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The Alexandrian

Rigging a High-Stakes Game

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In a tinny voice, the heralds cry.

STAND CLEAR.  INTERIOR AIRSHIP ROUTING IN PROGRESS.  STAND CLEAR.  INTERIOR AIRSHIP ROUTING IN PROGRESS.

As numerous as the gilded stars arrayed upon the sable canvas of eventide, a legion of animate metal constructs cruises through the relatively narrow passages of Stronghold.  The ever-shifting formation, seamlessly incorporating all manner of humanoids clad in exosuits inscribed with smoldering arcane sigils perched atop or enclosed within radiant mechanical behemoths, is thunder rolling over the cityscape as it remorselessly shatters the tranquility of night.  With automated efficiency, Caeceila's vanguard surges forward, ardent blood coursing through capillaries, liquefying clots, sweeping stragglers away in a gentle but steady undercurrent.  The moderately-paced transit of the convoy is an unannounced parade.  Onlookers, drawn from their beds by enticing light and exotic cadence as creatures of flesh and blood join their voices to the brassy melody of a host of fantastical machinery in a glorious hymn dedicated to heroes of legend, of every age and kind unshutter their windows and gaze, eyes alight with equal parts wonder and fear, upon saucer-shaped airships and eyelike drones floating inches beyond arm's reach.  Wherever the spectacle travels, the air is thick with a heady infusion of magic.  Though the majority of the population is captivated by the inspiring ballads echoing through the streets and the artistry House Glasmann exhibits even in their instruments of war, with aesthetics mimicking well-known mythical entities, a minority embraces its paranoia, arming themselves with whatever weapons they have on hand, barring their doors, and hunkering down as the de facto invasion of Stronghold commences.

Encountering no resistance as it cascades through the outskirts of Stronghold, Caeceila's vanguard rapidly advances upon Central Stronghold.  Dozens of warriors push forward in unison, securing the rendezvous point well before Caeceila's airship arrives at the site.  The vivid blue flames of jump jets firing sets the sky ablaze as designated marksmen alight on rooftops and scouts, coordinating with swarms of spheres, take to the skies.  Escort craft are quick to follow, the deafening crack of vehicles exceeding the speed of sound marking their ascent to a sleepy realm beyond the dark clouds.  Spidery artillery units scale solid walls with their spindly legs, tarrying on the sides of buildings while their bright red lights playfully dance on fields of cracked stone.  At last, Caeceila's vanguard pours into a spacious courtyard before the gates of Central Stronghold, a contingent of smartly costumed Drow intelligence agents shed their meticulously constructed glamours as they link up with the main force.  By some standards, the security detail assembled in the courtyard is disappointingly small.  Without the eyelike drones in close proximity, they don't appear to possess the manpower first impressions indicated.  A veteran would immediately admit, however, that Caeceila's vanguard and Nines's specialists are much more formidable than normal forces of comparable size.  Every piece of equipment they employ is state-of-the-art.  Furthermore, the makeup of the combined outfit is incredibly varied, allowing them to outgun, outwit, and outmaneuver a more threats than a standard military unit.  From spying to skirmishing, the capabilities of this security detail might match those of a bona fide military, albeit limited to much tinier conflicts.

Within a minute's time, Caeceila's airship has touched down in the center of the courtyard.  Warriors, robots, and intelligence agents take up defensive positions at the boundaries of the courtyard, establishing a defensive perimeter and several killzones just in case Stronghold fails to live up to its name.  As a polished metal boarding ramp extends from the airship, a semi-circle of robed catpeople with their palms pressed together, their fingers intertwined, and their heads slightly inclined are revealed.  As if on command, they part.  Three very, very important persons stride down the ramp and onto Veluriyam territory.

The first of the three, standing on the far left, is Nines. Nines is clad in her battledress, that is to say, in reinforced, waterproofed leather, subdued black combat boots, solid black cotton socks, solid black tactical pants with padded titanium knee guards, padded titanium shin guards, and padded titanium thigh guards, padded titanium spaulders, padded titanium rerebraces, padded titanium elbow pads, (all of which are fastened with ties (under) and Velcro (over) for convenience), a solid black, zip-up, studded kangaroo leather jacket with cushioned titanium inserts, a rugged magnetic bracer with Batman-esque sword breakers and several embedded and inactive electrical generators concealed within it, wicked, spiked leather gloves with a rubberized grip and metallic veins connected to the aforementioned generators, a solid black battle vest (cut-off) adorned with official patches from her favorite (heavy metal) bands over a solid black women's A-shirt, a duty belt featuring a push knife, a kukri, crampons, two ice picks, a hand crossbow, a pouch of bolts, a dozen unmarked metal canisters, a multi-tool, and a metal canteen, and an ergonomic, gray-tinted M17 gas mask lookalike.  Reacting to the darkness of the night that her tinted lenses only enhance, her eyes emit beams of eerie red light that flit about the interior of her mask as she assesses her environment.

