“…and that’s the current situation,” Ami finished, pointing at the large map that was hanging on the wall as if it was a blackboard. Her own dungeon was marked with a blue flag that had the Mercury symbol on it, while a thick red line indicated the railway connection between the two dwarven settlements.
Cathy let herself sink against the back of her chair heavily. “Another eight-thousand men already gathered,” she said, a hint of disbelief in her voice. “How are we supposed to deal with that?”
“We’ll have to go on the offensive and stop or delay the dwarven reinforcements,“ Ami said hoping that her advisers would be able to contribute some useful ideas. She looked at the faces around the table one by one.
At the leftmost place, Snyder looked as if only shock at the revelation of the latest danger was keeping him awake. He had dark circles under his wide-open eyes and was resting his head on his hands. Wrapped in a white toga, he almost looked as if he had brought a blanket.
To his right, Cathy frowned and raised her hand to her chin, only to wince as she touched one of her bandages.
“Obviously, we need to destroy the railway,” Jadeite stated matter-of-factly. He was sitting in the centre, looking serious but confident - and also somewhat distracting since his conjured uniform was suffering from corruption damage.
Ami reluctantly tore her gaze away from his chest, which wasn't adequately covered by his crossed arms. “At least the acceleration stations need to go,” Ami agreed. “Disabling them will give the best effect, even more so than damaging the tunnels. The enemy has enough troops to split up into different groups. One could march on while a second digs a bypass and a third fixes the cave-in. In contrast, the stations have complicated machinery that is harder to replace. Without them, the dwarfs should take around three to four times longer to arrive here”, she lectured.
Her adopted sister seemed to be only half listening and was scribbling numbers on a piece of paper. She stopped, underlined something, snorted in irritation and balled up the paper. With a careless gesture, she brushed it aside.
It landed in front of Jadeite, who was sitting next to her. The dark general shot her an irritated look. He had been glowering occasionally at the youma ever since she had managed to talk him into creating a model train with glamour. The toy was currently racing around a circular track on the table.
Ami wasn’t entirely sure if he was unhappy because he found the task beneath his dignity or because she had complimented Tiger on the idea. It had saved valuable time explaining to the locals what exactly a train was.
Torian, sitting on the rightmost side of the group, leaned forward to see what Tiger was writing. Or perhaps he was trying to get a good look down her neckline, as she was still wearing what was left of her corruption-damaged senshi uniform. Even though she had tied the remaining pieces together with bands of fabric, the result resembled a daring swimsuit more than it did the original uniform.
While Ami didn't approve of the outfit, she was a little relieved that it drew attention away from her own. Whenever she had to brush aside her cloak to use her hands, she worried that the corruption had altered her shorts and shirt while nobody was looking. Why couldn’t it go bother the dwarfs outside instead? Maybe she should work on that once she had some time to spare.
Her chief warlock distracted her from her discomfort. He had been quiet during her explanation; listening intently while following the model train with his eyes. After a glance at the map he said “Forgive me, your Majesty, but I’m not sure I understand every aspect of the problem. These ‘trains’ don’t appear to be difficult to handle. Surely, they can be easily stopped?”
His fingers emerged from underneath his own vampire-like cloak, wriggling in the air. Sparks danced around a section of the track, and with a loud snap, it broke. The rails bent upwards, forming a small ramp.
The engine went over it, leapt off the tracks and right over the edge of the table. It hit the ground, and the impact smashed the wagons open, scattering tiny dwarf figures across the tiles.
It was all too easy for Ami to imagine the still figures as real corpses staring up lifelessly at the ceiling. Just like the ones in her morgue, she thought, feeling a stab of guilt. Derailing occupied trains was one of the things she wasn’t prepared to do. “Stopping a few trains won't help. The real danger is logistics,” she said.
“I see.” Torian didn’t sound entirely convinced.
“This can't be the only railway line,” she elaborated. “It would make sense for every major town in the country to be connected, which means that it's possible to travel from one end to the other in only a few days.” Reaching for an analogy he would be familiar with, she added “Think of it as slow Keeper transport for armies on a national scale.”
Torian paled, the contrast between his skin and his black beard slowly growing more pronounced. “But, your Majesty, I vaguely remember reading somewhere that Nimbadnur has six duchies!”
