We held our breaths in anticipation and waited for Dyros to decide our fate… is what I would like to say, but in truth, Ely and I were completely at ease – perhaps even indifferent. Part of it was due to our confidence in attaining a positive response. Dyros was fully aware of the power I held as well as the power that Ely possessed, and he was cognizant of the terrible power that she could put forth now that I had pledged myself to her. With that in mind, it was unlikely that Dyros would easily turn us away. Another reason for our composure was that even if, for whatever reason, Dyros refused, with me at her side, there would be no issue even if we had to wander the wilds and forge a path alone. If anything, the greatest loser in that scenario would be Dyros and the city of Kirtvel, since thus turning us away might risk my wtihdrawing my protection of the city.
Of course, even if he did turn us away, I had every intention of maintaining my protection. I had, after all, made a promise to Kyrin. But none apart from Kyrin and myself were cognizant of the details of our promise, and I saw no need to supplement the details for Dyros.
Amidst such an atmosphere of indifference, Dyros sent down his verdict.
“I am afraid that we cannot offer you asylum, Miss Ling.”
I glanced at Ely. Her expression hadn’t changed, but there was a slight glint in her eye that I was intimately familiar with. I recognised that look. She wore that look whenever she was about to enact a performance. I’d seen it many times in the Second World, I’d seen it many times before that. Whenever she needed to play a role, to perform a part, her eyes would take on that kind of look, for just a brief split-second, before settling into whatever mask she chose to wear. With the help of Lady Yingquan’s Divine Blessing, my sister was a woman who had learned a great many skills. However, even among those skills, one skill in particular stood out as her signature, which had not been imparted by the Blessing: her talent for showmanship.
Seeing that familiar look made me feel so very nostalgic. How many negotiations had I seen where a similar glint had turned the tide in Ely’s favour? How many bouts of verbal sparring between her and the Emperor had resulted in her victory through the use of that talent? A smile flitted across my face. Dyros was blissfully unaware that he had just roused a terrifying beast. Of course, it wasn’t that Ely wanted him to rule in favour of our case through the use of this skill, but rather, the feeling I got was one of playfulness. She wanted to test or tease Dyros, and so she was tapping into her reserves of talent.
Ely glared at Dyros and thrust out her arm to the side. That was my cue. I took her hand and shifted forms, changing out of my human form and assuming my true form. Her fingers curled around my shaft in a reassuringly firm grip, as if telling me that she had no intention of ever letting go. She pointed me at Dyros.
“You realise that this verdict is, after all, a formality? If I decided to stay here anyway, you would have no way to prevent me from doing so.”
Dyros stood in place, unflinching.
“Certainly, I am aware. However, I ask you to listen to my reasons for this verdict.”
“If you feel that they are justifiable, then speak. However, if I judge that you have been unjust in any way, I will cut you down on the spot. After all, it was you who promised to deliver a just and impartial judgment as representative of Kirtvel. If this does not deter you, then speak.”
“My reasons for refusal are twofold. The first, that granting you shelter after you attempted regicide would mean declaring ourselves an enemy of the Empire. Our city, while hidden, is small. If the Empire were to use your presence here as a pretense for invasion, then our people would suffer. We might emerge victorious, with our knowledge of the forest and the protection of Lady Aethry, but that victory would undoubtedly come at the cost of a great loss of life. As a leader and protector of our people, I cannot allow this.”
“Hold. The Empire has no knowledge of my presence here, or of the existence of this city. They have no reason to suspect that I have sought your aid. Even if they did, Eur- Aethry’s barrier would prevent them from approaching. I fail to see how this is a cause for concern.”
“You have no way to be certain that the Empire is ignorant of us. This… Ruth woman. She might tell them. Even if she refrains from doing so, if she has found us, there is no guarantee that another cannot – and another individual might not be as sympathetic to us, or to you.”
“I find that to be an unlikely scenario, but I will concede that it is not, strictly speaking, an unjustified concern. Continue. What is the second reason?”
“The second reason is that you are a human-”
Ely narrowed her eyes and tightened her grip on my shaft. Her voice dropped lower, carrying an undercurrent of danger.