Nines herself is a slim lass.  She is neither exceptionally tall nor exceptionally short, but for an elf, she is quite muscular.  Sections of her obsidian skin are horribly scarred, and a shallow gash extends from the right edge of her eyebrow down to her cheek.  Her cropped hair has been dyed charcoal black to match her outfit.  As with any other elf, her ears are longer than they are wide and taper to a point.  With high cheekbones and the like, Nines possesses a dark beauty, one more intimidating and nightmarish than elegant and divine.  Pretty much anyone could tell you that the little finger of her left hand is absent; the sleeve of the glove this finger would manipulate does not respond when Nines bends her other fingers.  At a glance, Nines is (by and large) your average drow (exile), if a smidge disfigured.  She isn't buxom and carefree; she is graceful yet burdened.  There is something about her, however, that a run-of-the-mill being would find highly disconcerting.  She is a most unnatural being not in body but in spirit, and even if her unnatural qualities are unseen, they leave their mark on those who interact with her.

The second of the three, standing on the far right, is Camelia.  Cammy is five feet and one-hundred-and-ten pounds of refined feline fury.  The kawaii catgirl, who would definitely be an instant hit at a comic con with her sparkling pink eyes, striking silver hair, and a well-groomed tail tied up with multicolored ribbons, is clad in a cute pink exosuit with a telescoping helmet retracted into its neckpiece.  Said exosuit is embellished with spot-on depictions of iconic manga and anime characters.  Her luscious fuchsia lips are curved in a cheery smile as she greets at several of the soldiers moving about the area with an energetic wave.  Cammy's petite frame signals that she isn't a regularly front-line combatant, though her participation in the Tournament of Reverie has no doubt proven she is more than able to get up close and personal with her enemies when the need arises.  Her ruffled, lacy cloak and silvery broach feature more obscure manga and anime characters that few residents of Taen or Ursa Madeum would be able to place.

Cammy is naturally ad'awwable.  Cammy is so charming, in fact, that people are prone to overlook the fact that she can stop people's hearts at a distance or cause blood to spurt out of their ears if they offend her.  Though it isn't visible at the moment, she also has a massive tattoo of a white tiger mid-pounce upon her back.  Judging by her apparent lack of physical strength, she's either the lamest tiger in Valucre or some kind of magical girl straight out of fiction who can transform into a weretiger at will.

Caeceila is the final member of the team attending this negotiation.  Her lustrous blonde hair, which would sweep down to the small of her back were she not dressed for battle, is neatly bound in a bun to accommodate the retractable helmet of her simple, black form-fitting exosuit.  Her icy blue eyes glow softly in righteous, aquamarine splendor as she inspects the defenses of Central Stronghold with clean, calculating detachment.  She's intimidating to say the least.  While her feminine qualities are quite appealing, she carries herself less like a lady and more like a lord.  Make no mistake, her movements do not belie her upbringing; she carries herself with the grace and poise one would demand from someone of her station - just not one of her station and her gender.  Caeceila is a wellspring of power and confidence; the atmosphere encircling her is suffused with chilling paranormal energy.  She possesses the body and the mind of a paragon who has no idea what a lasting peace would even resemble.  Unfaltering purpose is evident in her bearing.  Though she is very young, she commands that intangible presence which so defines great individuals.

There, the trio waits for their eminent host/hostess.

@Ataraxy

Edited by The Alexandrian

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Image result for dirty blonde girl animeThe sound of clashing steel reverberated off marble walls of Stronghold's training room. Two guards clad in heavy armor stood together, armed with a spears and sword respectively. Cold, stern looks hiding behind the metallic masks clouding their visage from the target. The two were large, hulking figures. Each like a mountain in their own right, standing over seven feet tall. Muscles bulged from every inch of their bodies as if burning with a desire to crack the armor covering it. Slapped on their chests shun the blue-green Elder Tree, the symbol of Veluriyam Empire. 

Belying their size and weight, the men moved with impeccable speed and even greater accuracy. Rather than a bear or a cat, they were like lions. Narrowed eyes focusing in on their prey as they charged, weapons raised. Ancient runic designs cascaded over the swords spiraling around the hilt and over the blade. The spear was entire metal, similar runes carved into it from bottom to the pointed tip as if intrinsic to its creation. Their target, however, was well aware of the wards and their power. Each second they pulled increasing power from the wildlight magic of Taen's loci. 

Her own weapon matched their in warding and then some. The room's flickering candle light snapped to attention as it passed over her blade, the brilliant silvered steel reflecting the fire's hungry gaze. Unlike the guards the target was covered in lighter armor, less armor. In a decision to prioritize speed over defense, she'd chosen to only don certain pieces of armor to be placed over one's average combat clothing. It allowed her to not just move faster, but sharper. Even weightless armor was generally bulky. Limiting. Restrictive. Effectively useless to her. 