Don’t forget that there's a king too,” Cathy added, causing the warlock to wince.
His voice started wavering a little when he continued “Your Majesty, you will be able to tear down this railway network, right?”
Ami grimaced. “The tunnels are dark, so I would have to personally locate each of them. Even if I found them, I'd have to make them unusable over a large distance to prevent the dwarfs from simply going around the damage.”
“Damnation! Is there nothing we can do?” Torian asked.
“Calm down, we won't have the entirety of the kingdom's army on our doorstep tomorrow,” Cathy said.
The warlock turned to look at her with wide, hopeful eyes. It was an expression that didn't belong his haughty features.
Ami paid close attention to the swordswoman too, wondering where her optimism came from.
“Unlike Keepers, kingdoms don't have all of their soldiers as a standing army,” the blonde explained. “Most of their forces are militia, which need to be trained, equipped, and, most importantly, collected from the villages and hamlets spread across their liege lord's territory. Those warriors won't be able to just take a train to the gathering point.”
“That's great,” Ami said with a genuine smile.
Guided by her telekinesis, a piece of chalk drew a skewed circle on the map, centred on her dungeon’s location. The chalk made a few more passes, adding arrows directed towards the circle from the surrounding regions.
Ami pointed at the drawn ring. “In addition, I'm reasonably certain that no tracks get closer to the dungeon than this.” She was extrapolating from the lack of sufficiently large towns nearby. “From there, the enemy soldiers would need to march here on foot.”
“So we'll at least see them coming,” Tiger commented before resuming her scribbling.
Curious, Ami glanced at the sheet, which was filled with stroked-out lines and revisions. Maths didn't seem to come easily to her adopted sister, even if she obviously knew what she was doing. “Tiger, what exactly are you working on?” Ami addressed the black-striped youma.
“Just trying to figure out how much gold we’d need to steal in order to build enough fortifications before the dwarfs are here,” Tiger said, frowning at her number-covered sheet of paper.
“I’m not sure yet, but it looks as if it’s going to work if we get the gold early enough to skip the first cycles of harvesting gems and building more furnaces.”
That matched Ami’s own thoughts on the issue. Due to the nature of exponential growth, any boost at the beginning would give much greater returns than a boost at later point.
“Well,” Torian said with a wide grin, “by most accounts, dwarven towns are filthy rich.”
Ami didn’t think the dwarfs would forgive her for stealing from them, even if she paid everything back with interest later. Much of their wealth would be in the form of art and cultural treasures, which she wouldn’t be able to replace. Ignoring the moral issues, there was also a big practical problem with Torian’s suggestion. “The wealth wouldn’t be all conveniently in one place, just waiting for me to snatch it. I’d have to conquer and search the place.”
Her chief warlock nodded, his face falling.
“Could you rob some Keeper’s treasury?” Cathy suggested.
Ami perked up. “I could visit Morrigan's dungeon again.”
“Your trap already went off and his minions looted everything valuable when the dungeon heart blew up,” Snyder said in a tired voice. “Or so Monteraine told me. She seemed rather exuberant about his misfortune.”
“Darn it. I mean, it's good, but inconvenient.” Ami lowered her head. “Unfortunately, I don’t know about any other enemy dungeon locations.” Maybe she could ask the Avatar? In any case, getting the gold from other Keepers wouldn’t be simple. Having to deal with their retaliation in addition to fending off the dwarfs would be suboptimal, too. “In fact, I don’t know of any other feasible targets.” She paused. “I could try mining for gold or gems instead. Do any of you know of a good location by chance?”
The locals shook their heads.
Ami sighed. It had been a long shot. “Jadeite, please have some of the smarter employees look for natural resources,” she decided, even though she didn’t have high hopes for success. Anyway, setting up a proper mining operation would require time, resources, and quite possibly a new dungeon heart, and she didn’t want to stretch herself too thin.
The dark general nodded. “As you wish. Does that include the youma?”
Ami considered for a moment before shaking her head. “No, I think they will be more useful for tactical operations than for information gathering. Some of Jered’s hirelings should be suitable for the task.”
