Ami stood amidst piles of clothes scattered across the floor of an otherwise empty chamber. She rested her head on her hands, feeling her cheeks burn underneath her fingers. Why again had she rashly told Jered that she would pick his outfit? Sure, it had been satisfying to see his flabbergasted expression after he had irritated her so, but... She shook her head. The conjured bits and pieces on the ground didn’t really deserve to be called “clothes” any longer after the corruption had altered them. If anything, they had turned out worse than the female ones.

Picking from a pile at random, she levitated a collection of thin, belt-like leather straps and turned it in the air before her. She paused in confusion, and her eyes glazed over as she imagined it attached to the male body in various ways to figure out how exactly it was supposed to be worn. Blushing even harder, she let it drop back to the ground. While thinking about Jadeite or even Jered wearing some of this stuff wasn’t unpleasant, the implications were mortifying. She’d have to ask them to wear something from this room! Even just thinking about how they’d judge her for her choice felt as if a bucket of cold water had been upended over her head. Sweating, she sighed and nervously looked around once more. She had to find something reasonable. Or at least something that wouldn’t make her wish for the ground to swallow her when the time came to present it to its intended wearers.

Ami returned her attention to a section of the room she hadn’t surveyed yet. The sight of a pile of items rightfully forgotten by fashion made her whimper, and her remaining resolve abandoned ship. Codpieces.

No. Enough! She wasn’t dealing with this! She was an empress, and therefore had other people who could be dealing with this instead! Venna, Eline, I’m going to transport you to me shortly. Get ready, she mentally called out to the two dark elves.

She was confident that with a few precise instructions, they would do a good job. Coming from a culture with questionable fashion trends, they were probably more qualified than her, anyway. The stuff on the ground seemed like the sort of thing that the dark elf tailor who had made her Keeper uniform had initially tried to foist on her.

Ami wrinkled her nose and looked at her gold-trimmed black sleeve. Said uniform was getting a noticeably uncomfortable in this underground heat, and it was also feeling a little tight. She suspected the latter had more to do with her being a growing girl than with any detrimental corruption effects, though. She decided that she would change into something else as soon as she had briefed Eline and Venna.

Count Ornish rushed past a line of busts depicting his liege’s ancestors, sparing no glance at their marble-sculpted features. His attention remained focused on the wide-open doorway at the end of the corridor.

A young dwarven lad in the livery of a messenger appeared between the iron wings of the door and left the room at a jog. He politely inclined his head toward Ornish as he passed him.

The count returned the greeting with a barely-perceptible nod and continued onwards. The guards in front of the door, clad entirely in gleaming plate and leaning on their war mauls, waved him through without hesitation.

Inside the room, Duke Libasheshtan stood behind a table covered in maps. He was talking rapidly to the captain of the cities’ militia, his black beard bobbing up and down. The arsenal master was hovering around the two, wringing his hands, while the duke’s champion contemplated the map.

A large monster of a wolfhound was the first to notice Ornish’ arrival and wagged his tail before he returned his attention to gnawing on a bone.

“My Liege, I have arrived as soon as I could,” Ornish announced himself

“Ah, Count,” the Duke said as he turned and shook the other dwarf’s hand. A brief but sincere smile flickered over his futures before his deep frown returned.“Old friend, I’m sorry to interrupt your and your wife’s visit to my city, but I have grave news concerning your County.”

“The orcs are amassing for an invasion?” Ornish guessed. Glancing at the map, he had no trouble recognising his home terrain under the light of the runes winding around the chamber’s pillars

“If only,” the Duke shook his head sadly. “This situation is much worse. Our King has informed me that the Dark Empress herself has established a foothold in the Barony of Whitemountains.”

Ornish felt his hackles rise. A Keeper was no laughing matter, and this one was particularly problematic. “How accurate is that information?” he asked tersely.

“We were warned about her presence by two independent sources. Preliminary scrying has revealed odd storm patterns around Highroot mountain, hinting at a dungeon in the area,” the Duke elaborated, pointing at a white-patterned area on the map.

