There were no roads or pathways and there seemed to be an unspoken rule that if one could walk in the trees, above everyone’s heads, they should. The only hint of technology was the docking port, and if she hadn’t already known better, she wouldn’t have believed that Resor had a good system of trade with this planet, specifically one where the transporters of the planet moved Roadesian goods to this planet, where they were subsequently shipped onward.
She smiled at Harpess, who was relaxed, walking beside her. Kit Rain, on her other side, was quite a bit more tense and he flinched every time someone leapt over their heads from tree to tree. It amused her to see him so uncomfortable.
“Don’t spend much time in the wilds?” she asked innocently, receiving a sharp look.
“These aren’t wilds. This is a city,” he corrected her as if someone might be insulted. She doubted it.
She snorted, but didn’t say anything more to the man, instead focusing on the trio who led them. All three stood on their hind legs and stood about Kit Rain’s height. Each wore a single length of cloth wrapped about them similarly to Amadhay’s, but it was their only clothing and was as sheer as hers, not that their fur left anything visible. The one closest to her, which looked like a puma, glanced back at the three of them and Amadhay’s bodyguards. She wasn’t sure that she liked the look in its eye, but it didn’t look long. It exchanged looks with the lion and tiger at its sides before shaking its head slightly.
They were led to a tall tree with a growth in the base that opened enough for them to walk into it. The puma entered, while the other two stood on either side of the entrance like guards. Prillo and Faeo looked to her for orders and she looked to Harpess.
“They stay outside,” the woman said softly. “But we are allowed to enter with you.”
“Goodie,” she muttered.
“You could have had the company of the lord and his knight. It would have been more appropriate. You were the one to turn them down.”
She had. Phellimore was still too close to Resor. If Benjy or Christein were to spot her, she was sure that they would make her go home. Or at least they’d try to. She didn’t want to fight with them just yet. “I know,” she said. “I’m not complaining about your presence. Simply a little stuffy in this get up,” she lied, using her obvious inexperience to cover up for her.
Both of the humans grunted in acknowledgement before gesturing for her to enter first. She made a face. She recognized that that was the custom, but given how utterly unsafe it was, she wasn’t particularly interested in following that one. She had no idea what was inside the tree. It could be an ambush for all she knew.
She smiled dumbly at Kit Rain, gesturing for him to go first, who she knew was impatient for everything to be over, and he went through first. She followed quickly after him before Harpess could follow his lead, wanting to be between them if anything happened. What she lacked in strength, they had in surplus and it made sense to be between the walls of muscle.
They walked a foot or so forward before finding the puma, who was pausing on a spiraling staircase, waiting for them to catch up to it. It led them up, all the way to the top and pulled a sheer curtain to the side to allow them to leave the tree and walk forward to a sort of balcony, high up, above many of the trees surrounding them. It would have been a horrible place to be during an air attack.
Sitting around a trunk that seemed to double as a table were three more large cats. One of them sat in a seat, sprawled out like a person, but the other two sat on the floor. The one laying more than sitting caught Amadhay’s eye because it was the only one clothed, in a bejeweled top that was definitely holding magic, but a kind that she’d never seen before. Thoughtfully, she fingered the amulet on her necklace, feeling her own magic swirling inside and letting out the smallest bit to touch the other magic. It moved, unseen aside from a faint glitter in the air that only she and—apparently—the cat-people noticed, because they all watched it approach the jewel and circle it.
The one whose jeweled gown was being touched by Amadhay’s magic gave a mouth twitch that, on a different face could have been a smirk. It sat up, slowly, before moving to them on all four. Once it was before them, it stood up, eyes on Amadhay, making Kit Rain and Harpess close in tighter on either side of the girl.
It caught her magic around one paw and held it forward, making a soft sound in its chest.
“He says, ‘I think this belongs to you,’” The puma stated, clarifying her presence as translator.
Amadhay flushed at being so blatantly caught and reached out to take the magic, but paused, making eye contact with the lynx who stood only a little taller than herself. “No offense meant,” she stated, soaking her magic without touching it to make it clear that she wasn’t weak. It was obvious they thought she was, since they were acting like predators. She wasn’t their prey, and she wanted that to be plain.
It didn’t seem like she impressed them, however, because the lynx turned his back on Amadhay and sprawled out on his side. He was telling Amadhay that none of them were frightened of her by exposing his sensitive bits.
“Magi Hei, Momma Zue and Poppa Ferv receive you, Consort of the Master of Resorian Magi.”
Amadhay was almost positive that the three in the room understood Roades and that the translator was only there as an excuse for them to speak in their native tongue without being rude. Though that was still speculation, she was certain that they didn’t think she could hear them talking, given that the humans certainly couldn’t. She smiled nicely as they conversed in strange noises.