While she hadn’t paid attention to every creature that had entered her dungeon, it had been impossible to miss all of the humans with dubious background he had recruited. This would be a good test to see if his plan to turn them into a spy network was feasible.
At the mention of Jered’s name, Cathy shifted and let out a wistful sigh.
Ami met the swordswoman’s eyes. “Oh, I’m planning to bring Jered back here soon,” she said. “Don't worry; the orcs are treating him as their honoured guest.”
“I'm starting to wonder if he wouldn't be safer with them than here,” Cathy quipped, but her face lit up with anticipation.
“Which brings us right back to needing a plan for stopping the soldiers that have already gathered,” Ami returned to the most urgent topic. “Perhaps we could negotiate a cease-fire by using our prisoners as leverage?”
“No competent commander would save a few expendable soldiers if he could outright win the war instead,” Jadeite said, dashing her hopes. “They are worthless as hostages.”
Ami didn’t want to believe that her opponents would be that callous. “But-“
The dark general held up one hand to signal that he wasn’t done speaking yet. “That does not mean we can’t use that idea. You simply need to reconsider its scale.”
“Do you have a plan?” she asked, hoping he wouldn’t suggest something too questionable. Large-scale hostage taking didn't sound like something she wanted to consider, but she was running out of better alternatives.
“Threaten their civilians,” Jadeite suggested. “Your airships are faster than their trains. Position some above their cities and they’ll think twice about leaving them undefended.”
Cathy shot a dark look in Jadeite’s direction. “Yeah, it’s not as if that would cause them to redouble their efforts to destroy this dungeon,” she said in a scathing voice. “You do remember that that’s all they need to win, right?”
“You do realise that they know the troops on the airships won’t disappear just because their boss was defeated, right?” Jadeite snapped back, returning her glare.
“They'll want to protect their homes and families,” Tiger said, sounding hopeful. “That's what they are fighting for. Why would they go elsewhere and leave them to die?” she asked, supporting Jadeite's plan.
“It’s too risky,” Cathy insisted. “We don’t have enough troops to send them out on missions!”
A possibility to stop the dwarfs without bloodshed and force them to the negotiation table? Ami almost bounced with excitement. However, as Cathy had correctly pointed out, the idea could backfire catastrophically. She required more information to evaluate the risks and also had no idea how to handle the logistics yet. With her enthusiasm dampened to a healthier level, she said “Snyder, you had the most contact with the dwarven captives. Do you think Jadeite’s plan could work?”
The redhead’s drooping eyelids opened fully. “I-I’m not sure. The ones willing to talk to me sounded very defiant and willing to sacrifice themselves.”
“Bah, they probably consider themselves dead already,” Torian said with contempt. “Bravery is easy when you think you have nothing left to lose.” He chuckled and rubbed his hands. “Unimaginative fools.”
Ami was uncomfortably reminded of Nero. Should she really approve of this plan? It basically amounted to terrorising the enemy population. Would her friends be disappointed in her if she went along with something like it, even if it was to prevent worse?
“You know, Torian, that's a good point,” Tiger said. “We could end up facing soldiers who think they have nothing left but vengeance.”
Jadeite narrowed his eyes at her as if wondering which side she was on.
The warlock waved his hand dismissively. “They have to protect their cities or we take them and pick them clean of riches. Imagine the faces of their soldiers if they stood helplessly before our impenetrable defences erected with their own gold!”
Ami didn't enjoy that mental image at all, but the principle of the idea seemed sound. Of course, Torian was simplifying the situation. Garrisons could be left behind, and people would flee a doomed city with any valuables they could carry. Neither of these issues was insurmountable, but, well, she really didn't want to plan how to best rob desperate people fleeing for their lives.
“Would looting a city really provide enough money to make the dungeon safe?” Snyder asked, looking directly at Ami.
“That would depend on several factors, such as the timing and the wealth of the city,” she answered. “I hope we won't have to find out and the threat alone will be enough to deter an attack.”
“Even if it wasn’t enough, I would not be worried,” Torian spoke up again. “I’m sure that between the looted gold and her Majesty’s own astounding magical reserves, she will have enough power to enslave what’s left of the city’s midget population. That will give us a nice, expendable army to protect us from their former brethren.”
