. It was so bright there! As Xellos put her down she squinted in the blinding glow and saw it. A pin-prick of light so brilliant that it burned black against her eyes. And Rasmus was slowly making his way toward it.

    “Xellos!” she shouted.

    “I know,” Xellos answered. “He’s in the destabilization zone. It’s where the Daius Seed is transmitting its energy into this universe. The two probabilities are meeting, but they can’t mix. His movements should be very restricted, but he’ll make it through eventually on willpower, so we’ll have to act now.”

    Rasmus appeared to notice them, even in the bright haze he was surrounded in. He turned his head to them as if moving through treacle. He said something. Watching his disgusted expression contort slowly on every word was not a sight that Filia would be able to forget any time soon.

    “Even the sound waves are having trouble moving through it,” Xellos commented, as if this was of interest.

    Two universe meeting. It was like… like mixing borscht with clam chowder. It was too thick to move through and was not in the least delicious. It just didn’t work.

    “So, we’ll each do a barrier?” Filia asked, as Rasmus turned back, having said whatever his piece was.

    “No,” Xellos said. “He’s a golden dragon. He can break your barrier from the inside. I don’t trust a black magic barrier to stand up to the power of the Daius Seed alone. We’re doing a fusion barrier.”

    It made sense. If Rasmus tried to throw energy at it, it would just be absorbed. And… it seemed right to throw a union of black and holy magic at this alien force. If it couldn’t take everything this universe could throw at it then the Daius Seed could never be defeated.

    What am I saying? she thought wildly. There’s nothing ‘right’ about a union of black and holy magic!

    “I need you to give me everything you have,” Xellos said, holding out his palm.

    She stared at him. Then she gave a fierce nod, laid her hand palm up on top of his hand, and called the magic. Magic from the mind.

    In her hand, an orb of golden energy grew. It contained more power than its size suggested. She was giving this everything. And she knew that Xellos was following suit as the orb of energy shuddered and darkened as he poured black magic into it.

    “Traitors,” a voice echoed into her hearing, seeming to come from far away. “Two traitors,” it said, and she realized that this must be Rasmus’s parting comments finally reaching them on the outskirts of the distortion zone. “Traitors to race, and traitors to nature.”

    “Don’t stop,” Xellos warned, as Filia crumpled slightly. “Don’t falter.”

    “I’m not… faltering,” Filia said, through the buzz of energy that crackled through her teeth. Her eyes flashed gold as she dug deep for her last vestiges of energy and watched the ball of energy grow and grow.

    She’d opened the floodgates, but was nearly spent. As she let the surge of her remaining energy flow into the orb of power, she couldn’t help but look at the fused magic. It jolted madly in her palm. It was black, but in some indescribable way it was a bright black. It was unstable, it was wild, and it was violent. It… it had to be as Rasmus said: against nature. Two such forces can only be brought together against tremendous opposition. It was… pure chaos.

    But yet… but yet… though it was wild and violent, that didn’t make it unnatural. It was… the ultimate original, older than time. It was chaos, and chaos has the power to both create and destroy. Sometimes it can seem to do both at once. It was meant to be violent. It wasn’t meant to be tamed.

    …And they were trying to construct a barrier out of this? Could it hold together in its constant state of discord? Would it last or would it tear itself apart?

    …Will we last or will we…

    “Now!” Xellos called, as Rasmus reached the Daius Seed. He was looking at it and reaching out his hand, as though the Daius Seed was a falling star that he could pick up.

    The two of them heaved the condensed ball of energy at Rasmus and the distortion zone. As it reached the time slow-down it burst and coated the distortion zone in a dome of energy. The fused magic drizzled down the edge of the distortion zone, crackling and juddering as it went in a way that Filia couldn’t decide whether it was wretched or perfect.

    As the fused energy met itself on the bottom of the sphere it formed a bubble and seemed to crystallize slightly. The green light from within it spiked as a mass of smoky energy fought its way toward the enclosure.

    “He’s activated it,” Xellos said, through gritted teeth. “Now we just have to wait and see if the wall holds.”

