“We are almost back to the Avatar Islands,” Ami informed the seven fairies lined up before her, reminding her of a rainbow with their varied hair colours.
The short-haired girls tensed, distrust evident in the way they shifted their weight to prepare for the worst.
Ami suppressed a sigh. They probably expected her to turn on them, now that she no longer needed their cooperation. “This means that it is time for you to leave. I cannot have you move freely around my dungeon. You would run afoul of the traps. I am, of course, releasing Camilla from my service, too.” She mentally reached for the minion link that had formed between her and the shortest of the fairies and severed it.
The blonde fairy sucked in a sharp breath and twitched at the exact same moment, obviously noticing something. “I'm all right,” she told Roselle when the orange-haired fairy looked at her with concern.
“What about your hostages, Empress?” Dandel asked, speaking for the group. “How are you protecting them from the traps?”
“They are not hostages,” Ami said, “and they will be restricted to a special area of the dungeon that is segregated from the rest, for the most part.”
“So, in principle, we could stick around if we stayed in that same area?” Melissa pondered softly, scratching her temple as she glanced at the blind townspeople behind them. Suddenly, her little sister was in her face, cheeks reddened with anger.
“Don't you dare stay here! I didn't lose so much bartering for your freedom only for you to throw it away like that!” the youngest fae shouted, prompting her wide-eyed sister to lean away from the forcful outburst.
“Um,” Ami blinked, taken aback by the blonde's anger. “Did I miss something here? As far as I am aware of, I only took the flying carpets from you, and I returned those.” As she spoke, a sudden thought went through her mind, and she continued "If I kept you from something important, then I'm willing to compensate you for your time.”
“It's not like you can do anything about me no longer being able to hold a proper job in my homeland!” the angry fairy snapped back, only to pale a moment later when she remembered whom exactly she was snarling at. “That is, uh-”
“Why is that?” Ami didn't like the idea that she had unwittingly ruined someone's life. “Are you going to be punished for working for me? But neither of us wanted this!”
“By law, nobody who has worked for a Keeper may hold a position of influence,” Dandel explained, indigo eyes downcast.
“I didn't know about that, and I'm very sorry to hear it,” Ami said. Damage control, she needed to run some damage control. Wasn't she an Empress? She should be able to do something about this blunder diplomatically!
“Actually,” Cerasse interrupted her train of thought by raising a finger and speaking up, “you have not returned everything yet. My staff has been missing since your imps purloined it.”
“That thing was dangerous and not yours in the first place,” Ami answered absently, still thinking about the blonde fairy's plight. Her icy features brightened, and she smiled at Camilla. “How would you like to be an ambassador?”
“I could offer your nation an embassy in my realm, under the condition that you are made the ambassador,” Ami said.
The fairies exchanged uncertain glances.
“I am aware that your nation is probably not particularly eager to open diplomatic relations with me, but they would certainly welcome the opportunity to have some of their own agents here with my permission, right? And from their point of view, Camilla is already compromised, so there's no need to risk some other high-ranking diplomat.”
“I don't know if our superiors would see it that way,” Roselle said, brushing her fingers through her orange hair.
“And I'd have to remain here if I was ambassador,” the youngest fairy whined, fluttering her wings.
“But you would still be working for your own nation,” Ami pointed out. “I know this isn't a great plan, but it's the best I could come up with on short notice. If it doesn't work, I could hire you directly.” She put her hands together in front of her chest, waiting with a hopeful expression.
“That got me into trouble in the first place!” Camilla answered, obviously not happy with the proposition.
“Camilla! You should at least consider her offer,” Dandel intervened. With an apologetic smile, she addressed Mercury. “Please excuse her brashness, your Majesty, she is only twenty and still immature.”
