Yael’s contact from the Silver Saucer had the good sense to wait a full week before arranging another meeting with her. Any sooner and he would have looked desperate. Also he wouldn’t have had time to run a myriad of background checks on her to determine that she was indeed connected with an underworld weapons distribution clan. This was fortunate because if he hadn’t run those checks, Yael wouldn’t have been able to corrupt them and secure his near unquestioning acceptance of her entirely falsified position.
The week delay wasn’t without cost though. Yael was forced to stay in one of the most opulent private suites on Uronos in order to maintain her “visiting princess” disguise. Zyla, meanwhile, was stuck with their previous apartment, mice and all, while she developed her cover as an off-world prize fighter. The two prong approach gave them a much wider insight to the nature of the conspiracy but after a week apart, neither had a particularly deep well of patience to draw on for further delays.
“I could sponsor you,” Yael said over her telepathic link to Zyla. “Princesses do that sort of thing all the time.”
They were on opposite sides of the city but it felt like they were on opposite sides of the galaxy and Yael felt a growing hunger to change that state of affairs. Still, she told herself, they’d waited years to be together another day or two would be bearable.
“That would raise dozens of red flags in our targets,” Zyla said. “Which I’d be fine with but you won’t let me take them apart. Metaphorically speaking of course.”
“It’s not that I object to the idea, but it’s sort of a chore putting them back together,” Yael said. “And we still need them until we have the organizations they’re fronting for under control here.”
“After tonight, the weapon suppliers aren’t going to be a problem anymore,” Zyla said.
“You have your part of the fate spell complete?” Yael asked.
“As complete as I’m going to get it,” Zyla said. “I’ve enhanced the long standing flaws in each of our ‘competitors’ designs and set them against each other as strongly as I could without provoking an open war.”
“And they haven’t figured out that they’re being manipulated?” Yael asked.
“They’re well aware that there are Aetherial spells compromising them,” Zyla said. “The vast majority aren’t mine though. Once things started falling apart for the first weapon supplier, they turned on their nearest rivals all on their own. I think I spent less anima pitting them against one another than you did getting clean water for our apartment.”
“You’re amazing, you know that?” Yael said.
“What kind of luck are you having with Sub-Minister Nerill?” Zyla asked, referring to the man Yael had met at the Silver Saucer.
“He finally took the bait,” Yael said. “We have a meeting tonight at 7:00.”
“He’s convinced you can be trusted?” Zyla asked.
“More than the other sovereignties who are vying to supply his movement with a warp capable space armada,” Yael said.
“And they’re not trying to assassinate you why exactly?” Zyla asked.
“As far as Nerill knows, they’re trying very hard to assassinate me,” Yael said. “That none of the assassin’s he knows about have managed to enter the atmosphere much less get within striking range of me adds to the allure I think.”
“And are any of these assassins actually real?” Zyla asked.
“None of the ones he knows about,” Yael said. “I’ve dealt with others more quietly than that. As far as the other armada vendors know, they each think they’re in the lead for the sale.”
“Who are they actually selling to?” Zyla asked.
“I cheated,” Yael said. “I’ve got a team of Auditors working on them already. From what I gather we’re going to buy the ships from them using their own money.”
“That will hurt their bottom line a bit,” Zyla said.
“Yes, I expect heads will roll,” Yael said.
“You probably only mean that figuratively don’t you?” Zyla asked.
“I’m afraid so,” Yael said, tickled by Zyla’s disappointment.
The Warlord’s daughter wasn’t as bloodthirsty as she claimed to be, but the hard exterior was something Zyla had put a lot of energy into developing. It had been required for her survival while growing up, and Yael felt a warm, aching, thrill when she considered that she was the first one Zyla had let see the person underneath that shell.
“Will you need any backup for the meeting tonight?” Zyla asked.
“That would be delightful,” Yael said. “But we’re almost at the end here.”
“All the more reason to be careful,” Zyla said.
“I agreed, but in this case my cover would be in more danger than I am,” Yael said. “From what I can foresee lining up tonight, I’m pretty certain I can take care of myself.”
“Of course you can,” Zyla said. “You’re amazing too.”