The Imperial Princess was a flurry of steel as she charged forward to meet the guards, wind whipping around them as if feeding off her adrenaline. Despite the room being closed off, its high ceiling impenetrable to even the trickiest of rain drops, the gently trickle of pelting water could be heard slamming into the ground. Clouds gathered under the ceiling, bolts of lightning lashing out to angrily break anything in its increasingly long reach. 

To any onlookers it would have appeared as though the sudden violent weather was impossible. And the guards dumb in their absence of hesitation or surprise, all but ignoring the brewing tempest. But it wasn't their first time fighting Princess Teresa, nor would it be their last. To wage war against the Veluriyam princess was to wage war against weather itself. 

Time ticked away while the three battled, blood shed from all but washed away with their sweat by the constant down pour of the elements. Soon each of their steps splashed into the climbing water level and concentration quickly became the lever of dominance. The first to slip would lose. The first whose balance faulted them would be the first to lead in defeat. As the heavy armor of the guards' started to feel all the heavier and their large muscles, tired at the long term effort, swiftly resulted in sluggish movements. The limited scope of their view through helmets impeding their vision as fog and rain blinded them further. 

Small and lightweight, however, Teresa had slowed so little from the start that the difference was negligent. Strength, speed, concentration, all struggled on at full throttle. Her body sprinting around the training ground like Hell on wheels, the warded sword in her grasp seemingly clashing against both the men's weapons simultaneous as it gunned to stab or slice them. 

And then it happened. 

The large one slipped. 

Backed by the impetus of the storm it was as if she was an unstoppable force, a dragon in her territory among trespassing rabbits. Her sword struck forward only to slam into the second guard's raised shield. A bolt of lightning streaked downward, curving with the force of her thrust as it slid along the edge of her sword and crash into the shield soldier sending him flying meters in reverse. 

The momentum of her strike carried Teresa forward into a front roll, water clinging to her body as its brethren scattered in her movements. The fight ended with the end of her roll, warded blade pointed at the larger man's throat. A threat and a promise, both as deadly and frightening as the other in her gold of her eyes. 

"I yield," he muttered begrudgingly and the down pour ended. A mechanism whirled as a drain opened up, sucking in the created water that spanned the arena. The creak of an opening door and the rush of footsteps to check on the second guard. Her bolt of lightning having sent him sprawling, apparently hitting his head roughly against the training room's limited space. 

"Good match." Teresa stared at him for a moment longer before pulling back and sheathing her sword. Every day she trained. Every day she led. And every day she improved just a little more. The Emperor had seen to leave Stronghold in her hands and Teresa planned to make use of the opportunity for everything it was worth. Her loss in the Hell's Gate tournament only adding to that determination.

Never again. 

Once the room had drained of water enough for the main door to be opened, a slim man waddled his way into the area. Teresa had never liked the way his eyes always seemed to be hunting or the way his chin was always a little higher than it should be for his station. But like a cockroach he was hard to get rid of, her father's legislation limiting her potential actions toward him. 

Teresa frowned but waved him forward, acknowledging him -Bruno- with a small nod after he bowed deeply. "What is it?"

"House Glasmann has arrived, Your Highness," he said with another, smaller bow. 

"That was quick." 

"It would seem that they have made true the technology of Hell's Gate." The weight and implications of his words suggesting the hand of Odin Haze. Teresa would have scoffed at the suggestion but didn't care enough either way to acknowledge it. The magic of Taen of the technology of Port Sun making her father's empire no less powerful than the Terran Government's military science. 

Shrugging Teresa motioned toward one of the imperial servants. "Looks like I'm going to need a change of clothes."


With the grunt faintly reminiscent of an elderly man, the gates on central Stronghold opened. Standing just beyond the opening doors was the welcoming party. To the naive onlooker it would look almost disrespectful- only five persons having deigned to meet with the up-and-coming House Glasmann. 

But a wiser man, or woman, would recognize the lengthy blonde hair and slightly glowing golden eyes of Teresa Demetrius who waited as the welcoming group's vanguard. The others four, two on either of her sides, were high ranking officials within Stronghold. It was a great respect, one not even necessarily shown to all the noble houses of Ursa Madeum, for the welcoming party to be completely of those trusted directly by the Emperor himself. 

On her right, standing a handful of feet behind her, was Lucius. A large man by any means, towering above Teresa by almost a foot. His black hair so dark it could only be challenged by the colorless pits that were his eyes. A man blind enough to see better than most, Lucius liked to say. 

To his right and even further back was Jazelle. A black haired woman of an ebony pigmentation, her eyes hard and body tense. If the two guards Teresa had defeated were wolves, Jazelle with a lioness. Not many in Veluriyam could claim to be her match in full out combat. 

The two on Teresa's left were the two guards she'd defeated earlier, though this time they'd shed their armor in favor of basic body protection. Jerald and George. Bears and Beasts in their own right. Their hulking heights generally worked to intimidate any threats, nullifying the danger before it was even posed. 