Ornish swore loud enough to make the dog in the corner start and whine. “Highroot. That’s undeveloped area. Good, since it’s away from my people, bad because it will take longer to get our troops over there.”

“Do not fear, all of Nimbadnur will stand with you against this danger,” Duke Libasheshtan assured him. “I have already ordered five hundred of my city guards to accompany you on your way home. Likewise, you will soon receive reinforcements from my other vassals, and eventually all of the kingdom.”

“They cannot arrive quickly enough,” Ornish said, his mind racing. He could personally call upon about one thousand dwarfs, and each of his three barons on a little under that. If he could bring all of his forces to bear at once, it might be enough for the task at hand. Of course, that would mean the survivors would be returning to homes raided and pillaged by the ever-vigilant orc tribes. Still, the Duke's assistance almost doubled the number of professional warriors he commanded, which would help a great deal with the morale of the rest.

“Contain her where she is, and they will be there in time!” Libasheshtan said with conviction. “No foul Keeper shall divide our lands again!”

“As you command, my liege.” Buying time was something he felt able to handle. His miners and engineers could compete with the best.

“I shall be joining you about one week from now with veterans recalled from the outlying towns and villages,” the Duke promised. “In the meantime, Toltotbom here-”

The captain of the guard bowed.

“- will be training more militia.”

Toltotbom snorted. “About a month for now, they'll still not be good for much more than garrison duty, but-”

“That will free the bulk of our forces from their current duties,” Ornish finished. If the other dukes handled matters similarly, then their forces would be arriving soon after. A different worry kept occupying his thoughts. “What if the Dark Empress shows herself?”

“Our loyalty to the King will see us through,” the Duke said. “She has no legitimate claim to the throne, unlike the pretender.”

“May he enjoy the fruits of his actions in the afterlife.” Ornish turned towards the door. “By your leave? I have a home to protect.”

“Go with all haste, Count, and may we all enjoy hearing the bards sing about our victory in the not too far future!”

Darkness reigned within Ami's new office, contested only by the candelabras placed on the four corners of her desk. The desk itself was a partially hollowed-out rock block so large that they were well outside of her reach. She would have to climb on top of it and crawl across its glass-covered surface to be in any danger of accidentally toppling one of the lights. As the rest of her office matched the desk's scale, the candlelight failed to reach the walls, leaving the bookshelves lining them them shrouded in darkness.

Ami pushed back her chair, making a scraping noise that echoed in the vast, almost empty chamber. She didn't need her eyes to see within her dungeon, but right now, she was using entirely mundane senses to check if visitors would see anything they shouldn't. In theory, the darkness would hide the fact that her office – size aside – wasn't exactly fit for an empress. She didn't see much use in expending time and resources on ostentatious decorations when the corruption would just ruin them soon. For the moment, she had simply covered every exposed stone surface in a layer of glass to create an illusion of sophistication. Hopefully, it would also encourage any modifications to develop along the lines of fragility and her own ice themes.

So far, that scheme had mostly gained her damp walls.

Well, closer inspection also revealed tiny fractures within the glass that reflected the dim light, arranged in glittering constellations that resembled frost flowers. Ami deemed this a more favourable result than she had any reason to expect.

She stepped around her desk and focused her attention on its front. To her satisfaction, the Mercury symbol emblazoned onto its solid front remained yet untainted by the corruption.

Now that she had verified that there was nothing in the room that would embarrass her in front of visitors, Ami focused on her connection to her dungeon heart. Guided by her intent, a square section of the floor shattered, its tiles coming loose and evaporating into blue smoke. Drawing upon the prison blueprint, Ami made vertical steel bars grow from the ground in a square pattern. She briefly transported herself into the cell and tried to cast spells outside, but they didn't get through the spaces between the bars. Good, the cage was safe. Invoking her Keeper transport again, Ami reappeared behind her desk.

Confident that no tentacle monsters, goblins, or buckets full of dirty water were around, she transported the captured enemy sorceress into her office.

A slender woman with long, black hair dropped onto the straw-covered ground behind the bars and let out a startled gasp. With a snake-like twist of her body, she catapulted herself back into upright position, landing in a defensive crouch.

