From her side alcove, Eline watched the slow-moving crowd, her frown turning into a scowl as she spotted a group of people stopping a short distance down the corridor. "Keep the traffic flowing smoothly, I'll be right back," she instructed the two goblins behind her.
"Right!" "Sure thing!" the underlings confirmed.
The dark elf's pointy ears picked up two metallic ringing noises as the goblins' fingers struck their helmets in a sloppy salute, but she didn't look back. She was too busy pushing her way through the densely-packed humans, a scowl on her face as she moved against the flow. Her fierce expression was doing at least as much to clear a way for her as the threat of the sheathed sword at her belt. She squeezed past the protruding belly of a stubble-faced man, the coarse brown fabric of his tattered tunic feeling rough and scratchy against the bare skin on her forearm. His breath reeked of old fish, and with a shudder of disgust, she shoved him aside harder than was strictly necessary. Ignoring his cry of protest, she continued onwards until she broke through the wall of gawkers and saw the source of the disturbance.
"-get moving! You be questioning my orders? Are you?"
A goblin was standing in front of a shivering boy who reached barely up to Eline's waist.
"Move! Me no tell you again!"
The frightened child mutely backed away further into the side alcove, the tear tracks on his cheeks glistening in the electrical light.
"You obey now, or me punish!" the greenskin threatened, putting his hand on the club dangling from his belt.
Eline grit her teeth as the child predictably retreated even further away from its tormentor. Stupid goblins. The foolish minion seemed entirely unaware of the hostile glares the villagers and townsfolk were shooting at him. People were stopping to watch the scene and grumbled angrily, and the dark elf noticed many clenched fists. Her hackles rose. This situation could turn violent any moment now. Since she had the same Mercury symbol as the goblin pinned to her shirt, she would certainly be turned into an outlet for their anger too. She didn't think her sword would make much of a difference against an angry mob.
The slender elf darted forward until she was right behind the moronic greenskin. A swift leg sweep from behind sent the goblin sprawling.
He let out a startled yelp as he crashed to the ground. Twisting like a cat, he looked up at his attacker. "Who-" His angry snarl died on his lips as he saw his immediate superior loom over him.
"Lugi, you idiot! What do you think you are doing?"
"My job?" the confused goblin muttered, pointing at the wide-eyed child. "That ran away! Me give chase!"
In her mind, Eline groaned. She could vividly imagine an unattended boy spotting the little monster and backing away in fright. "Do you think that terrifying a small child and causing a congestion in traffic," Eline swept her left arm around, indicating the onlookers, "will keep everyone moving to the congress hall smoothly?"
Using his elbows, Lugi crawled away from the shouting dark elf."Me only doing my job!" he repeated obstinately.
Eline suddenly felt something warm press against the back of her left leg and looked down. Her fingers twitched when she spotted the child hiding behind her, peeking around her thigh. Wonderful. This was going to do wonders for her tough image. Eyes glittering angrily, she snarled at the goblin on the ground "Shut up and get to the main hall before I report you to our Empress!"
"Did nothing wrong," the goblin protested as he scrambled to his feet. "Getting everyone to big cave, just like she said!"
Her arms akimbo, Eline bowed down until her face was level with the underling's. "She also said not to frighten the people here. Now look at that boy! Does he look non-frightened to you?"
Lugi took in the pale, tear-smeared face of the child. Slowly, his skin lost colour until it was a sickly yellow-green.
"Do you know what our Empress does to those who don't follow her orders?" the dark elf continued, grinning like a shark.
The goblin's ears drooped. "No?"
"Do you want to find out?"
"Ye- wait, no!" understanding the threat a second late, Lugi shook his head rapidly and backed away.
"One more step out of line, and you will! Now scram!" Eline let out a relieved breath when the creature finally fled. Most disciplined of the bunch my arse! she thought sourly. Is this what Commander Cathy has to put up with every day? She should have known that this promotion to officer of the newly-created town guard had sounded too good to be true. Now she had to deal with goblins, just because the Empress thought the tiny things wouldn't intimidate the prisoners so much. Speaking of which... "Nothing more to see here," she called out. "Stop loitering and keep moving!"
Fortunately, most of the onlookers seemed satisfied with the way she had handled the goblin, and left without raising a fuss. However, two muscular youths lingered, glaring at Eline.