Ami blinked, blind-sided by his suggestion. While she was still trying to determine if she had heard correctly, her brain was already evaluating the feasibility. She knew that spells for controlling individuals existed in her library. Theoretically, they could be combined with sympathetic magic to spread- No, bad brain! This wasn’t an interesting puzzle that needed solving! She would already have gotten rid of those dark tomes if she could be sure she would never need to counter their contents!
Jadeite made a contemplative noise, attracting her attention.
To her great disappointment, he seemed to be seriously considering Torian’s evil idea, looking neither horrified nor even disturbed.
Cathy, on the other hand, was glaring at the back of the warlock’s head, and Snyder just closed his eyes, his mouth curving downwards in disgust.
Tiger wasn’t paying any attention to the dark magician. Instead, she was throwing worried glances in Ami's direction.
“D-did I make a mistake, your Imperial Majesty?” Torian asked, having noticed that something was amiss.
Ami finally became aware that the room had taken on a faint reddish hue. Her eyes must have been burning a bright red from her quiet anger.
Puzzled about what had upset her, the warlock defaulted to grovelling. “My Empress, I didn’t mean to offend you by suggesting that your own personal magic would be insufficient for-“
“Oh, just be quiet and let her think,” Tiger interrupted him.
Ami forcibly reminded herself that he was simply doing his job, and doing it well. His advice was horrifying, but it would work perfectly fine for someone evil enough to apply it. She needed to keep in mind that, with a few exceptions, she only had terrible people working for her. Terrible people who would desert her if they found out she wasn’t even worse than them.
She coughed into her hand and mumbled “Not you. Goblins.”
The warlock eagerly accepted the lie, happy that someone else was the target of her ire. “Ah, of course. What did they do?”
“That’s not important right now,” Ami said. “I'll make some preparations so we will be ready to use the airship plan when it becomes necessary.”
“Don't you have to sabotage the railway first?” Tiger asked, looking at her with surprise.
Ami shook her head. “I want to wait until the last moment, when the first train with soldiers leaves. Hopefully, that will force the dwarfs to lose some extra time as they re-evaluate the situation.”
“Are you sure you will spot them in time?”
“I have an imp watching traffic from the city,” she answered. Her attention briefly flickered to the creature in question, who was covered in soot to blend in with the black cave moss.
The imp was picking her nose and looked incredibly bored.
Cringing at the sight, Ami elaborated. “She'll teleport back to me when a train leaves the city. At that point, I'll make the tunnel cave in just in front of the station and make it unusable.”
Tiger nodded in comprehension.
She turned to Torian. “I want the warlocks to locate the enemy logistics tail. The dwarfs won't want to come here without food.” Targeting things over people also had the advantage of making her feel less guilty. Of course, she couldn't be sure about unintended consequences. Armies on the move tended to take the supplies they needed from the surrounding villages, no matter whether or not the inhabitants could spare them.
The chief warlock bowed. “Of course, your Majesty.”
“I would also like it if the enemy soldiers never got their marching orders. Cathy, I need you assemble a few teams with soldiers who are well-suited for surgical strikes against the enemy commanders.”
“The nobles and marshal, you mean?” the swordswoman asked, uncrossing her arms. “I’ll see what I can do. There will be plenty of other nobles and soldiers ready to move up the command chain, though.”
Ami thought for a moment. “It should be enough if incompetents end up in the open positions,” she said. Feudal systems weren’t exactly famous for merit-based promotions.
“How do we figure out which ones are incompetent?” Cathy asked.
“Most soldiers will be all too happy to badmouth their superiors,” Jadeite said with a voice that spoke of experience. “The prisoners might know something.”
Ami nodded. “Tiger, since the dwarfs seem to respect you, could you talk to them after they had some time to sleep and recover?”
“All right,” her adopted sister agreed with a shrug.
“Thank you. Snyder, you-“
The red-haired acolyte looked at her, barely able to keep his eyes open.
“- you best go to bed and recover too,“ she finished. None of the healer's patients remained in critical conditions. Since Jadeite already had a task, it was time to bring this meeting to a close. “If there are no more questions or comments, then I'd like for everyone to get started with the preparations.”
“Wait,” Cathy held up her hand. “How are you going to prevent the army already besieging us from attacking the moment we move out?”