Leaving the group behind once the gates were fully opened, Teresa strode forward to meet three House Glasmann representatives: Nines, Camelia, and Caeceila. Each step she took, each change in facial expression, even the way her posture was straight and relaxed spoke to her inherent authority. Though some of the actions themselves were taught, the simple aura exuding from her presence was inexplicably imperial. Even if Teresa were dressed in nothing but rags, there wouldn't have been a doubt to who she was. The pair of wings tucked snugly to her back, especially, made the sense of her innate divinity all the more apparent. 

When she reached the three women, Teresa would hold out her hand to greet each of them individually. Though common sense might expect a bow or courtesy from the women, she was not their princess. Such assumptions were not hers to make. 

'Welcome to Stronghold," Teresa said, beckoning inward to within central Stronghold. "For obvious reason I ask that you only take a few guards with you and to leave the rest here in the court yard." A request on the surface, but a requirement in nature. 'If the three of you will follow me to the imperial mansion we can see to the start of our negotiations concerning your situation." 

@The Alexandrian

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The bleak stone battlements of central Stronghold peel away as Teresa advances on the unhallowed trio.  With every gutsy step she takes, the angel may feel an almost palpable force working to drive her back.  An anomalous pressure hammers at her front, repelling all that is divine in her with a bountiful bouquet of odious, eldritch energies.  Indubitably, Teresa, as intelligent as she is, will deduce that the members of the war council assembled before her are no friends of Odin Haze.  Contrary to Boris's hypothesis, their existence is, at minimum, an affront to the pantheons of man.  These are not simple outsiders; this is a conclave of indigent sorcerers who have each usurped an extraplanar throne by mastering forbidden arts and conquering their mortality.  These are beings who are often universally despised and feared, for they live to induce death and pain and, akin to the Witch-King Zengi, are conduits of stupendous destructive potential.  Alone, the alien energy swirling around each individual is undetectable.  Together, the seductive amalgam of their baneful might is a devastating fusillade of hellfire.  They are a weeping wound angels and demons cannot ignore.  They are the blight that ruins the harvest.  They are slayers, and the world will bend to their will.

Though their corona of blessed light is a beacon of hope amid the encroaching darkness, Teresa may see it for the arrogant challenge that it is.  If you exist, you absentee deities, if you care, you heartless shirks, if you are capable, you bumbling oafs, strike us down and take our place!  Only in a world gone mad would noble and true wardens of the mortal realm defile themselves to amass power sufficient to banish the endless night.  Gaia is incapable of defending Terrenus.  Do trees reach out to ensnare the limbs of the horde that butchers the innocent?  Does the land rise up to defend the faithful from the ravenous fire villains ignite?  No.  The gods and goddesses on high are not enough.  The people cry out for smaller gods, and this initiative aims to satisfy that need.

Caeceila is the first to grip the hand Teresa proffers.  In a gruff gesture, she lifts Teresa's hand once, releases it, and steps past the royal teenager as though she is of little import to the matter at hand.  She briskly cuts across the intervening space, totally unfazed by how her cheeky actions might be perceived.  Nines is quick to take Teresa's hand in a ploy to delay her reaction to the threat Caeceila poses as she isolates the four administrators, unknown variables, from the clever princess, a semi-known factor on account of her station, her breeding, and the Stronghold's rumor mill, the very same rumor mill Drow spies tapped into, evaluated, and submitted reports on before Caeceila's forces appeared on the horizon.  Nines's handshake is in compliance with all of the relevant business etiquette except that she elects to shake hands wrist-to-wrist in a somewhat dated style.  The significance of this variation should not be lost on Teresa; she is assuring Teresa that she does not have any weapons concealed on her person.  Whether or not this is a guarantee Teresa can rely on is questionable; Nines is, after all, a female Drow.  In an excessively formal manner, Nines greets Teresa.

Whispernight.  Plague.  Rampaging armies thirsting for innocent blood.  Analyze the harm they inflict on our world.  There is a common denominator in their modus operandi.  This common element, the key to their success, is limiting how we can react to threats.  This is issue we are here to discuss.  Specifically, we have already developed a partial solution and are searching for collaborators interested in developing and fielding our designs.  We have concerns about the Veluriyam Empire's candidacy for this project, but we are reasonably certain you and your associates will be able to allay them.

Meanwhile, Caeceila, having presumably charged up to the administrators while Teresa is distracted, waylays them with four consequential queries that should be a breeze to answer but will be almost inevitably become very, very complex because they are being asked as a precursor to major negotiations.

Alright, who among you has the authority to speak for your God-Emperor or whatever flowery title Titus goes by these days?  You know what, it might actually be more enlightening to listen to you speak your minds, so let's just disregard that formality.  I want to answers to three questions.  One, why did Titus invade Taen?  Two, why did Titus invade Ursa Madeum?  Three, how can I be sure Titus isn't an aggressive expansionist who would misuse the tech we supply to spill innocent blood for his own gain?