She met their eyes with her ruby red ones and smirked, as if daring them to attack. After a moment, the large farm boys deflated under her challenging stare and slunk back into the crowd. Good. Putting them in their places like that felt great. She could get used to this job, she supposed, even despite the goblins. Darkness knew she had lived through much worse indignities under Morrigan, and contrary to the rumours, Empress Mercury didn't seem to share his tastes. Hmm, wasn't she forgetting something? "You can let go now," she said to the child, whose arms were still encircling her leg.
The brat shook his head and pressed his face against her leg.
Eline sighed and experimentally tried to dislodge him. She quickly aborted the attempt when her trousers started sliding down along with the clingy boy. Was he part barnacle? "Let go, kid! Find someone else to bother!"
"Got yourself in a bit of a bind there, Eline?" a breathy voice asked from behind.
Just great, now the teasing would never stop. "Venna." Eline looked over her shoulder at the busty woman who had just appeared from the crowd, flanked by her own goblin guards. "Shouldn't you be keeping order near the dormitories?"
"No need, they are empty now. These are the last villagers," the other elf said, indicating the uncertain-looking people behind her. She bent down, and the boy clinging to Eline's leg let out a startled shriek and suddenly let go. "My, aren't you the ticklish one?" the pale-skinned elf said as she grabbed him under the shoulders and raised him into the air. Unceremoniously, she handed the struggling child to a middle-aged woman passing by. "Here, keep him out of trouble."
"That's an order, don't argue," Venna said, unperturbed by the protest, and turned away. "Now, since we seem to be done here, why don't we go to the big hall too?" She indicated the retreating back of the last villagers to pass through the corridor.
Eline's gaze briefly lingered on the child, who was looking back at her while the stranger led him away by his hand. "Might as well," she agreed.
The two dark elves were walking in companionable silence when one of the men in the crowd slowed and let himself fall behind until he was next to them.
His body language reminded Eline of one of the shy and insecure young warlocks who had tried to ask her out. While his eyes lingered briefly on the hem of Venna's short purple dress, she doubted that he had any romantic intentions.
"Another one," Venna whispered. "Why do they all come to me to ask their question?"
With a crooked grin, Eline shot a significant look at the other dark elf's chest. "Must be that badge."
"Ahem, excuse me, ladies" the man said with a stiff bow, causing the goblins to cackle. He looked at them uncertainly.
From the bright colours of his tattered outfit, Eline concluded that he had been some kind of minor noble before being dragged off by the undead.
"What is it?" Venna asked, waving her hand with the palm facing downwards to shush the goblins.
"My name's Zolvan, and I used to live in the town of Fourclovers, which you probably haven't heard about..." He waited for a moment, and when neither of the elves gave any indication to the contrary, he continued "Ah, well, you see, since I used to be a magistrate, and we didn't find anyone else who held a higher position, and you two seem to be the only intelligent, um, servants of Her Dark Majesty who aren't busy with something else, and assigned to looking after us anyway, and-"
"Will you get to the point already?" Venna interrupted the sweating man.
"Err, yes, of course. You wouldn't happen to know what Empress Mercury has planned for us?"
"Nope. How would I?" Venna countered, sounding weary and resigned.
Eline got the feeling that her friend had been hearing similar questions quite a lot today.
"A guess?" he continued, clearly dissatisfied with her answer. "Certainly, you must have been wondering too-"
"I told you, I don't know anything!"
"Not even a hint? Then what am I supposed to tell my people when-"
Eline tuned the conversation out and took a few steps forward. She put her hands on the shoulders of two villagers who had stopped in the entrance to the congress hall, gaping wide-eyed into the vast expanse. "Keep moving, please! You can get an even better look at it from the inside while you find a seat," she said, not unfriendly. She could well understand why the town bumpkins would freeze and gawk. While the vast, domed cave wasn't as big as a few in the Underworld that she had seen, it came close. None of them had been as well-lit, though, and she wondered how these incredibly bright lamps affixed to the steel arches worked. Unlike the first time she had seen the place, the rows upon rows of ascending seats were now filled with thousands of people, giving her a proper sense of scale. She couldn't even make out the faces of those sitting furthest from the entrance.
A goblin guard arrived from the downwards-leading stairs and waved at the new arrivals. "This way. Still some free seats near front!"
His arrival shook Eline from her thoughts, and she realised that she had been admiring the scenery just as the townsfolk had. As they followed the guide downwards, she returned her attention to Venna, just in time to see her uncross her arms and raise her voice at Zolvan.