Ami's eyes widened as she noticed the prisoner's dress. The slinky thing consisted mostly of loose strips of cloth that barely covered the essentials – before it had taken battle damage.

The woman spun around, squinting against the light of the torches affixed to her cell as she took in her new surroundings. Her garment waved from her rapid motion, revealing that she was unlikely to be wearing anything else.

Flushing, Ami kept her gaze firmly on the knot that kept a snapped shoulder strap together, and she dropped one of her cloaks into the cell.

By now, the magician had turned to face Ami, or at least her desk. She flinched when the cloak appeared before her, and a pink light flickered briefly over her fingertips. It died down almost immediately, and she snatched the flowing garment out of the air and draped it around herself. Now properly covered, she sank to one knee and inclined her head. “Her Imperial Majesty, Empress Mercury I presume?”

“Yes,” Ami replied in a neutral voice, standing up. “And you are?”

“My name is Monteraine,” the sorceress introduced herself. “Head – or rather, former head of Morrigan's warlocks.”

“Morrigan?” Ami asked quietly, needing a moment to connect the name with the Keeper who had – briefly – interfered with her invasion of the Avatar Islands. “He is the one whose attack distracted Zarekos, right? So that was him with that flying dungeon.”

“Yes. Keeper Morrigan, ardent worshipper of Azzathra,” Monteraine elaborated. “Given his lamentable choice of a deity, it should be immediately obvious that he would only hire magic users whose skills were valuable enough to overcome his distaste for them.”

Ami considered this.

Monteraine took her silence as an invitation to keep talking. “Frankly, I am surprised that your Majesty did not choose to question me about him earlier.”

Morrigan had not made it onto the list of urgent issues Ami was concerned about even before Jadeite had kicked him off the Avatar Islands. “He slipped my mind,” she admitted. “It's not as if he has made much of a lasting impression so far.”

Monteraine stared at her, blinking once before she remembered to close her mouth. “ Forgive my insolence, your Majesty, but how can you say that?” Her voice grew a little lower, as if she wasn't entire sure that continuing her current line of reasoning was wise. “He cost you a dungeon heart, your Imperial Majesty!”

Ami shook her head. “I was planning to abandon that dungeon anyway, and all he did was make me speed up my plans,” she explained. “His presence was rather helpful, actually, since it let me get rid of all of those ghosts at once.”

“You are saying that he was merely collateral damage?” Monteraine asked, sounding mildly irritated.

Ami narrowed her eyes at her. “Is there a problem with that?”

The woman shrank away from the bars and inclined her head more deeply. “Of course not, your Majesty. I was merely- well, I was expecting such an unusual and original angle of attack to be more than a little inconvenience, even for you!”

She almost sounded cheated, Ami thought. Monteraine's praise for the plan was odd too, given that she had only mentioned Morrigan with slight disdain until now. “Oh! It was your idea, wasn't it?”

Monteraine twitched, and a few beads of sweat glittered on her forehead. “You are very perceptive, your Imperial Majesty. I'm, err, of course not disappointed that I failed to harm you,” she hastened to clarify. “It's only that such abject failure stings my professional pride a little.”

“Sorry? I'm sure it would have given me some trouble if I hadn't been preparing to move,” Ami found herself consoling the sorceress. Perhaps that was because her hairstyle reminded her a little of Rei?

Monteraine coughed into her hand. “Um. Well, you are not at all what I expected, your Imperial Majesty. I had not taken you for an admirer of the Shining Concord's style, for example,” she finished with a light questioning tone.

Ami had ordered a replica of the fairies' outfit from blue cloth from her trolls, and it fit her quite well. If the swimsuit-like uniform was used by a nation's military, she had convinced herself, then it could hardly be considered indecent. No matter what it looked like. “It has some practical advantages,” Ami replied.

“Indubitably,” Monteraine agreed in a dry voice.

Ami got the sinking feeling that the sorceress was not thinking about how suitable it was for the hot underground climate. Or that the corruption was unlikely to eat away at it. Or even how it was mental preparation for Ami's other performance today. “In any case, I brought you here to decide what to do about you,” she said in an effort to get back on track.