“Momma Zue would like to remind that the Resorian contract has expired and been null for several cycles now,” the translator said. Amadhay was pretty sure that the black panther was the ‘Momma’ Zue, the Phellimorian equivalent of an empress. Her green eyes gave a long blink, locked on Amadhay. In fact, all four of the cats were staring at Amadhay, which made her uncomfortable. She didn’t like being the center of attention when she wasn’t putting herself there.
“Expired?” Kit Rain demanded in a tight voice. The translator nodded. “We apologize for the inconvenience, then and appreciate you allowing us to dock regardless. We will leave immediately.”
The other cat, a serval who had to be the Poppa, their emperor, looked lazily to the man. His unblinking stare stayed on Kit Rain and Amadhay knew the human was uncomfortable, but he didn’t move. Dealing with large cats was like dealing with vampires: no sudden movements, show no fear, don’t try to intimidate.
“Poppa Ferv wants to know if Resor no longer wants their agreement.”
“We do,” Kit Rain assured them. “We are unprepared, however, to do any negotiations and for that, I apologize. If we had known, we would have brought a kylit with us.”
The translator didn’t wait for the other three to respond, and by doing that, made Amadhay sure that it was more than a translator. “You have. The Consort of the Master of Resorian Magi is kylit.”
“What is your aelfe?” Harpess asked, looking skeptically to Amadhay.
“Leopard,” she answered uneasily, not taking her eyes off of the ‘translator.’
“You should have mentioned that before now,” Kit Rain said quietly, as though to keep the others from hearing, which was impossible given the space they were all in. He cleared his throat to get attention back to himself. “Our envoy here is still new. We don’t have the proper diplomat to—“
“Christein and Benjy are authorized to make diplomatic decisions and, as the emissary of this mission and consort to the Grand Mage, I am allowed to stand as him in the event that it is necessary to make any Roadesian Army decisions. So, unless there’s an actual reason for you not wanting to reinstate the deal, I will wait here while you retrieve them.”
Amadhay was glad that she’d read the books Lizumeizei had sent for her. She needed some time alone with these people to find out why they were looking at her as they were, and if alerting Christein and Benjy to her presence early was the price of learning that, she would deal with that.
Kit Rain tensed and looked at Harpess, “Christein and Benjy,” he muttered to the woman, who simply nodded in a knowing way. “Of course, Lady Consort,” he said stiffly before he left.
She looked pointedly at Harpess. “Two sets of eyes is better than one,” she said, dismissing the woman.
“Don’t insult them. Try not to talk until we come back,” Harpess whispered before leaving as well.
Once it was just her and the four cats, she squinted at the translator. “I’m taking a guess here, but are you the, uh, I don’t want to insult you by calling you the wrong one,” she sighed dramatically. “Are you the Sissy?” she asked.
The translator, or rather the Sissy, looked to the panther, who no longer looked so lazy. She tilted her head at the same time as the Poppa, and the Magi sat up slowly. “Why do you ask that?”
“Just curious,” Amadhay said with a shrug. “Making conversation. Just, one thing. If you’re going to pretend to be a translator, you should probably make sure you’re speaking when they speak or after, because it’s noticeable when you don’t.”
The Sissy hissed, but the Magi relaxed and, apparently taking cue from him, the Momma and Poppa calmed their tails. In a low, grumbling noise, the Poppa spoke to the little puma, whose tail was twitching angrily.
Amadhay watched closely. While the puma didn’t look much like the blank panther or serval, she acted like them. She walked as comfortably on her hind legs as Amadhay, and that was strange here, much less than she did it with so much grace. Only the “royalty” did that because it was hard to get respect from other planets when they already looked like animals rather than intelligent beings.
“I’m Amadhay,” she introduced herself. “What’s your name?”
“What does it matter?” the Sissy snapped.
“Because I think we could be friends,” she answered honestly, looking around them. She had only seen cats so far. Did the food-animals live somewhere else or were they just good at hiding?
“Not interested,” she growled.
“Alright.” Amadhay turned her attention to the Magi, who would either be the Sissy’s older brother or her uncle. The first born of all Phellimore natives became a magician and the royal magician was an important part of the ruling body. She had a feeling he was the brother, because he seemed younger than both the Momman and Poppa, but older than the Sissy. “How about you? Friends? I’d like to learn about that cool magic there.”
The magi rolled to his feet and crossed the room again. For a brief moment, Amadhay felt uncomfortable when she was all alone, with four large cats, but she brushed it off. They could try to intimidate her all they wanted, but they wouldn’t hurt her. They wanted something from her. She could tell.
“Are you nervous little kylit?” he purred into her ear. “Do you talk when nervous?”