The dwarfs would not attack if there was no chance for victory. At least, Ami hoped that they weren't fanatical enough to sacrifice their lives for no appreciable gain. A dungeon flush with defenders would be too difficult a target, and thus, she needed to import some of the orcs that lived in the mountains.
”Jered, I’ll be arriving in a moment,” she alerted her envoy through her communication spell.
The wavy-haired man rose from the pillow he was sitting on and moved to the wall of his dome-shaped tent. With his open palm, he gestured at the free space he had left, giving the go-ahead for her to teleport in.
She appeared, caught a brief glance of the glass lamp hanging from the ceiling while rotating in mid-air, and skilfully landed feet-first on the woven mats that covered the ground.
“Hello Jered,” she greeted him with a smile.
Her fluttering cloak finished its own descent, draping itself over her head and ruining an otherwise flawless landing.
With an impatient wave of her hand, she brushed the offending cloth out of her face. “Yet another drawback of imp teleportation,” she muttered under her breath.
Jered looked her up and down. “You don’t look like an imp to me.”
Ami shuffled her feet under his inspection. “Glamoured ice golem,” she explained.
“Oh, so that's why you are covered in condensation,” Jered said, his gaze pointed straight at her chest. “Nice dress, by the way.”
The black garment with golden decorations resembled her Keeper uniform and gathered tiny droplets as if it was ice-cold. Keeping in theme with its wet appearance, it clung to her skin.
Blushing, Ami pulled her cloak shut tight. “No, that's actually the corruption's fault,” she explained with a grimace. “The fabric is neither cold nor wet.”
It also looked as if it had been chewed on by a swarm of artistically-inclined moths, but much to Ami's relief, the holes had avoided embarrassing locations. They even formed a decorative snowflake pattern.
She had bought such restraint for the price of picking a garment that had little spare fabric to begin with. Since she was used to her senshi uniform, the shortness of the dress didn’t bother her, but it also left her back and shoulders uncovered. She felt almost as if she was only wearing a thin towel she had wrapped around herself.
“Tough. I didn't really have any problems with corruption outside of your dungeon,” Jered said, raising an eyebrow.
“You don't count as a piece of my territory,” Ami pointed out. She looked down at herself. “I just hope this won’t offend the orc dignitaries.”
The wavy-haired man snorted. “Dignitaries, hah. You will be fine. In fact, they don't have anything better than furs and leathers. The worst you’ll have to worry about is them wondering why you aren't dressing warmer,” he added with a grin.
Ami looked at the clothes that hung from one of the tent's curved bone supports. Some of them were Jered's greenish shirts, and trousers, but she also spotted several fur studded mantles she didn't remember him owning.
“Yeah, it gets cold here at times,” Jered said, following her gaze. “Especially when riding.” He sighed. “The nomad lifestyle isn’t for me.”
“The orcs were hard to track down, then?” Ami asked.
Jered grimaced. “Not exactly. Your communication spell can still be used as the lure it was originally meant to be, and it works fine on orcs. The main difficulty was the number of different tribes. They travel around a lot, they don’t have fixed routes, they can’t stand each other, and they tend to greet foreigners by ambushing them,” he listed.
“Ambushes?” Ami asked, her eyes widening. She quickly checked Jered for injuries. “Is everyone all right?”
“Don’t worry, not a scratch,” he said. “For some reason, they were reluctant to actually go through with an attack on a group of big guys in black armour flying an obvious Keeper banner. I didn’t even have to rely on your shield amulets despite a few tense standoffs.”
“I’m glad you are unharmed,” she said.
“My backside doesn’t feel unharmed,” replied, feigning a wince as he patted his trousers. “Damn clops.”
“Some kind riding lizard critter. Big as a cow, feathes, long tail- oh, I'll just show you.” He motioned for her to follow him, brushed aside both curtains blocking the tent's entrance, and stepped into the sunlight.
Ami joined him, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her fake skin. It had been too long since she had been outside in her own body, or at least something closely resembling it.
Her first glimpse of the orcish camp showed her perhaps a dozen tents like the one behind her, spread out inside a narrow valley over an area the size of a village. Groups of two to five orcs were outside, cooking meat on open fires or chatting with each other.