There was a mischievous under-current to Zyla’s words that the telepathic link conveyed with perfect clarity. Shared memories came too, but only for a fleeting second, with the notion that Zyla was eager to see them repeat.
“Ok,” Yael said, her breath catching in anticipation, “We’ll wrap this up as soon as we can then right?”
“Right,” Zyla said and signed off from the link.
Yael stalked immediately into the shower to prepare for her meeting with Nerill and set the water to its coldest possible setting. She emerged, shivering and slightly blue but no less determined to end their assignment sooner than later.
Despite the urge to rush through the evening’s engagement though, she gritted her teeth and took the requisite time to assemble her princess costume correctly. The complexities of the garment, and the need to conjure animated servants to help reassemble it around her, gave Yael the opportunity to also reassemble her poise and the bearing she wished to project.
By the time she made it to the table at the floating restaurant Nerill had specified for the meeting, Yael the Crystal Guardian had been replaced by Her Royal Highness of the Court of the Autumn Throne.
Her Royal Higness was patient, calm and calculating. That was why she didn’t throttle Nerill when he arrived a half hour late for their dinner discussion.
“My apologies for being tardy,” the minister said. “Debate on the current appropriations bill went longer than anticipated.”
“So long as you are appropriating the funds to seal our arrangement, I won’t hold that against you,” Yael said.
“There are no worries on that account,” Nerill said. “Funding for what you offer has already been secured.”
“From where?” Yael asked.
“Excuse me?” Nerill asked.
“Where are these funds coming from,” Yael said. “We have demonstrated our capabilities in good faith to you, if we are to proceed we need to know that your funding isn’t going to dry up when it’s most needed.”
“I assure you that it won’t,” Nerill said. “This is an effort which cannot fail.”
“Our apologies then,” Yael said. “But we will have no part in plans which cannot fail, as they always somehow manage too.”
Yael rose to leave but Nerill placed his hand on hers before she could go. With the wary expression of someone who was certain she had no further interest in the proceedings, Yael sat down once again.
“Please, there is no need for such dramatics,” Nerill said. “I believe we are both too invested in this transaction to back out now.”
“It is never too late to back out of a bad deal,” Yael said. “You’ve seen the weapon caches we can supply and the capital ships. All of it Imperial grade merchandise. It’s not immodest to say that our competitors cannot come close to offering comparable materiel.”
“And that is why we are willing to meet your rather ‘premium’ rates,” Nerill said.
“We have concerns whether you will be able to continue to afford those rates,” Yael said. “Your initial order volumes are notably smaller than we calculate you would require for the conquest of Kremkin’s Reach.”
“We will not need to conquer the Kremkin system in order to pay for your products,” Nerill said.
“You are upgrading a local militia to a fully capable military,” Yael said. “The only target within reach which can return that investment is Kremkin’s. Unless you have another source of funding? One perhaps you would care to share with us?”
“What do you know Uronos, Your Highness?” Nerill asked.
“You are an independent world,” Yael said. “One without the friends and allies required to stand as a player on the galactic stage.”
“Yes, and that is a position which we chose over two decades ago,” Nerill said. “Do you know why?”
“We imagine you are about to enlighten us?” Yael said.
“Political dogma,” Nerill said. “The people who ruled Uronos at the time, and the ones who rule it still, would not give up any measure of their power. So they hid behind ancient treatises on philosophy, and political party platforms, and mindless patriotism and anything they could find to convince the sheep of this world that remaining independent was the only option and that joining the Empire meant submitting to the worst sort of tyranny.”
“But you disagree with that assessment?” Yael asked.
“Of course I do,” Nerill said. “As does every other merchant on the planet who would benefit from trading in the galactic markets.”
Yael watched as the lines of fate shifted around Nerill illuminating moments from the future he sought to grasp. There would be fire, and bloodshed. Thousands or perhaps even millions dead but for Nerill those events passed by in the blink of an eye. Those flames and the screams of the dying would bring the stars to Uronos. Literally the Crystal Stars of the Empire. The High Council of the planetary government would be brought up on formal charges for violating the Imperial Peace. Without any meaningful fighting, Uronos would be brought into the Empire and a new government elected by the people. Immigration would become trivial and the population would shift. More importantly to Nerill though, commerce would grow and he and those connected to him would become wealthy far beyond the limits of what they could attain on an isolated and unconnected planet.