Caeceila doesn't give a damn how big and scary the guards, administrators, or what have you are.  She's confident to a fault.  They won't raise a hand against her if they have any interest in a mutually beneficial resolution to these negotiations as a violent response would answer all of her questions and then some.

Cammy bounces up and down excitedly as she quietly waits for her turn to shake the princess's hand!  When she is up, she vigorously shakes Teresa's hand every which way, exclaiming, like a kid hopped up on sugar,

Hi!  I'm Cammy!  Are you a real princess or a body double?  I guess you wouldn't tell me if you were and you wouldn't tell me if you weren't!  Anyway, what's it like being a princess?  I wouldn't know 'cause I grew up on the streets mostly because I didn't have any money and my parents were deadbeats who sold me to this crazy scientist guy who was trying to make a new, cuter breed of catgirl and then I kicked his teeth in and turned into a weretiger and then I joined a gang, not necessarily in that order!  Now, I torture people for a living or I used to torture people for a living and kidnap bad guys who were competitors of other bad guys until I joined this alliance because I can do some really neat stuff and summon all sorts of monsters with the right reagents!  Yeah, Last Chance sucks, but how's Taen these days?  Do you still have giant psychic spiders to fight or are those gone now?  Oh, and where's your crown?  I thought all princesses wore crowns and dresses and stuff?  Do you have one of those arranged marriages too?  Those sound icky; how are you supposed to love someone you don't even like?  Some of our agents are telling me I should stop talking, but I have so many questions for you?  Are you one of those "trapped in a golden cage" princesses or are you, like, one of those strong, independent new princesses like the one whose mum is a bear?  What age are you anyway?  You look like you're way too young to be here!

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Image result for dirty blonde girl animeIt wasn't that Teresa didn't feel the the repellent aura nor was it that the aura didn't pound against the divinity held within her. No. It was merely that even their combined aura paled in comparison to what her father wielded. To that overbearing, crushing pressure that swept into every molecule of your body was a careless disregard for your life. Teresa knew it very well. Had even become used to it. To an extent. Their inner affinity, whether evil or good, dark or light, devilish or godlike, was of little concern to the princess. There were many evils in the world and many heroes as well. All of which were ants to Veluriyam and the mere house she welcomed was no different. Had it not been for rumors of their weapon, they would have never even been considered for a correspondence with her. In that sense their challenge was perceived, but ignored. For now, unworthy of the acknowledgement. 

Caeceila shook her hand once before letting go, a more curt shake than Teresa had expected but the princess didn't press or comment. Whine the woman strutted like she was in charge and perhaps had the house name, it was Nines which caught Teresa's eye. The moment Nines spoke that determined whom Teresa would speak with on the issues. The blunt and assuming way Caeceila brusquely walked past her to the others eliminated the woman from running. Almost as if pushed from her mind, the rash woman was no longer a concern. 

"Whispernight.  Plague.  Rampaging armies thirsting for innocent blood.  Analyze the harm they inflict on our world.  There is a common denominator in their modus operandi.  This common element, the key to their success, is limiting how we can react to threats.  This is issue we are here to discuss.  Specifically, we have already developed a partial solution and are searching for collaborators interested in developing and fielding our designs.  We have concerns about the Veluriyam Empire's candidacy for this project, but we are reasonably certain you and your associates will be able to allay them." [Nines]

Grasping the woman's hand, Teresa's only response was a slight nod and a faint smile, something her dad had taught her for negotiations. Listen. Observe. Pay attention to every little detail. Nothing is unimportant. Don't say more than necessary but don't say nothing. So she kept silent but remained attentive. Focused. 

The third woman, Caeceilia most likely, went off to speak to Stronghold's administrators. Unfortunately for the woman, she would be met with absolute silence. For not only had she disrespected their Emperor, but had walked past their princess to speak to them. If they were to respond it would be an implication that they held more authority than her. Neither of them would do so, responding to the woman with only glances at Teresa's back. 

Then the other woman grasped her hand excitedly, Camellia if her information was correct, as if Teresa's hand was some sort of prize.

"Hi!  I'm Cammy!"

Yup. Her information hadn't been wrong. And if the other was Nines, that made the first Caeceila. 

"Are you a real princess or a body [...]  You look like you're way too young to be here!" [Cammy]

Despite her long winded introduction and the addition of various tangents of which Teresa didn't understand, such as the mother bear, the princess nodded thoughtfully along with the question and waited for the girl to finish. Teresa grinned when finally Cammy had wrapped up and patted the girl's hand with her free one before initiating a release. "Looks can be deceiving." Another trick she'd picked up from her dad; the utilization of non-answers. A polite method of avoidance and redirection. Still beckoning, though this time mostly to Nines, Teresa tilted her head toward the opened gates and moved toward the opening. "We can talk more in detail when we are indoors. Prying eyes are everywhere," she said pointedly, an almost knowing ghost of a smile. After all, if House Glasmann had spies within the Empire why would the opposite not be true as well? Though on that point Teresa retained a mum indifference.   