"Fine! If you want to know that badly, ask her yourself! She's right over there!" Venna snapped, pointing her index finger downwards and to the left, to the centre of the stage below. There, a blue-haired figure sat upon a throne of white marble, looking too slight for the massive seat.
Ami patiently waited for the last stragglers who had entered the hall to find free seats. Unsurprisingly, the spots furthest away from her had been occupied first, and now the few villagers forced to be seated in the front row stared at her fearfully. Not that they were the only ones. Ami let her gaze wander over the rows upon rows of seats, arranged in a way similar to modern concert halls or cinemas. She had consciously avoided creating an amphitheatre-like structure, since she was under enough pressure already without flashbacks to her duel with the reaper. Thankfully she was already sitting down, so the weak feeling in her knees did not affect her much. That, at least, was a practical advantage of the throne her advisers had insisted on. Nevertheless, she could feel sweet form on the palms of her hands as she struggled against her shyness. Jadeite's glamour that gave her ice golem body a living appearance was very realistic like that.
"Jadeite," she called in a hushed voice. It still sounded loud in this room filled with people who were, except for the younger children, unnaturally silent. "Is the sound system ready?"
The dark general approached with swift but dignified steps. "Yes, your Majesty. Allow me." He bowed down and handed her a microphone. While turned away from the crowd, he whispered "Don't worry too much. They are not going to rate your performance."
Ami blinked and answered with a brief smile, encouraged by his words. He was right, she thought while he moved back to his spot to the right of her throne. Nobody was going to laugh at her, even if she should stammer and stutter her way through her announcements. Emboldened for the moment, she moved one finger across the microphone, causing the glamoured-up speakers distributed around the room to hiss softly.
The mass of humans before her started shifting, startled by the sound, and Ami saw heads turn as their owners searched for the source of the noise.
"Greetings, everyone," Ami said, wincing for a moment as the startled listeners ducked in fright. "Don't be afraid, I mean no harm." Not that they would believe her without a lot of convincing. "Please don't be startled when the wall behind me lights up, it is just a picture taken by a crystal ball and projected to the wall. It should appear right about... now."
Behind her and above the throne, a giant-sized image of her face appeared, large enough to be clearly visible even from the farthest rows. Despite the warning, a wave of mutters and gasps went through the room.
"All right," Ami said, speaking easier now that all those gazes were focused on the screen above her, rather than herself, "I'm sure you are all wondering what is going on and why you are here. It's so I can address a number of questions you may have, and for administrative purposes. I'm not much of a public speaker, so I will try to keep my explanations short and succinct."
Seeing that she had at least the interest of the adults now, she continued "First, yes, I am Sailor Mercury, also known as Empress Mercury of the Avatar Islands," several children started crying here, but Ami steeled herself and pressed onwards, "and no, you don't need to be afraid of me. I bear no ill intent towards any of you. Please consider yourself guests, rather than prisoners."
She could tell by the sceptical and dubious expressions that the townsfolk weren't believing her. That wasn't unexpected, and Ami hoped that clarifying her future plans would at least calm the audience down. "You are currently on the Avatar Islands proper, and I apologise for the poor accommodations. I did not foresee having to save you from Crowned Death's minions and bringing you here."
"If we are guests, then can we go home?" a particularly brave man in the tenth row shouted loudly. He was wearing tattered militia garb, and the people sitting around him paled and leaned away from him.
Ami blinked, and the giant image of her on the screen mirrored her surprise. "In principle, the answer to that question is yes-"
Excited and sceptical whispers filled the room.
"-but there is a complication that you need to be made aware of."
"Yeah, right," the man snorted and muttered so quietly that she would not have noticed if she hadn't been focusing on with her Keeper perception.
"It relates to your eye injuries." Ami noticed that she was nervously wringing her hands, and forced herself to put them back on the armrests of her throne. "While my assistant Jadeite here has healed those wounds, the cure is, unfortunately, not permanent."
This time, Ami had to stop because her public reacted poorly to the announcement. The hall erupted into pandemonium. A cacophony of frightened shrieks, groans, and shouts echoed through the giant cave as scared people jumped to their feet and demanded answers. "Not permanent?" "I don't wanna be blind again!" "Nooo!" "What do you mean?"
"Please calm down! CALM DOWN!" Ami was forced to raise her voice to make herself heard, even with the sound system amplifying her words. Fortunately, being shouted at by an irritated Keeper seemed to be as much of a shock to flaring emotions as a bucket of ice cold water would have been. She continued more calmly "Please! There is no need to get worried, you are not going to suddenly go blind again!" Ami fought the urge to hang her head as she saw the now thoroughly frightened people huddle in their seats. This was all so frustrating! Why couldn't they realise that she only wanted to help them?