“Tread carefully, Dyros. Were it not for my curiosity at how such a statement could possibly be considered just and impartial, I would have already struck you down.”
“I thank you for your consideration. Please try to understand. Just as none in your Empire have seen or heard my people for over a century, so too are my people unused to the sight of a human. Furthermore, though our memory of humans has faded, our memories of what we suffered at their hands have not. If one such as yourself were to walk amongst us, I fear that it might cause no small deal of disturbance to the serenity of our people. You would be treated coldly, with suspicion, avoided in the streets. You would be treated as a monster. I believe that to be undesirable for you as well as for ourselves.”
Ely’s expression didn’t change, but her grip on my body relaxed slightly. She spun me around and swung down, tucking me under her arm.
“Well, I admit that your reasons are certainly valid. But still, I have no reason to back down. I do need a place to hide, after all, and if I must cut down every last one of you to secure it, then I shall.”
Ely broke into a smile.
“…But you already knew that, didn’t you, Dyros? You’re sharp enough to know it. So you must have a compromise prepared. Let’s hear it.”
“I thank you for your high evaluation. Here is what I propose: I cannot allow you to stay amongst our people, but what I can do is to give you the permission and materials to build an abode a short distance away. You will not be disturbed, and you will not disturb us. It will be within the barrier. You will be safe. I will issue instructions to divert the patrols around the area. You will have ample access to water. Naturally, the Lady Aethry will reside there with you.”
Some of the other Elders suddenly glanced sharply at him and opened their mouths, about to complain. He silenced them with an authoritative glare.
Ely seemed to be contemplating the issue, but knowing her, she’d already expected this outcome. She nodded, then held out two fingers.
“I am inclined to accept, but on two conditions.”
“First: You will provide us with clothing and food. Food should be delivered twice a week. Preferably items that can keep. Clothing can be delivered once a month. I’ll leave the means of transport to you. Second: You will dispatch someone to act as a liaison between us and yourselves. The liaison should visit us once every fortnight. The purpose of the liaison will be to serve as a line of communication, in case of emergency, as well as to provide us with any other supplies from the city that we might request. Naturally, the cost for all of these will be shouldered by the city of Kirtvel. If you can accept these conditions, I am willing to accept your compromise.”
“Fulfilling these conditions will impose a considerable cost to Kirtvel. As such, I would like to propose some conditions from our side, as well.”
“Let’s hear them.”
“First, if Kirtvel ever comes under attack, you will have to lend your aid in its defence. Not as a soldier, but as an ally. This condition only applies to the defence of Kirtvel if we are unjustly attacked – you have no such obligation if we are the aggressor. Second,” He broke off briefly to glance at the Elders. Then he took a deep breath and steeled himself. “Second, I will need you to submit a detailed report about the military strength and tactics of the Empire.”
Immediately the Elders broke into a clamour. One of them shouted.
“Dyros, surely you don’t intend to wage war on-”
“Silence! At this moment, I am representative of our city – you yourselves have delegated this role to me by your indecision and silence. As such, I must make decisions with the good of our city in mind. I have no intention to launch an attack on the Empire, but if – if! – they march on our borders, if they somehow get past Lady Aethry’s barrier, I would prefer to know as much about their forces as possible, rather than allow this city to fall due to an ignorance inspired by cowardice. This is a golden opportunity to learn about our greatest enemy, and I intend to seize it. So unless you wish to affirm that my decision is truly misguided, stay your tongue.”
The Elders froze. Then they shrank back, holding a cowed silence. Ely’s eyebrow was raised – she was impressed. She gave her response.
“I have no qualms about the first condition – after all, if Kirtvel falls, so does my refuge. As for the second, however, I have no problems with the request itself, but I’m not military, I’m a civilian. All I can tell you about the military strength and tactics of the Empire is what I observed while living as a civilian, and perhaps what was used against me when I was being actively pursued.”
“That is fine. Anything you can tell us would be an improvement over our current knowledge, a hundred years outdated.”
“Then we have reached an accord.”
Ely offered her hand. Dyros clasped it, a small smile crossing his face. For the first time since its founding, Kirtvel accepted an outsider into its protection.