“You could hire me, your Imperial Majesty,“Monteraine suggested immediately. “I assure you that I am a sorceress of rare creativity and skill. I do feel inspired by your work with three-dimensional wards, even if my own research has not yet managed to catch up.”

Ami blinked at that, having no idea what Monteraine was talking about. It did sound like something that could be potentially of interest, though.

“Obviously, since Morrigan and you share similar interests, much of my knowledge and experience could also be applied in your service without major modifications.”

“How so?” Ami asked, dreading the answer. From her short conversations with Morrigan's former minions, she had gathered that he was as horrible a deviant as she was rumoured to be.

“I'm very good at making improvements. Morrigan certainly did not gain his huge, sculpted body and his good looks through diligent training and a healthy diet.” She hesitated for a moment, scrutinizing Ami more closely. “However, I can see that bulging muscles are not necessarily something you would want for yourself, your Majesty. Fortunately, I have improvements more suitable for the female body in my repertoire too.” She raised her hands and moved them in a curving gesture through the air. “Perhaps you would like me to help along your body's development a little?”

Ami wondered when exactly she had lost control of the conversation. Not that the notion of improving her looks wasn't tempting, as Jadeite might appreciate- what was she thinking? This wasn't the time to get distracted by her hormones! “Um, I'm not certain I'd want to make use of those skills at all,” she muttered and sank deeper into her chair.

Her protest didn't distract Monteraine from her sales pitch. “Understandable. Naturally, you needn't only take my word for it. If you want to inspect some of my work more closely-”

“Stop! Put that back on!” Ami shouted, covering her eyes as Monteraine began to slid out of her cloak.

“As you wish,” the sorceress acquiesced, sounding surprised. There was a rustle of cloth as she recovered her clothing and and wrapped it around herself. “A-as I was about to explain, I have made various rather skilful adjustments to myself. Properly matching volume and skin elasticity, for example, is-”

Someone knocked at the door. “Your Majesty? We need you to approve the selection we made!” a female voice called from outside, accompanied by a suppressed giggle.

Ami glanced past Monteraine at the entrance. That would be Venna and Eline then, a little ahead of schedule. She called “Enter!” almost before she had consciously realised how much she wanted a break from Monteraine's antics.

Eline's slim, pointy-eared silhouette appeared in the brightly-lit gap as she opened the tall door. Carrying a tray loaded with clothes, the albino entered, followed by the curvier form of Venna. Both of the dark elves hesitated in the entrance as their eyes adjusted to the darkness.

Ami glanced at their trays with one half curiosity and one half worry. Had they managed to find something reasonable? Before she could check, tray and contents clattered to the floor.

“You!” Eline hissed, red eyes widening in recognition as she stared at the figure within the cage.

“Hmm?” Monteraine turned to face her. “It's imprudent to point at people who can turn you into a rock with a few words.”

“Shut up!” the dark elf shouted as she stalked towards the bars, producing a dagger from somewhere within her trousers. She whirled towards Ami and dropped to one knee. “My Empress, can I have her? Please?”

“What? No!” Ami answered, blinking at the usually placid woman whose fingers were clenching and unclenching. A quick glance behind the dark elf revealed that Venna was glowering at the sorceress too. “Explain!” she demanded, still surprised by the sudden hostility.

“She's was the one in charge of breaking minions to suit Morrigan's whims!” Eline snarled and clenched her teeth.

Ami's heart skipped a beat. With the way Monteraine was dressed, she hadn't expected that. “You mean like...” Ami threw a significant glance in Venna's direction.

Eline nodded, making a growling sound in the back of her throat.

“Monteraine, is that true?”

Monteraine had followed Ami's gaze to the large-chested dark elf and therefore missed the Keeper's eyes flaring brighter. “That? Oh, yes. Morrigan's too impatient and makes nothing but a terrible mess with my spells more often than not.” She frowned at Venna's clingy dress. “She looks vaguely familiar, but- Aha! Someone undid my work? Impressive. It's supposed to be permanent.”