Suddenly, as Teresa reached the bridge where the gate doors would eventually meet once more, she stopped and turned. "To avoid any future irritations from either party, I'd like to make my position on this meeting clear before we proceed. Veluriyam Empire is here to help. We want to help. As such I do not mind answering any of your questions once negotiations are underway inside the Stronghold. Not out here in the open. I do, however find Miss Caeceila's blatant disrespect inappropriate. Perhaps this is because she is under the mistaken belief that Veluriyam is beholden to your house in some manner. I can assure you that this is incorrect. Whatever tech you believe you have access to that we do not, is either momentary or a failure on that part of your intelligence officers" The golden light of her eyes flickered over to Caeceila again. "If we wished to make war with the world, we would have done so already." Teresa shrugged casually and smiled. "Wouldn't have been much point in my father creating A.N.T. if that were the case. If we are agreed, I will show you to the meeting room." 

 

***

The room Teresa would lead them to, should there not be more discussion or introductions, was old fashioned but sturdy. Spectacular in a unique way. Imperial yet welcoming. The center of the room would have a single table, with three chairs placed on either side, none on the ends. The chair were high-back and made from Taen's Elder Wood, a gift from the Mork'Ouths when they'd come to connect Stronghold with Taen. 

An Imperial flag hung from an overhead, the blue and green strong and vibrant in contrast to the wooden and concrete of Stronghold. Teresa approached the side facing the window and took the center seat, Lucius following suit in taking the one to her right. Jazelle the one on her left. Both of the large guards standing outside the meeting building, stationed stoically by the entrance doors. With another motion Teresa's hand would point the three Glasmann women to the other side for them to be seated. 

"Now we can start," she said, opening up her hands as if to show she had nothing to hide. "I will answer all questions you have so long as they do not require high levels of security clearance." 

Spoiler

Image result for meeting room fantasy

 

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What a wonderful day to be alive!

The diplomats dispatched to Central Stronghold by the Veluriyam Empire have already supplied House Glasmann with a wealth of information regarding their strategy and the pecking order within their team.  Furthermore, their reactions to predetermined stimuli are well-within acceptable bounds.  The elders have signaled, albeit non-verbally, that they occupy advisory roles.  Based on the condition and type of their gear, the female is a soldier of some renown within Stronghold (perhaps the commander of the garrison) while the male is likely Teresa's designated mentor in the vast majority of her domestic affairs.  Supplementary intelligence gleaned from Teresa's apparent youth and her relative inexperience in contract negotiations and governing a city, let alone an empire, suggests these counselors were not handpicked by Teresa but by Emperor Titus.  Much is expected of Teresa; "her" servants are beholden to Titus and will step in if she screws up the deal.  Triggering an internal schism between the members of the other team is thus a viable option, Caeceila reports through the closed-communications system Nines, Cammy, and Cae have patched into.  Teresa has generously granted the team verbal confirmation that, as a result of Caeceila's gambit, she is irritated, which was, in fact, the response Nines had foreseen.  Cae reasons that the frustration Teresa outwardly expresses is little more than a token of the indignation "daddy's little princess" feels within.  Now, it is just a matter of poking her with a stick until she explodes without being dismissed.

That is where Cammy will take center stage.  She'll be obnoxious, a suffocating ball of adorable idiocy infatuated with the larger-than-life princess, stoking her ego with one line and quashing it with the next.  The sheer volume of garbage dancing off the tip of her forked tongue will enervate and stress everyone on the other side of the table until one of the advisers acts as a sacrificial lamb, escorting her from the negotiating table to another area of the castle where he (for the male has been assigned as her target) will either tell her stories about the Veluriyam Empire or try to hand her off to someone of inferior rank who will be compelled to entertain her until the negotiations are finalized.  When the latter occurs, her instructions are to delay the male's return by any means possible.

Moreover, the princess shows signs of favoring Nines over Cae and Cammy.  As Teresa's options are systematically restricted, her fury will feed on itself and exponentially compound.  As long as the team can magnify her hidden stress, there is the possibility she will fracture outright, leaving the adults with an international scandal to resolve, depriving them of the leadership of a member of Titus's bloodline, and justifying a tense, extremely visible standoff between the paramilitary forces fortifying the plaza beyond the gate and the guardians of Central Stronghold.  The routine Nines choreographed is playing out according to her designs.

This information, and a plethora of observations on Teresa and her retinue including, but not limited to, their gait, their laterality, and where their eyes travel as their feet traverse familiar paths, is relayed between the trio as the other group "silently" travels to the negotiations chamber.  Cammy adds little to her team's secret conversation, listening attentively to words no external party should hear even as she eagerly bombards the princess with childish questions like a chipper little kid hyped up on sugar visiting a gigantic theme park for the first time and tracking therein an entertainer pretending to be a princess from her favorite fairy tale.  From Cammy's performance, Teresa might get the impression that she would have held Teresa's hand all the way to the negotiations room if she could!  Team Glasmann is milking Team Veluriyam's reticence for all it is worth.