She took a calming breath, and a somewhat strained smile returned to her face. "I repeat, there is no risk of something happening to your eyes without warning. The limit of the cure is not time, but distance, since it is powered by a local source. As long as you stay within this complex or the surrounding area, you have nothing to fear."
"So it's a leash," the militiaman who had spoken up before spat, a dark look on his face. Around him, the spreading murmurs agreed with the sentiment.
"No, it's not like that!" Ami protested. "It's a stopgap measure until I find a better way to deal with cursed wounds. Even in the worst case scenario, your eyes should be fine on their own in a year or two!" They don't look to happy about the news, she thought after observing the effects of her words. "I assure you that I am going to improve your accommodations as soon as possible. I am also willing to arrange transport for those who still want to leave but- please let me finish!" She raised her hands defensively, as if to stem the overwhelmingly loud tide of demands to be returned home. "I want you to know the risks of this decision first. The wounds to your eyes are cursed, and it's likely that you will be blind for months or years before someone able to heal them can take care of you. Please think about it for a while before you make your choice. Right now, I need to address a more pressing issue. The children."
Those boys and girls old enough to understand what was going on tried to look very small, and Ami saw a few of them hide behind the people next to them. Some of the adults were reacting too, pulling a child or two into a protective hug.
The room went dead silent, and Ami put her hands together nervously as she faced those hostile gazes. "Most of the people here are children," she clarified, "and many of them are lost and on their own. In a first step, I want to reunite them with their families, or at least with people they know."
Some postures relaxed, but not all of them. One woman in the back shouted "Why? So you know who to use as hostage?"
Ami shot her a glare, which she immediately regretted when the giant screen above her magnified the expression, glowering down on the assembly like an angry giant with crimson-glowing eyes.
The effect on the room was instantaneous. Some of the children she wanted to help started crying, and the adults shivered in their seats.
The young empress closed her eyes until she was sure she could keep her features neutral again. "Please do not insinuate things like that, it really offends me," she stated quietly. "Now, here is how this will work: any children who are not currently with a family member will come down here and walk across the stage." She smiled encouragingly. "When they do, they'll appear here on the big screen, just as I currently do. If any of you recognise a child, please come down and take him or her into your care." She gave a hand signal to the group of five dark elves waiting at the entrance of the hall. "Children, if you have nobody to take care of you, follow the town guards who are going to pass through the rows, please."
"Now, I have some more announcements to make while this is happening. First, I want those of you who had leadership positions before you were abducted to act as liaisons between me and your people. Please stay behind once this meeting is over. Second, I need volunteers who are able to read and write. Their task will be recording the personal information of everyone who is here, so that the complete lists can be mailed to their home countries. In a second phase, these administrators will assist with composing and collecting letters to loved ones and next of kin. All such volunteers should move to the right side of the stage."
Ami saw some men and women get up hesitantly before more followed their example. More important was the reaction of the crowd, which sounded somewhat hopeful and excited for the first time. Ami felt her spirits lift as she watched the animated expressions. "The next issue I need to address is food. I am aware of the complaints about the current fish-with-chicken diet, and can sympathise. I do have farms with ripe wheat, fruit and vegetables to remedy this problem, but not enough manpower to harvest and process them. I-
Ami paused as a young girl jumped off the stage and threw herself into the arms of a haggard woman with dark rings under her eyes, which were tearing up with joy. The teenager watched the reunion for a moment with a wide smile on her face, deeply touched by the sight, and also a little envious. When she continued her speech, her mood remained lighter than before. "I encourage all skilled farmers, cooks, and bakers to help out with the harvest so that everyone can have proper food again soon. Please come down to the left side of the stage if you volunteer!"
This time, people stood up more quickly, and the prospect of better meals even earned her a few cheers.
"Finally, I am planning to improve your accommodations, and the aid of skilled architects to help with the planning and design would be appreciated. Please stay behind with the liaisons so you can gather their ideas, too," Ami finished the last point on her list. She felt that she had made real progress here and managed to convince her guests that she wasn't going to simply kill them all. Things were looking up. But not for everyone, she was forced to acknowledge when she spotted the two first children who had crossed the entire stage without being collected. She hoped with all her heart that not many would join them.
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