“Ah, right.” Ami spared them an awkward moment by not mentioning that she was even younger. “I will prepare the paperwork, then.” A brief burst of magic poured into her fabrication spell, turning into writing materials. As she composed her letter, she noticed that the fairies were throwing curious glances at her right hand. Oh. They have never seen a modern pen before. She completed her message in silence, but felt stumped when it came to signing it. She hadn't composed any letter in her official capacity yet. Doing this wrong would be terribly impolite and also put the letter's authenticity in question. Fairly embarrassed, she turned her head toward the waiting fairies “Would you, by chance, happen to know the formal way for an Empress to sign her correspondence?”
Standing in front of a podium on a raised dais, Ami let her gaze wander over the large hall packed with comfortable stairs before her. For a moment, she wished she was elsewhere, for example with the fairies returning home on their flying carpets. Speaking in public was not something she could easily get used to.
A few of the imps scattered all throughout the chamber in case of trouble gave her thumb-up signs. They were ready and waiting. Snyder, standing behind her near the wall, directed an encouraging smile at her before going back to studying the papers he was holding.
Ami's thoughts returned to the seven insect-winged women she had sent away. Hopefully, the small golden box emblazoned with the Mercury symbol she had given them to carry her letter in would convince their superiors that it was real. A valuable gift as proof of good will couldn't hurt, could it?
The expectant muttering in the room grew louder, and Ami realised that she was procrastinating. Her shyness alone was bad enough, but it didn't help that she feared the reactions that her announcement might provoke. In a way, the fact that the two hundred nervous adults occupying the seats were blind and couldn't actually see her helped her overcome her nervousness. She immediately chastised herself when she realised that she was appreciating a benefit of their condition. “May I have your attention please?” she said, her voice getting firmer after a slightly shaky start.
The room quieted down, and faces with bandage-covered eyes swivelled in her direction as their owners tracked her by her voice.
“Thank you. I am sure that all of you are very curious about where you are and what is going to happen to you," she began.
"You are actually going to tell us what's going on now?" a belligerent voice in the third rank asked.
Several of the people seated around the man made disapproving shushing noises, their frowns invisible to him.
"Err, yes. I would have liked to tell you earlier, but I was not sure how you would react, and the vessels were too overloaded to risk a commotion during the journey," Ami explained.
"You think we'd panic if we knew you were working for a Keeper?" a resigned-sounding women in the front said.
"Don't deny it! We aren't stupid. There are imps around, and the way we were suddenly moved from the cramped ships to this place is only something a Keeper could do. There are also no competent priests around to treat us!"
As she spoke, some of the people muttered their assent, while others simply hung their heads. Nobody actually considered this news.
All in all, this was going both better and worse than Ami had expected. "You are not entirely wrong," she was forced to admit. "You are currently on the Avatar Islands."
"The dark empress' domain?" a pot-bellied man, probably a merchant, asked breathlessly. "Light help us all!"
Some of the blind people gasped or screamed at the news, others simply went pale and started shivering. Armrests creaked under the sudden pressure exerted by fingers clenching around them.
Ami's face fell at their reaction. Apparently, having one's worst expectations confirmed was still worse than just having the suspicions. "I assure you that you are not in any danger," she said quickly.
The same man in the third rank as before snorted. "Not in danger? How would you know what the dark empress has planned for us?"
"My name is Sailor Mercury, current Empress of the Avatar Islands," Ami replied calmly. This, unfortunately, did not seem to reassure anyone. She was sure that her listeners would be stampeding toward the exits right now if they weren't blind. She raised her voice to make herself heard over the hopeless laments and desperate pleas for mercy echoing through the room. "I am nowhere near as bad as my reputation!"
An elderly man raised his hand and asked in a hoarse voice "W-what are you going to do to us?" After a moment of hesitation, he added "Your Majesty."
Ami had expected that question and prepared an answer in advance. It wasn't the entire truth, but close enough, and it would fit their expectations. Somewhat. "Crowned Death wants you dead. Since he and his cult are my enemies and I can't strike at him directly, I am going to antagonise him by keeping you all alive and well instead."
To her relief, the postures of the blind people in their seats relaxed somewhat. Obviously, a Keeper helping them out of spite was more believable than one doing it out of the good of her heart.