    Filia hoped and prayed that it would. She watched the strange globe of energy with such intensity that she felt that it was holding her up by her eyes. A mixture of dark and holy energy made up the outside, and otherworldly energy surged from within. Brilliant green smoke pressed against the walls in swirling clouds, like the surface of some diminutive gas planet. But the wall was holding. It was holding.

    Filia fell to her knees. “It worked,” she breathed, clutching her side. “I can’t believe it worked.”

    “I can,” Xellos said, still watching the globe of energy, but Filia liked to think that there was some relief in his voice. He’d taken a lot of chances on this one.

    Filia looked at the soup bubble of chaos. “You think it’ll last?” she asked.

    “If it lasted against that first blast, it’ll last forever,” Xellos said firmly. “Or at least close to forever.”

    Filia was silent for a moment. “…Do you think he’s dead in there?”

    “Mister Rasmus?” Xellos asked, looking down at her. “No. The Daius Seed only destroys causality, remember? He should be alive in there.” He gave a small snort. “Though I can’t say what kind of shape he’s in.”

    “What if…” Filia began, and she hesitated to go on. It was such a tiny what-if, but she had to ask it anyway. “What if he was right and it is a wish granter.”

    “Then he has an entire pocket universe to wish in,” Xellos said with a shrug. “He can have all the wars he wants.”

    Filia grimaced. War, war, war. Rasmus had gotten so embroiled in it that he forgot what he was fighting for until he was just fighting to fight. Peace was intolerable.

    “This isn’t a place to hang around in,” Xellos said, holding a hand down to her.

    Filia stared at it, and looked aside. “I… I can’t fly on that wing. And I’m all out of energy anyway.”

    “Well, obviously,” Xellos said. “I assumed I’d be carrying you.”

    “What?” Filia colored. “You mean all the way back?”

    “You’re injured and exhausted. I don’t think you’ve eaten much today what with one thing and another,” Xellos said. He was the one thing, Rasmus and the Daius Seed had been another. “It’s a long way until teleportation is possible, and I don’t think you’d make it even with a bridge. So unless you’re planning on living here, I think it’s pretty clear that this is the best possible option.”

    Filia narrowed her eyes at him. It shouldn’t be possible to be chivalrous and a smart-*** at the same time. But she took his hand, let him pick her up and…

    …Let him fly her away.

    *****

    She woke up in his bed the next morning, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds and, anyway, wasn’t her fault.

    Xellos had been right. She’d been exhausted, completely exhausted after her long flight to the Daius Seed and after giving up every ounce of her energy for that barrier. It wasn’t a surprise that she’d fallen asleep on the gentle flight home. There were hours of clouds and then… and then she couldn’t remember anything before waking up in a comfortable, but unfamiliar bed. She’d been laid conscientiously on her side as to not open up her wound.

    She reached a hand to touch the tender spot on her shoulder-blade. It still hurt, but she could already feel her renewing energy closing the wound.

    “Did you have a nice twelve-hour nap?” a familiar voice asked, as Xellos took a seat on the bed where she lay.

    She pressed a hand to her forehead. Oh no… she thought.

    What am I supposed to be thinking here? Oh, how nice of him to care enough to bring me back to the hotel and rest me on his own bed while I recovered so he could watch over me?

    Ha! ‘What’s my position on beds?’ indeed! How transparent could you get?


    She sat up and said nothing. She tried to conjure up memories of their sleepy flight back. She gritted her teeth. Cuddling against his chest might have occurred. But it was alleged cuddling and, anyway, she’d been so tired that she couldn’t be blamed for it.

    “The Daius Seed has been dealt with, as has your would-be assassin,” Xellos said, reaching over and touching her face. “Mission accomplished, yes?”

    Filia let everything she’d been thinking about the last few days before chasing Rasmus to the Daius Seed had made it all so simple. Could all of that really slide now?

    She moved back, away from his hand. “No,” she said, almost feeling like she ought to apologize. “There are still things left… that I’ve got to do.”

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