She could also see a few of the animals Jered had mentioned, tied to poles next to each tent. They reminded her of snake-faced llamas with long, lizard-like tails. Covered in a shaggy brown coat made of feathers, the beasts were scraping moss off rocks with their tongues. In her opinion, their wide backs didn’t look particularly comfortable.
Someone gasped to her left. “Your Majesty!”
Surprised, she turned and heard two clangs as armoured knees struck the ground.
A duo of guards in black plate armour knelt before her, flanking the entrance of Jered’s tent. Even kneeling,the two were only a head shorter than her.
Through the open visor of the left guard’s helmet, a hint of rapidly paling pink skin was visible. It was the fleshy pink of a human face, not the intense bubble gum colour of orcish skin. “E-empress! I was not aware that y-you would be visiting us,” the man stuttered, his head bowed.
She inclined her head in an awkward bow, having no idea how to respond to people spontaneously genuflecting to her. She could feel a minion bond from both the human and his orcish companion, so at least she didn’t need to wonder about the cause of their reverence even if she couldn’t remember their faces.
“At ease, both of you,” Jered said before Ami’s silence could be misinterpreted. “Her Majesty arrived on short notice. Dorn, go inform the others about her arrival. Gerno, call together the tribesmen and tell them that the Empress is here to take over the negotiations.”
“Of course, master Jered!” both chorused. They saluted and left; the human moved towards a nearby tent while the orcish guard approached a big drum.
The first drumbeats echoed through the valley and caught the attention of the orcs outside. They turned to stare in Ami’s direction even as more of the pink-skinned creatures appeared from their tents.
Jered leaned closer to her and said in a low voice “To be honest, I’m relieved I can turn this headache over to you. I’ve lost count of how many times I wanted to beat some sense into these so-called diplomats.”
Ami turned sharply to look at him, her brow furrowed in worry. “They don’t want to join us?” she asked in a small voice, well aware that talking to people wasn’t one of her strong points. She didn’t have anything that made her more convincing than him, aside perhaps from being scarier.
“I mentioned before that the tribes don’t get along with each other, right? To put it succinctly, they are all behaving like little children who want the biggest piece of a cake. Or don’t want the others to get any cake. Or refuse to eat their cake in the presence of the others. Or- well, you get the picture.”
The meeting with the orcish representatives was taking place outside, around a crude table crafted from a single fallen tree. Its trunk had been split lengthwise and placed on the ground with the flat side up, providing a flat surface for placing various earthen plates and mugs.
In deference to Ami’s rank, the orcs had reserved one entire side of the table for her and her staff, while the eleven representatives from the tribes sat together on the other side. They had also seated her on the largest pile of pillows present on the meadow and served her the best piece of meat from the boar roasting on a spit nearby.
So far, she hadn’t dared verify that claim about the liver resting on the plate before her. Not only was her knife currently stuck to some resin still seeping from the table’s wood, but the piece of organ meat did not look appetising at all. Its intense smell overpowered all the more pleasant aromas in the area, but at least, it made it easy for her to maintain an expression that matched her current disgust at the state of the negotiations.
“… never work together with that Bear Fang scum!” Lercis, an orc who had decorated his muscular arms with ash-based paint, thrust his hand demonstratively at his right neighbour.
Said neighbour flinched back from the fork in Lercis’s hand, his face turning an angry purple as he prepared to shout something back. “I don’t have to take this from-“
Ami was growing more and more frustrated with the proceedings. Two hours wasted with insults, pointless squabbling, and one case of arson. Jered had been spot on when he had compared the orcs to bickering children. With a sudden jerk of her head, she looked up from her plate. “Enough! Stop it already, all of you!” she said in a raised voice.
The orcs along the table fell silent and looked at her, their muscles tensing as they went very still.
Only one of them wasn't bothered by her outburst and raised an eyebrow at her. Glowing coals covered his armour like scales, surrounding him with hazy smoke trails.
“Yes, that includes you, Guldor,” she said, fixing him with her stare. He was a priest of some dark god, so she was inclined to dislike him by default. His actions so far hadn't raised his opinion of him, either “Especially you. If you set anyone else on fire, I’ll remove you from this table myself.”