"In the short term, I will also be attempting to cure your eyes, proving to the world that I'm stronger than his curse! In the longer term, I shall see if I can't ransom you back to your homelands. As for the immediate future, my assistant Snyder here- " she waited until the acolyte had stepped to her side with heavy steps that were certain to be heard by the audience, "- will tell you everything you need to know about living here. If you need anything, tell him, and he will pass the request along to me."
Ami made room for the acolyte in red and white and withdrew to the back of the stage. He spoke with an ease and confidence that made her slightly envious. With a sinking feeling, she realised that her title as an Empress would inevitably lead to many more public appearances.
"Mercury? A word please?" Jered's voice startled her before she could return to her work.
"Yes?" she asked, turning toward the wavy-haired man.
"I may have figured out a way to get the dwarf kingdoms to negotiate with us, but I will require both funds and your permission to go ahead."
Ami blinked, having shelved the topic of adamantine during the hectic past four days. "What is your plan?"
"Your title is the key. We will commission a crown for you," the weasel-featured man said with a grin. "Dwarfs are famed for their craftsmanship and take great pride therein. While they might not like us, I doubt they would be willing to pass up the unique opportunity to create the official crown of an empire. Not if they could gain that much prestige for this fairly harmless task. We could then use the negotiations to further our agenda."
"It seems reasonable," Ami said after a moment of deliberation. She couldn't see any drawbacks, aside perhaps from having to replace her tiara with something more garish. "Gem production remains stable, so we can afford it. Go ahead. I will leave the details up to you."
Mukrezar sat at his desk, the tip of his tongue poking out from between his lips as he drew an ink-tipped quill over a sheet of paper with slow, deliberate movements. He ignored the scraping of stone against stone behind him that slowly got closer. After a while, a shadow fell over him, and the laboured breath of his butler coming from somewhere behind his right shoulder replaced the previous noises.
“That,” the voice of the well-dressed imp sounded disdainful, “is not romantic at all.”
Mukrezar turned around and came face to bug-eyed face with his diminutive butler. He frowned and let his eyed wander down the imp's short body to find him standing on a boulder that was almost as big as the creature. The pink-haired elf's eyebrows rose as he saw the scratch marks on the ground leading to the back of the cavern. “You brought this,” he gestured at the rock underneath the imp's feet, “all the way over here just so you could look over my shoulder and criticise what I am doing?”
“Of course, Master. It is the solemn duty of nosy servants everywhere to spy on their masters, particularly when there is the chance of learning something juicy to gossip about. Not that this is going to help with that,“ he pointed at Mukrezar's work with one digit of his three-fingered hand, sounding reproachful.
“Right, because you know so much more about romance than me,” the pink-haired elf answered, glaring at his minion. “Wooed any comely imp ladies while I was away? Or ever been in the general vicinity of a female? No? Didn't think so.“ The former Keeper brushed his mane out of his face and grinned smugly.
“Nevertheless, Master, this cannot be romantic. I can tell because looking at it does not make me sick!”
“As usual, you have no appreciation for my genius. I'm certainly not letting all this work go to waste.” Mukrezar took the paper and put it on top of a neat stack of others. He waved his hand over it, and smoke rose from the pile. With a second wave, the papers rose into the air and fanned out until they covered the desk like tiles. Each of the sheets showed an identical copy of the map he had drawn. He selected the closest one, rolled it up, and sealed it with some wax from the dribbling candle standing nearby. To finish, he pressed his signet against the warm mass, leaving an imprint of a stylised reaper's face in the seal. “Here,” he tossed the finished letter over his shoulder, deliberately aiming so poorly that the servant had to launch himself off his perch to catch it. "That one is done, go deliver it! The others will need more individual adjustments.”
Jadeite kept to the back of the wide, spacious, and well-lit room that Mercury had provided as a meeting area to the blind patients. Thin railings around the walls provided guidance to those adventurous enough to leave their beds, and generous padding on edges and hard surfaces reduced the risk of injuries. Nevertheless, only a few of the abductees were sitting on the upholstery and chatting with each other, and none very animatedly.
