All those people. Staring at her.
And none of them appeared to like her.
Ean had lead her out by the hand and introduced her. When he tried to let go and leave her standing there she tightened her grip on his hand.
No. I am not doing this alone.
She stared into his eyes, letting her desperation show on her face for one moment, just for him.
He closed his hand again and settled in beside her.
She looked out at the faces, searching for one of the few familiar ones. There, in the front row: femine, pitch black, with mirrored eyes and ice-white hair. Representative Meakrun. One of the loudest voices against her, even more so ever since the ball.
Go for the throat!
But I’m not that person anymore.
Ember quashed the urge to tear Meakrun apart in public again, but then realized she didn’t know what else to do. Worse, a tiny quirk of a smile at the corner of Meakrun’s mouth said that she saw it too.
Kai! Yahsaw! I have no way. Give me one!
If she could not crush them, then only their mercy could help her.
And did she deserve that?
All she had for them was nothing. Best to give them that, then, and get it over with.
Honesty, then. She surrendered to the mode, and felt a certain peace settle in.
“I am, as Prince Tavarin has said, Ember Rehksskarri, lately a princess of Tenkreille, and presently your servant. What would the honorable High Council of Salshira have with me?”
Representative Meakrun opened her mouth, but an old, gray, Shaldan beat her to the first question.
“Are you truly no longer capable of drilling with our military?” He asked.
“Since I was attacked, and changed my… allegiance… I am in pain every moment I am in my other form. It gets a little worse every day. At present, if I sit very still I can manage to be mildly uncomfortable. If I try to use my electricity to become lighter, nothing happens at all. I don’t even know if I can store electricity anymore.”
“Is there any way to verify that?”
Ember considered the question. On the surface it didn’t look like there was much of any way to give anyone real and certain proof. The Salshiran’s best doctors still barely understood how a Garagran worked. And it wasn’t like there was any way to look inside.
Yet. They’d probably figure that out at some point, from what she’d seen.
“I suppose you could try to kill me in my full form and watch me fail to get more than ten steps at a run. Or you could just believe the people who have seen me walking with a limp every time I change.” Ember sighed. “I greatly miss flying. I’m sure some of you will understand that.”
She saw nods from two Tixeries sitting high in back, and another from a Shinalilt woman off to one side.
“So, that means you will certainly be unable to help defend us in the event of an invasion?”
Ember had been considering this issue ever since the reporter asked her about it.
“I still sit for your calvalry units during drill five days a week. I’m also becoming a decent shot with a heavy wheelbow. So I can do something to help you prepare, and if an invasion happens, I can climb up on a wall and help defend.” Ember felt Ean’s hand twitch in hers as she mentioned climbing up on the wall to shoot arrows. Apparently he didn’t like that idea. “Just don’t expect me to rescue you.”
The old Shaldan chuckled. On the other side of the front row, Meakrun grimaced.
The fair-haired Liltan man sitting next to the Shaldan caught Ember’s eye.
“You spoke about a change in your allegiance,” he said. “Tell us about that.”
“I already gave my answer to that reporter. I am sworn to Yahsaw, now. I believe my words at the time were, ‘All of me for all of him’. From what I’ve been told, the theology is a little more complex than that, but I got the heart of the exchange right.”
The fair-haired Liltan nodded, and sat back in his chair. Ean squeezed her hand intentionally and Ember suppressed a smile.
Yes, I know you believe me.
“That’s all well and good, but what about the invasion?” said another Liltan man, this one with graying-brown hair and plenty of forehead wrinkles. He was seated next to Representative Meakrun, and Ember recognized him from the ball, but his name escaped her. “You told that reporter hundreds-of-thousands of casualties. Since then I have heard from my personal sources that the numbers could be far worse. Perhaps our entire military, and countless civilians, if the Empire broke through and we didn’t surrender. What do you say to that?”
“What can I say to that, Representative…?”
“Dahr Vagan HarBrathan.”
“Well, Lord HarBrathan, there is nothing I can say that one of your generals won’t say better. All I know is that I watched Tenkreille burn when the Imperial Fire Legions came in. It was terrible. I didn’t care so much about the people at the time, but thinking about the same happening to Salshira makes me sick.”
“I see. So you fully agree with the military’s analysis that it would be terrible?”
“And you expect us to endure that for you?”
Ember felt the hand folded around hers tighten. If she hadn’t been as strong as she was, it probably would have hurt. Regardless, she didn’t need the distraction. She squeezed back until she heard Ean grunt and relax his grip.
“I expect nothing from you, Lord HarBrathan.”
She heard one of the other representatives snicker from the middle rows. She narrowed her eyes and searched for the offender. It didn’t matter that it hadn’t been directed at her. It wasn’t helpful.
She returned her gaze to Lord HarBrathan.
“I repeat: I expect nothing from you, or anyone else, Lord HarBrathan. I know that I have been treated far better than I deserve the entire time I have been in this land, in fact, far better than I have ever been treated anywhere. I am grateful for the mercy I have received, and I know that it is mercy, something I cannot demand. Truly, I am still somewhat awed every day I wake up and am not put out of your borders. I believe that is all the answer I can give to that.”
A thought occurred to her. “I will point out that the figures for losses assume that the Imperial forces break through. If your military does not break, and turns any assaults, losses will be much less. Further, I have been told by Lady Bethania Tavarin that Kai himself has been credited with keeping Salshira safe throughout its history.”
She scanned the room as she spoke, looking for reactions, and saw some nods and a few gazes that seemed to be looking up, down, or elsewhere, but in consideration, not distraction.
“Such protection would explain how your country has gone largely unnoticed throughout much of history. At least, as far as the history I was taught as a princess of Tenkreille was concerned.” She returned her gaze to Representative HarBrathan. “So, perhaps you should be asking first if Kai is powerful enough to keep Salshira safe, even before you worry about your military.”
A lick of fire uncoiled in her chest. “Of course, if the present state of panic in this country is any sign of the true answer to that question, then perhaps I should reconsider my new allegiance to Kai, as it doesn’t appear I shall have any more security in his service than I did in Nk’drak’sil’s. Or will you say that I made the right decision in trusting his power and should hold to my vow?”
Representative HarBrathan turned bright red at her last statement. Next to him, Representative Meakrun snorted and leaned forward.
“That’s a wonderful tactic, Princess Rehksskarri, coming to our country and questioning us on our faith. Who exactly are you to do this? And what can you possibly say to justify hundreds of thousands of our people dying on your behalf?”
The lick had turned into a small blaze.
Where was that heat coming from?
She released Ean’s hand. He made to whisper something but she ignored him.
“I am nothing but a thief and a starving trespasser, a murderer and a cannibal, a former demon worshipper and a crippled Garagran, a foreigner and your humble servant.”
She stepped to the side of the podium where she could be seen completely and bowed with her hands cupped over her chest, tipping them out and extending them forward halfway down as if offering her heart. The traditional bow of a supplicant.
“Are you mocking us?” Representative Meakrun asked. Ember noted that she was blacker than soot.
Don’t say it. Don’t say it. Be respectful Ember.
Value your life.
The fire leaped.
“I mock your question, honorable Representative, because I do not believe you could answer it for yourself.”
“What!?! I am a citizen of Salshira, a rancher employing thousands, and a representative of this council!”
Ember heard whispers passing through the crowd, like waves sloshing from one side of the room to the other, building as they expanded, rebounded and returned.
She locked eyes with Representative Meakrun.
“Of course. And yet, if the Empire asked for your life without cause, would you be worth the lives of a hundred-thousand other Salshirans?”
The room dissolved in uproar.