The orc with his shaved head looked away first.
Now that she had silence and their attention, she felt awkward under their stares. Using her annoyance to keep her natural shyness at bay, she pressed on. “The way you are bargaining does not make sense,” she continued.
“We are negotiating in the best interests of our tribes,” an excessively wrinkly orc protested. Perhaps Irgar was so old that he wasn’t as attached to his continued survival as the others.
Ami shook her head. “No, you are not,” she voiced a suspicion that had been building for some time. “None of you want to provide me with warriors unless the other tribes do too, since doing so would shift the balance of power against you.”
“Exactly!” Irgar confirmed, and the others nodded along with him.
“And then each of you keeps bargaining for special advantages over the others,” Ami said in the same tone of voice.
“Which is perfectly reasonable,” Lercir said, apparently encouraged by her calm summary.
“Advantages which are completely insignificant in comparison to the ridiculously generous offers I have already made,” she continued her train of thought.
”No kidding,” Jered commented in her head, his exasperation clearly audible even through the distortion from the communication spell.
“Oh, I’ll be happy to ask for more if you insist,” Guldor said in a mocking tone.
The orc sitting closest to him coughed violently and rolled backwards off his pillow. Another orc threw himself sideways from his seat, putting more distance between himself and the dark priest.
Ami ignored the interjection. “Offers I only made because I want warriors quickly, and which will only be available for a limited time. You stand much more to lose from not accepting them than you stand to gain from any individual advantages you could negotiate. Also, I am well aware that there are no chieftains here to talk to me.”
“Ah, well, they don’t really want to risk getting mind-controlled into a decision,” one of the less outstanding negotiators said meekly. “No offence intended.”
He had a point there, Ami secretly admitted. Still, she chose to continue with her conclusion. “Granted, but when I look at the whole picture, I am getting the feeling that you are simply stalling because you do not want to work for me.” She fell silent, observing their reaction to her statement while hoping she was wrong.
A few of the negotiators ducked their heads as if hoping to make themselves smaller targets while others started sweating. Half of them began stammering protests in uncertain voices, making it hard to understand any of them.
“How are we-“
“There’s a good expl-“
Unfortunately, Ami couldn't tell from their terrified reaction whether they were afraid because she had hit the nail on the head or because they expected her to punish them for the perceived slight. Quickly, she raised her hands as if to ward off their hasty explanations. “Calm down! I won’t be offended by anyone refusing to work for me!” She would be extremely worried about being unable to gather enough troops instead, but there was no need to tell them that.
The orcs fell quiet at her words, a few of them looking surprised.
“I will, however, be offended by people wasting my time. Also, if I’m right, I want to know the reason for your reluctance,” Ami continued, trying to put as much steel into her voice as she could manage.
The diplomats looked at each other quietly, not meeting her eyes.
“Your gold won’t be of any use to us if we are dead,” Irgar broke the silence. Beads of perspiration gleamed in the wrinkles of his forehead. “I shall be frank. Keepers who try to take on the dwarfs don’t last long. You,” he stared directly into Ami’s eyes “Have yet to prove that you can do better!”
His closest neighbours backed away from him discretely. When a few seconds passed without something violent and painful happening to him, some of them started looking a little disappointed.
Emboldened by the lack of smiting, the elder orc continued. “None of the Keepers who have tried invading these lands have held out for longer than two weeks,” he elaborated. “Most didn’t even last a single one.”
“Bartholomeus,” Guldor objected from the back.
The orc glared at him over his shoulder. “Bartholomeus’ infiltration only got as far as it did because he distracted the dwarfs by feeding his subordinate Keepers into the meat grinder.”
”Bartholomeus?” Ami mentally asked Jered, doing her best to keep her face neutral.
”The Keeper responsible for the dwarven civil war about a decade ago,” he answered, his voice distorted by the transmission spell.“Got killed by Baron Leopold, and good riddance.”
Ami digested the new information with a sinking feeling. The Keepers defeated in the first week had probably lost to the forces of a local count and his barons; the same kind of attack she had already fended off successfully. This was valuable information, since it gave her a rough estimate of when to expect the second attack.
“But the dark empress has already been discovered,” Irgar pointed out. “Distracting the dwarfs is no longer possible for her.”