He thought that Mercury's presence was partly to blame for this. She currently had a rat with a collar and a backpack standing upright on her palm, squeaking from time to time. The heavy-built man tentatively holding the animal's leash between his meaty fingers had a rather nervous and sceptical look on his face as he listened to the girl's explanations.
Jadeite felt that he had done the right thing when he refused to let Mercury ferry the rescued captives to the surfacers, even if she disagreed. Nevertheless, she obviously resented what he had done and was keeping him at arms length, only talking to him when she had to. Be reasonable. She's simply too busy for irrelevant prattle, Jadeite told himself, but it was little comfort.
Things had gone well, all things considered. His act of defiance would have been suicidal if he had still been working for Beryl, he reminded himself with a grimace. Mercury hadn't even openly punished him. Or had she? For some reason, keeping talks with him short and businesslike felt like a punishment. How had she made him miss her smiles, anyway? As subtle tortures went, that one was surprisingly novel and effective.
Jadeite sighed. It wasn't just their fight that was depressing the young empress. With every look at the prisoners, she seemed unhappier and less lively. The dark general paced up and down the room, his scowl deep enough that Tiger and Mareki discretely sneaked out of the room when they spotted it.
The blonde's eyes followed the teenager as she strode from patient to patient, stopping here and there to take readings with her Mercury computer and to ask questions. How long had she been in that golem body now? That couldn't be healthy. She would probably pass out the moment she returned to human form.
“Umbra, get over here.”
“Yes, Sir?” the black-cloaked youma floated over to his side, her mobility not affected much by her missing and bandaged leg.
Jadeite was still staring at Mercury's back. “We need to convince our Empress to take a break.”
“Are you sure that is wise? She has been in a foul mood lately,” the youma cautioned, probably worried for her own safety. In the thin slit behind her mask and her hood, her eyes darted left and right, as if she was searching for an escape route.
“Just come along and nod at the right times. She's not going to hurt you since you are injured, and she is already angry at me, so things can't get much worse.” Jadeite was already striding toward the centre of the room, giving the few blind people fumbling around a wide berth.
“Jadeite. What do you want now?” the ice girl asked as he approached, not bothering to turn around or even look up from her work.
“Empress, you need to take a break. Your exhaustion has led to some questionable decisions already, and it is only going to get worse as time passes.”
“This is more important,” Mercury said in a flat tone of voice. “If I can just figure out-”
“You are obsessing too much over this!” Jadeite interrupted, prompting Mercury's rodent to hiss at him angrily. “Trying to help these people is nice, but they will still be here after you got some sleep. You have other responsibilities too! You haven't even arranged a proper debriefing yet! "
“You don't understand. This is my fault! If I hadn't lost the Mantle, none of this would have happened!” the ice golem raised her voice, whirling around to face him with red-glowing eyes. “I need to fix this!”
Jadeite almost faltered when he saw the haunted expression on her face. “Only Crowned Death and his goons are at fault here. And while your current body can keep going indefinitely, your mind cannot. Please, just let go of your inappropriate guilt here and consider the greater picture. You can't help them if you are barely functional. Besides, you need to manage your dungeon.”
“Have Tiger handle what doesn't require my special powers,” the obstinate empress replied, already typing away on her computer again. “She should know my mind well enough to make the right decisions.”
“That is completely irresponsible, and-” Jadeite stopped mid-sentence when he suddenly found himself in the corridor in front of his room, with Umbra at his side.
Surprised by the unannounced transport, the youma flinched. “It does not seem as if she is willing to listen, Sir,” she commented. “Should we just let her get it out of her system? That would certainly be the easiest solution, since we are not currently under attack."
Jadeite felt irritated at being sent to his room like a little child. His brow furrowed. “No,” he declared, “I'm going to get some reinforcements and try again!"
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