“You bitch!” Eline snarled. “I'll gut you like-”

“Eline, stop!” Ami shouted as the dark elf lunged towards the bars.

The albino froze and somehow managed to pale further upon seeing Ami's displeased expression.“Y-yes your Majesty.”

“I will not let my employees kill each other over past grievances,” Ami proclaimed quickly, trying to get some time to think.

“Not a minion yet,” Eline mumbled in protested, barely audible.

“What about just a little stabbing instead?” Venna suggested cheerfully. “Let her exercise her spells that prevent scarring.”

Ami found herself seriously considering the notion for a split-second. Appalled, she clamped down on her anger for Monteraine, caused by the sorceress complete disregard for her victim. She shook her head. “Neither will I tolerate them harming each other.” Then, she looked directly at the sorceress. “Nor will I let those grievances remain unaddressed.”

“Perfectly reasonable,” Monteraine agreed. “Infighting is such a bother. Just leave the two of them to me for an hour, and they won't even remember they were ever angry at me.”

Feeling sickened by sorceress' approval-seeking smile, Ami glared at her. “That would most definitely be harming them!” She took a deep breath. “Monteraine, I am convinced by now that you are not prospective hireling material.”

The black-haired woman recoiled as if slapped. “What? But your Majesty! You can't be serious! I'm too valuable to kill! I- I have different skills too! I'm m-multi-talented, really!” Monteraine stammered. She swallowed when she saw the huge grin on Eline's face. “I can be useful!”

Lack of skills wasn't the problem, unfortunately. Ami's sense of justice was screaming at her to punish the sorceress. At the same time, it was complaining about only punishing evildoers when their victims made her aware of their crimes. Not that she had much choice in the matter. Pragmatically speaking, she couldn't afford to investigate the past of her underlings if she didn't want to get rid of most of them. Ami grimaced. She hated having to make excuses like that to herself. At which point would she go too far and become part of the system?

“He's not back yet – shouldn't be back yet!” Monteraine shouted, her voice getting shriller. “Morrigan, I mean. You could strike right now! I can find his dungeons for you!”

Ami listened up. Getting rid of an enemy Keeper was worth her while, even if Morrigan had been something of an involuntary asset so far.“Why did you work for someone like him anyway?” she asked. Knowing the black-haired woman's motives would make it easier to decide what to do with her.

“It's not as if I had much choice!” the sorceress blurted out, some confidence returning. “You don't think he uses his spells only on his toys, do you? Or that I could have just walked out on him? He's worshipping Azzathra!” She took a deep breath. “If you are a warlock and he wants something from you, you had better damn well give it to him! And if you can't...” she looked at the floor. “Suffice it to say that these last few weeks where he demanded that we recreate your Majesty's achievements were extremely unpleasant.”

“Serves you right,” Venna hissed in the back.

Ami felt less inclined to share the dark elf's sentiment now. She knew all too well what it was like to be stuck within circumstances that sharply limited one's options. However, there was Monteraine's complete lack of regret... Argh, how was she supposed to do what was right? “Monteraine, tell me what you know about Morrigan. If your information is accurate and useful, I will hire you.”

“Thank you for that chance to prove myself, your Majesty,” Monteraine said while bowing.

Ami could hear Eline grind her teeth. “However, your wages will go to your past victims as compensation,” Ami continued.

Monteraine's face fell. “That's – that is -”

“Would you prefer it if they took it out of your hide instead?” Ami interrupted sharply. “This way, at least, you'll be worth more alive to them than dead.”

“I see your point, your Majesty,” Monteraine said, glancing over at the two glowering dark elves.

Venna leaned over and whispered something into Eline's ear, making the shorter woman smirk.

Ami didn't catch the words that were exchanged, but decided that she'd need to keep an eye on that situation. If she kept Monteraine, anyway. Addressing the sorceress again, she said “Now, I want to hear about Morrigan's lairs. Right after you have turned my vampire whom you petrified back to normal.”

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Chapter 171: Vanity Issues Chapter 173: Delivering Presents

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