“Unless she’s the distraction,” the dark priest speculated while looking at Ami.
“Probing question about my strategy aside,” she said, “the reason you don’t want to join me is because you expect me to lose?”
“No disrespect intended, Empress,” Lercir said, bowing his head. “You do have quite the reputation for resourcefulness, but we have seen dungeon after dungeon smashed into ruins by those hairy midgets.”
“It’s not like we don’t want to fight them, but even Keeper Mukrezar has never tried to invade their lands,” someone whined.
“And there is nothing that could convince you to fight on my side?” Ami said, hoping she didn’t sound too desperate there.
Guldor smirked. “Sure there is. You could simply prove that you can handle the dwarfs,” he said. “Survive. Seize a city or something. Turn one of their armies into cinders. That kind of thing.”
So she would get her troops when she no longer needed them, Ami thought to herself. According to what Torian had said earlier, conquering a city was something that might happen in the near future, if she somehow managed to deal with the problem of the army that was surrounding her dungeon. “Do you agree with him?” Ami asked the others for confirmation.
The white-haired and knobby-nosed heads along the table nodded, some more enthusiastically than others.
“Yes, in principle,” Irgar said. “If you showed us that you are strong enough to beat the dwarfs, then our only objection to joining you would be gone.”
“Which would be easier with you on my side,” she tried again.
“Oh, we will be assisting you indirectly,” Lercir said.
Intrigued, she asked. “How so?”
“With the enemy troops away to focus on you, we’ll have ample opportunities to raid the countryside. They’ll have to divert some of their soldiers for the futile task of hunting us down,” he said matter-of-factly.
“What? No!” Ami could already see burning villages and dead townspeople in her mind’s eye, and it would all be her fault.
Lercir rocked back. “No?” he squeaked, his pinprick-sized pupils reflecting the red glow of her eyes.
“Those are my future lands you will be raiding! I need them intact!” she said, blurting out the first somewhat reasonable justification that entered her mind.
“My, you very confident Empress,” Guldor said, chuckling.
The orcs around him would have had to climb onto their neighbours’ laps to back away any further.
“Well,” Irgar said quickly, attempting to defuse the situation. “We could offer you some of the loot as tribute if-“
“I don’t want loot!” Ami interrupted him. “I want you to leave the people alone so they will still be around to work the land for me when I have conquered this realm.” There. Hopefully, that sounded enough like a reason an evil Keeper would have to protect civilians.
“You think the dwarfs will serve you?” Lercis said, sounding flabbergasted. “That is, I mean, I’m not doubting you, obviously,” he backtracked quickly.
The other orcs were whispering quietly to each other, sounding both dubious and intractable.
“...think she's serious?”
“…won’t be around for long anyway…”
She needed discourage them from their raids, which would be hard if they didn't believe she would be able to back up her threats. ”Jered, do you have any idea?” she communicated mentally.
“Raiding is part of their way of life, ” he answered quickly. ”Words won't get them to stop.”
Ami swallowed. That wasn't what she wanted to hear. Perhaps she could limit the damage? “Do you understand? Wealth is created by people. Carry off whatever you like, but don't kill the people so they will keep producing wealth. It's simply good business sense.”
“Well, yes,” Guldor agreed. “It would be wasteful to exterminate any but the useless and decrepit.”
Ami clenched her fists in anger as she imagined just what and whom he was talking about. She had to leave before she lost her temper and did something to that disgusting villain, jeopardising any future help she might get from the orcs as well as risking to anger another dark god. “It's good we understand each other,” she said, struggling to prevent the words from coming out as a snarl.
Some of her hosts flinched when she stood abruptly.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” she said as she inclined her head the minimal amount required by politeness. “Something has come up that I must deal with. Jered, have the troops prepare to leave. I'll come pick you up shortly.”
“Of course.” He said, glancing over at the orcs for their reactions.
If anything, they seemed relieved about the planned departure.
”Well, so much for the negotiations,” Jered commented secretly. ”Can't say I'm sad about leaving, but it's a pity we won't get any new troops.”
Ami nodded silently, feeling bitter disappointment now that her anger was abating. Without the support of the tribes, she would need to try one of her riskier ideas.
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