“I think I understand the situation,” I told them, “and there is a solution I would like you to consider.”
If nothing else, these people were artists in pretending that they didn’t care about something. But little things informed me that I had gotten their attention.
“I am listening,” Bokwen said.
“Ardos and I are already working on a way to get the people from the temple to a different region, along with some people of Bunker if possible. That means that there shouldn’t be any need for me to represent you in a fight. I could just take your families with me when we leave.”
“How disgraceful would that be?”
The few who didn’t let out snorts of disapproval made their stance on the subject clear.
“I suppose you know the manner in which he is planning to get a charon to come to this forgotten shard?” Bokwen said.
“Charon?” I asked.
“That is how the ferrymen traveling between shards are called,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “My point is that with her connections, Genoneva has managed to make it almost impossible for anyone else to hire one.”
“Bokwen, you cannot possibly be entertaining that idea,” said the woman by the window with an incredulous expression.
“I don’t know how he is planning to do it,” I said. “But I know he has a way. He and Royin have their own connections, I am sure you’re aware.”
… Or at least I hope they do.
“Child,” spoke the old man next to Bokwen. “You have to understand that if what you say comes to pass, our relative would end up settling in those regions and our lines would be cut off from the Pearl and from their roots. But while it might be too late for some of them now, if you win as their representative, there is no doubt that their descendants will be able to restore our prestige.”
“So this is what it’s really about for you all? Your honor?” I said.
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“If we go with my plan the safety of your families will be assured,” I said. “Sure, they won’t be citizens of Nashran… but isn’t that already the case? On the other hand, I could go fight for them… and maybe I’ll win. But maybe I won’t. I doubt the people over there will make things easy for me, and from what I understand, that means that there will be no escape for those I would represent.”
“I listen to you and all I hear are the words of a little coward,” spat the woman who clearly wasn’t paying attention to the fight anymore.
“You might have heard my words, but you weren’t listening,” I calmly said. “Whether I am a coward or not is irrelevant. As is my age. We have two options and one implies more risk than the other. So what I’m asking you is this…”
I paused for effect and looked at them all.
“What did you actually bring me here for? What is more important to you? Regaining your honor or the lives of your families?”
Or in other terms, are you doing this for yourself or for them?
No one spoke, but I could tell they weren’t silent. They were conveying their thoughts and opinions to each other with the slightest movements, like a nod or a page turned harder than the others.
The woman let out another one of her distinctive snorts and turned her gaze back to the arena.
Bokwen let my words linger for a moment then straightened himself.
“I believe it would be better for us to discuss the presented options by ourselves,” he said. “It seems it is time for Edward to make his appearance.”
As he spoke, a loud high pitched scream came from the theater. Commending and full of indignation.
“WHERE IS HE?”
The sound of cheers abruptly stopped and no sound could be heard from the theater anymore.
“In any case,” the bear continued, “No matter what we chose, I think it is safe to assume that you are agreeing with our partnership, is it not?”
That wasn’t something I wanted to hear. I had hoped they would simply accept my counter-proposal, but apparently, things weren’t going to be so simple.
“I agree,” I said.
He threw me the ring he had been studying and I caught it.
“This is a custom made Display Ring. It’s a rare object allowing one to show their status to someone else, and this one even has the ability to only reveal chosen elements while keeping the rest hidden. Genoneva is outside and the only way she will believe you to be a delver is if she sees the title by herself. I will support you if needed, but it is necessary that you speak for yourself and learn how dangerous she is.”
I found it surprising that these difficult bags of old bones would be satisfied with a simple vocal agreement. But I figured the explanation might be related to the importance they gave to a notion such as “honor”.
I looked around and saw the others look at me with judging or expectant gazes. It seemed like they also wanted to see how my meeting with the other leader of Bunker would turn out.
Very well, I thought as I stood up.
I opened the door and found Tabu still waiting behind it. He gave me a strange look and awkwardly scratched his ear.
“Did, uh… Did everything go fine in there?”
I looked at him and didn’t know whether to laugh or groan. I opted for smiling and going down the stairs.
“Hey,” he said from his post. “I don’t know what you have in mind… but she’s crazy. If you push her over the edge she might do anything… and I don’t want to die yet.”
She might be insane, but from what Bokwen said she’s not stupid.
“Got it,” I said as I pushed the second door.
It revealed a theater with a much different atmosphere than I remembered it having.
The previously turbulent and noisy warriors were all standing in silence, like children caught by their parents doing something they weren’t supposed to.
It was obvious that they would have rather have been anywhere but here, and few dared to raise their eyes at my entrance.
The warriors had cleared the seats around the aisle that went from where I was standing to the stage, but the aisle itself wasn’t empty. On both sides of the path were rows of children. And not just any children. Rats.
They were easily recognizable by the distinctive black spot on their faces. But whereas the rats I had seen until now only had black noses, the stain on these ones had spread to cover their heads with strange shapes reminding of a Rorschach test.
They stood there, staring at their feet in the same way the warriors did. Eyes lifeless. Hair and fur sparse.
At the end of that disheartening passage was the wooden sculpture of a woman with vines for hair. It had been placed on the broken throne, but not before it had been covered with a seemingly expensive piece of cloth.
That alone would have been fine if the rest of the installation wasn’t so disgusting.
It seemed that parts of the sculpture were made of metal, or that they had been filled with it. From those metal plates came black tubes that were unaffected by gravity and floated all the way to the back of six rats’ neck who were docilely standing in a circle around the totem.
It looked like some sort of pagan ritual. And I could tell because I had seen a few.
I was slightly confused until I saw the carving open its eyes and turn its head toward me with an audible creak. A smile appeared on its face and I finally understood.
This thing was Genoneva.
“I am glad to finally be able to see you, Edward,” she said with a voice very different than we had all just heard. It was a charming one, that would remind one of sunny days and birds singing among the trees. “I have heard so much about you these past days, but you are still so very mysterious… Even though I like to know everything happening in my city. Come. Let me take a better look at you.”
I felt a slight compulsion to obey her command and knew something wrong was going on.
I put Bokwen’s ring on my finger and received a notification.
Which element should be displayed?
I ignored the Worthy Delver title and went straight to the Delver one.
“Edward?” I heard her the beautiful voice speak again. “I told you to come.”
Another compulsion, stronger this time. One of the children linked to her lost consciousness and fell face first. Another one quickly ran up to his side and unplugged him. Then he clipped the tube behind his own neck.
In the meantime, I was still fiddling with the notification.
Choose target in area.
I could now see that a transparent circle with myself at its center had appeared. The only issue was that it didn’t go all the way to the stage, but only halfway down the aisle.
The aisle framed with drugged children that were oddly obedient to this monster. I had no doubts that they would attack me if she ever gave the order.
I shook my head and moved forward.
I hope Bokwen really has my back.
“Yes,” Genoneva said. She sounded strangely excited, even if it couldn’t be seen in her frozen expression. “Come, young prince. I have been looking for you for a long time… Where that witch hid all you these years, I have no idea. But you will tell me everything, will you? And I will also tell you… of someone who is dying to see you again…”`
‘The hell is she talking about…