When Teresa gestures to the regal chairs situated on the opposite side of the table, only Nines respectfully seats herself across the table from Teresa.

Cammy nervously examines the chairs.  She's supposed to sit in one of those?  They don't look like they're for sitting; they look like they belong in some kind of art exhibit - an expensive art exhibit with a hefty admission fee.

Uh, I don't want to accidentally damage your chairs, so, um, I'll sit on the ground instead.

Without waiting for Teresa's permission, Cammy kneels on the floor to the left of Nines.  Her eyes barely protrude beyond the surface of the table in front of her.  Her ears perk up as she grins at Teresa.  Her toothy smile widens and her tail begins to wag when Teresa states she will "answer all questions so long as they do not require high levels of security clearance."  If Teresa does not groan upon noting how giddy her promise makes Cammy, she is endowed with the patience of a saint.

Caeceila balks at seating herself anywhere near the negotiations table.  She remains standing not quite in defiance of Teresa's sovereignty but certainly in rejection of her absurd intention to lead this negotiation.

I'm sorry, but did the Veluriyam Empire really send a minor to negotiate with us?  Look, I don't know how contracts are administered in Taen, and I don't mean to piss you off, princess, but one of the first things you learn about contract law in Terrenus is to never ever ever enter into contract with an incompetent party - a minor, an intoxicated person, or a mentally incompetent individual.  I know that this is meant to be a high honor or something, but in any other civilized land, I'd be insulted by this stunt you've pulled and just a little concerned with the decision-making abilities of whoever authorized this plan.  Such a contract does not bind the minor, but common law dictates it will bind any competent signor.  To compensate for this, your peers, or advisers or servants or whatever you would prefer we refer to them as, will need to endorse all official documents.  If the Veluriyam Empire's contract enforcement and slash or judicial agencies require your signature on any documents generated as a result of this exchange, you may have to sign your name beside the name of one or both of your associates.  If that is acceptable, I'd like to know why Emperor Titus invaded Taen, battled the Xer instead of immediately seeking some sort of mutually beneficial agreement regarding land-use, stockpiled arms and manpower, and then took over Ursa Madeum.  I know the last guy is charge of Ursa Madeum was certifiably insane, but the sequencing of events is sketchy as all hell.  I'd also like to know if Taen is governed primarily by active members of your military.

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Not that she really should have considering the... rather interesting introductions of the three women, but Teresa found herself surprised that two of them declined to even sit at the table. Regardless of what maneuvers or strategies they had planned for the meeting, refusing to even sit at the table was essentially refusing to negotiate. If their sole purpose in coming to Stronghold was to posture and thrust their nose to the heavens then Teresa was prepared to simply throw them out of the city. Even the most unintelligent of diplomats understood the symbolic gesture of taking a seat at a shared table. 

It was at that moment that the woman named Caeceila started to speak. And as she did so the neutral expression holding her beautiful features hostage dipped into a very unpleasant frown. The messages were clear upon her face: first, she was incredibly displeased and second, she had no qualms about showing that displeasure to the Glasmann women. She had treated them as kindly as she could and still Caeceila, like a toddler, continued to throw, what Teresa had long sense dubbed, high-born tantrums. 

"I'm sorry, but did the Veluriyam Empire really send a minor to negotiate with us?  Look, I don't know how contracts are administered in Taen, and I don't mean to piss you off, princess, but-" [Caeceila]

"Yes," Teresa interrupted, not letting the woman finish speaking. "You do mean to piss me off. You may be used to throwing your weight around and scheming in Hell's Gate, but you are in sovereign land right now. You will sit and join us at the table, or you will leave. Now." Her words were not spoken aggressively, nor were they said as an enemy. But they were said as an Imperial, someone who did not ask for respect but commanded it. If Caeceila chose to remain stubbornly standing Teresa would motion toward the guards standing by the doors to open them and then nod for the woman to leave. The meaning was obvious: if you do not want to play by the rules, then we will not join your game

If Caeceila chose to take a seat, however, reluctantly, Teresa would nod politely as her frown returned to its neutrality. Then, having only heard a few of the woman's questions, would answer them. 

"Contract law in Terrenus is irrelevant in this situation," she said, a single handing point in the direction of Veluriyam's flag. "You and I are currently bound by the laws of Veluriyam and, by extension, those of A.N.T., not the Terran government. While I may be a minor under the legislation of Terrenus, Veluriyam law grants me power over the signature of my father, Emperor Titus. What I stamp, he stamps. So long as I have the stamp itself, of course. And at the moment, I do." The princess turned her full gaze onto Caeceila and tapped the table before her once, firmly. "Right now I am Veluriyam Empire. My associates have no signing power over these matters. If that is understood and acceptable to House Glasmann, you may proceed with your questions."