“So you wish to be part of the Empire?” Yael asked.
“Yes, and that is why this plan cannot fail,” Nerill said. “If the conquest of Kremkin’s Reach is successful then we will have expanded Uronos’ reach exponentially. In the far more likely case that it fails however, it will be because the Empire has stepped in and once they take an interest in Uronos we will have access to all the resources and connections that two decades of isolationism have denied us.”
“And you think the Empire will treat you kindly when you’re admission offering is a mountain of the dead?” Yael asked.
“We’re purging the radical and unstable elements from society with this move,” Nerill said. “The Empire conquered countless systems and allied itself with thousands of warlords. They will not be so squeamish as to reject us because of a little blood on our hands.”
Yael watched and caught the threads of fate as he spoke. Each time he referred to “we” or “our”, the threads grew more clear until she was able to tag each one so she could follow it later and retrieve the conspirator at the far end of it.
“And what of the dead of Kremkin’s Reach?” Yael asked. “Do you think the Empire will overlook them?”
“I am counting on the fact that they won’t,” Nerill asked. “Without a crime of heinous proportions there would be no need to make the High Council a scapegoat after all.”
“I see you’ve thought of almost everything,” Yael said.
“Not ‘almost’ everything,” Nerill said. “Everything. There is no outcome to this which does not result in historic levels of profit for all involved. Is that enough to satisfy your concerns?”
“Just to be clear,” Yael said. “You plan to indirectly overthrow the existing government by using the Crystal Empire as your catspaw after you arrange for the murder of potentially millions of Uronos and Kremkin’s Reach citizens. And this doesn’t strike you as too audacious of a plan to succeed?”
“Not at all,” Nerill said. “The mere fact that we are able to put it in motion will ensure its success. The Empire cannot overlook an action like this.”
“And if they try to prevent it?” Yael asked.
“By the time they catch wind of it, it will already be too late,” Nerill said.
“Excellent,” Yael said. “I think that’s all I need.”
“Then you’ll move forward with this deliveries as we discussed?” Nerill asked.
“Oh, I wasn’t speaking to you,” Yael said. “I was speaking to them.”
She pointed over Nerill’s shoulder to a squad of High Council agents who were advancing through the restaurant.
“What have you done?” Nerill asked.
“Broadcast our discussion to the High Council,” Yael said.
“But why? What could you possibly have to gain from this?” Nerill asked, panic racing behind his eyes.
“By my calculations, roughly 3.2 million lives,” Yael said.
“But your home world’s economy will crash without this! And the Empire will confiscate your stolen goods! And your family will hunt you down to torture you for the rest of your life!” Nerill said. “You can’t throw all that away! It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Perhaps I have another buyer?” Yael said.
“Kremkin’s Reach!” Nerill exploded with rage and reached across the table to throttle Yael. Fortunately for his sake, the High Council agents were close enough to them that they caught Nerill before he could lay a hand on Yael. “You’re selling us out to Kremkin’s Reach!”
Yael simply smiled and sipped her wine as Nerill was led away by the High Council agents.
As satisfying as it can be, sometimes it best not to let your opponents know that all of the checks they did were subverted by Imperial Intelligence. Or that the weapon caches they saw were largely generated by illusion spells. Or that the capital ships were on loan from the Imperial Navy.
“But why didn’t we want Uronos to join the Empire?” Zyla asked later as they lay cuddled up and exhausted in bed.
“We do want Uronos to join the Empire,” Yael said, “But not like that.”
“I guess I can see why millions of dead might be a problem,” Zyla said in a teasing tone.
“That and it shouldn’t be through trickery,” Yael said. “Anyone can be part of the Empire, all they have to do is ask.”
“And what if they never chose to ask?” Zyla said.
“They can chose that too,” Yael said. “But there are some decent enticements for joining.”
“Yes, even if takes far too long to see that sometimes,” Zyla said and snuggled closer into Yael’s embrace.