Amadhay smiled. “No, I attack when nervous,” she answered, pushing his muzzle away from her face. Their brief staring contest was cut off by a low growl that had the magi move back from her and look at the Momma. Her teeth were bared and Amadhay mentally counted how many knives she had on her. She wasn’t sure if her gift would work this far from Resor, but she was willing to try if it came down to it.
“I like her,” the Magi said in response to whatever the Momma was growling at him. The Sissy hissed and spit at him, but the Poppa kept his eyes on Amadhay as she side stepped so that her back was to the entrance.
He growled at her when she started to take a backwards step down the stairs. Immediately, the cats turned their attention back to her.
“Oh, Mumu, look, you’re scaring her,” the Magi purred, looking and sounding strangely pleased. “Calm little kylit. We mean no harm.” He looked to the Sissy, who gave half of a growl before he interrupted her with his own.
She eyed Amadhay mistrustfully. “The Magi would like to offer you permanent asylum on Phellimore given that you do not leave.”
Slowly, Amadhay tilted her head in question, narrowing her eyes. “And why would I be interested in that offer?” she countered.
None of the cat people blinked, giving her a long look before exchanging glances. “Are you unaware of the price for you?”
Amadhay gave a long blink. Arne Riff put a price on my head? She thought incredulously. How did he know I was out here? She chose her words carefully. “Hmm. How much of a price?”
“Alive, 30 million Galactic Credits. Dead, 15 million.”
It definitely wasn’t Arne Riff in that case. While the Hakinato clan was wealthy, she wasn’t sure if even with the combined Phoegani treasury he could scrounge together 30 million Galactic Credits. That was equivalent to nearly three times as many Roadesian chips. Whoever it was, wanted her alive pretty badly to half the price for her dead, but not enough to even offer a prize for her dead.
“And who, may I ask is the bounty for, specifically?”
The Sissy spat in irritation. “For you. It is for you.”
“For the Consort of the Master of Resorian Magic.”
Ah. It was about Lizumeizei, not her. She would have breathed a sigh of relief if the price didn’t imply that whomever it was knew that she was a good bargaining chip. Moreso, she knew that a dead bounty implied that they had an idea of just how hard she would be to capture. That was…problematic at best, and she decided to think about it at another time.
Instead, she smiled sharply. “And should I decline the offer?”
“Then we cannot promise your safety in leaving the planet,” the Sissy hissed, only to be reprimanded with growls from the others.
“We will not threaten you,” the Poppa stated, his words slower and a bit stilted.
“Good to know,” Amadhay responded, keeping eye contact with the lesser threat, the Sissy. “Because I came here with people who would die to keep me alive.” And you’re about to meet two who would kill for me. She smiled with that knowledge, but chose not to disclose it. It was better to keep that knowledge close to the chest, otherwise it might get around.
“Are you threatening us?” the Sissy purred, giving Amadhay a much sharper smile than the aelfe could have possibly given.
“Never,” Amadhay assured over her head, looking to the three representatives of the world. “I am merely warning in such a case that action must be taken.”
The posturing and threatening could have gone on until someone attacked, but instead it was cut short by rushed footsteps. She tilted her head forward in respect at the entrance of her cousin and friend, and looked directly to the true power in the room, the Magi. He may have attempted to seem less powerful through titles and by giving respect to the Momma and Poppa, but Amadhay knew that he would have been capable of destroying Lizumeizei at his absolute best. And that meant that her team’s main strength was gone.
You could kill him easily enough, that same dark voice muttered in the back of her head and her arm twitched, something she covered by tucking her hair behind an ear. “Momma, Poppa, and Magi, I present to you Christein Hakinato, Lordling of the Hakinato clan and Sir Benjym Base, Knight Loyale of Empress Kellinara’s regime.” She had gone deep into her memory for the correct titles of her cousin and friend and still wasn’t sure she was completely correct.
She supposed she shouldn’t have been surprised that the rulers focused on Benjy. Empress Kellinara was well known, the primary figurehead of Resor’s Galaxy-wide known history and recognized by many planets in their system as the conqueror of earthlings, savior of worlds, and Herald Supreme. Her Knight Loyale and her Knight Royale were nearly as well known, though Benjy had put a lot of effort into disappearing the last century or so.
She glanced to her friends and recognized that she had done them a disfavor by having them first know of her presence in front of an audience. Still, it did well for her, because Christein’s entire posture screamed out that he wanted to murder someone, and he was focusing instead on the Momma and Poppa, who seemed to recognize his posture and were just as bothered, since they kept glancing to him.
Benjy, on the other hand, was much more composed. He stood tall, eyes on Amadhay and giving a protective aura that even someone as blind and dumb to magical and emotional auras as herself could recognize. She smiled sweetly.
“So, about those negotiations, hmm?”