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Caeceila Glasmann is thrusting something at the heavens, all right, but that something isn't her nose!  It is, in fact, the very same finger she figuratively flips at the grounded angel seated before her when she tensely chuckles at Teresa's antics and declaration of sovereign authority.  Sharply, she turns on her heels and walks out of the room, pausing just outside of the door for one more trade.

Princess, your father is a newcomer and you are a minor.  The longevity of your line is far from guaranteed; for all the rest of the world knows, your power won't last a century.  If you'd like to prove my lack of faith is unwarranted, you know where to find me.  Ciao!

Cae lingers for a moment, courteously offering Teresa the last word in the exchange and an opportunity to chuck something at her, then adjourns to the convoy waiting in the plaza.  If her insolence hadn't hit home that time, Teresa was much more confident in her own abilities than Cae would ever assign her credit for.  Perhaps Teresa would merely be pleased with her little victory, but Caeceila somehow doubted the teen could gloss over the challenge she had issued. 

Nines remains seated, removing her mask and setting it on the tabletop gingerly, while Cammy hesitantly sidles into the lavish chair of costliness.  Cammy anchors herself to the table, fearing that the chair will topple over and break.  Nines is totally relaxed.  Nines is completely unshaken by the bad blood between Cae and Teresa.  When she speaks, her voice is a wave of calm crashing against sober hostility.  She's Drow; this clash of personalities is nothing compared to the dark dealings of the subterranean city she grew up in.

Please excuse Caeceila's brash mannerisms.  She has good intentions, but she has difficulty distancing herself from the battlefield.  Terrenus is in a bad way, as you well know, and the suffering of its people weighs heavily on her soul.  She is worried the Veluriyam Empire will misuse its considerable power and become the sort of entity this project is designed to check.  I can't say her position is untenable given that the Veluriyam Empire has requested full disclosure regarding House Glasmann's proprietary, mission-critical designs, but she really ought to be more tactful than passionate in these situations.

Nines idly taps her index finger against the table as she studies Teresa's reaction.

Would you like to take some time to collect your thoughts or are you ready to dive in and hash out the details of this bargain?

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"Princess, your father is a newcomer and you are a minor.  The longevity of your line is far from guaranteed; for all the rest of the world knows, your power won't last a century.  If you'd like to prove my lack of faith is unwarranted, you know where to find me.  Ciao!" [Caeceila]

It was certainly possible, even likely, that Caeceila's barbed warning would have cut deep into Teresa's insecurities or fears had the daughter of House Glasmann been correct. While the Veluriyam Empire was a relatively new construct, the Demetrius Clan had been a ruling family of Angel City for generations. Divine and royal blood ran through her veins, as it had her forefathers for eons. So instead of an equally cold retort or the chucking of a heavy object, Teresa opted for a glare. She snorted at the warning and waved the woman off, even if Caeceila couldn't see the wave as her back was turned. 

Good riddance. The people of House Glasmann are either incredibly stupid or seriously under staffed if this is who they send for diplomatic negotiations, Teresa thought, full of derision. What do I care if she lacks faith? That probably the least worrying of things she lacks. 

"Please excuse Caeceila's brash mannerisms.  She has good intentions, but she has difficulty distancing herself from the battlefield.  Terrenus is in a bad way, as you well know, and the suffering of its people weighs heavily on her soul.  She is worried the Veluriyam Empire will misuse its considerable power and become the sort of entity this project is designed to check.  I can't say her position is untenable given that the Veluriyam Empire has requested full disclosure regarding House Glasmann's proprietary, mission-critical designs, but she really ought to be more tactful than passionate in these situations." [Nines]

A pause from the Drow. And then-

"Would you like to take some time to collect your thoughts or are you ready to dive in and hash out the details of this bargain?" [Nines]

"Of course, of course. I don not mind," Teresa responded after another brief moment. With the first word out of her mouth, his expressions were instantly pleasant once more. Gone was the frown and derision, replaced by a seemingly genuine smile and kind eyes. "War can indeed stir strong negative emotions in even the best of us." She nods. "I can certainly understand that worry. But it can be equally applied to House Glasmann. How do we know you won't use it for purposes we find... distasteful? The issue, then, is of trust. Blind trust is, of course, not a politician's first choice tool, but it is nonetheless what we must forge between our two parties. Furthermore, I can assure you, that if my father, Emperor Titus, wished to force darkness onto Terrenus, the means have been at his disposal for many years." With a smile, she clapped her hands and nodded for the second time. "Yes, let us begin. Veluriyam has already been quite clear in what we wish to obtain from this deal: the blue prints and a future favor. The definition of favor can be discussed until it is agreed upon. In return, Veluriyam is willing to aid House Glasmann in the building of their construct: the HGS Silver Vision. The specific nature of our aid has not been detailed, though there is little Veluriyam will not be willing to offer." Very little. 

Edited by Ataraxy

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