Few things could compare to the beauty of the palace garden around them. The greenhouse in Dirracha that Elenore had been consigned to might’ve been a contender for natural beauty, but these gardens wove architecture and greenery far better. The cherry blossoms contrasted sharply with the marble walkways, yet there were so many other artfully placed plants that Argrave couldn’t recognize in the slightest and they all evoked awe. There were large waterfalls flowing off aqueducts, filling lakes that contained fish that gleamed like jewels and precious metals. There were wooden bridges leading to pavilions in the center of these manmade lakes. These pavilions had floors of glass so that one might see the fish swimming beneath.

“Beneath the whole of this palace, there is an incredibly intricate enchantment. I daresay it’s the most intricate enchantment in the entire world,” Governor Zen explained as they walked through the imperial gardens. “As far as I’m aware, it’s the only enchantment in the world to employ shamanic magic. It’s a closely guarded secret of the Great Chu that’s allowed the imperial court to resist the machinations of deities for countless cycles of judgment.”

Argrave listened quietly with Anneliese and Elenore. “I think you mentioned something about that enchantment array to the emperor.” He looked at the governor. “But I asked you what you wanted.”

The governor declared calmly, “I broke that array.”

Argrave cast a glance at Anneliese, and she nodded in confirmation he wasn’t lying. Argrave said tensely, “You’re the reason the Qircassian Coalition was able to all of this?”

“You sound angry. It helped you, didn’t it?” the governor sounded confused. “Your invasion never could’ve gotten this far without an attempted coup from the divine. Ji Meng would’ve resumed his place as emperor easily, and crushed you. Which even now, he’s trying to do.”

“I can attest to that,” Empress Tai Si nodded, holding her father’s arm. “The army is his crude arm. He’s always had their loyalty. But he also had the loyalty of the administration, by and large… now, that’s broken. Their trust in him is broken.”


“I’m concerned you’re collaborating with Erlebnis,” Argrave continued. “You’re his type. Powerful, influential mage with a vast network of information and finances.”

“Of course I’m not working with him,” the governor sounded offended. Anneliese didn’t indicate that was a lie. “I didn’t know Erlebnis was even involved—I thought this was the Qircassian Coalition alone.”

Anneliese gripped Argrave’s hand lightly—Zen had been truthful of being uninvolved, but lied about being ignorant of Erlebnis. Argrave could guess that—the governor’s source was Sataistador, after all, and Sataistador knew of Erlebnis.

“I meant what I said back in the throne room,” Zen continued. “The Great Chu would keep existing even if this palace was razed. I only set a fire in the palace, watched it burn. It made it easier for me to spread my roots as the divine blinded the emperor.” He gestured. “Come—let me show you the hot springs.”

Argrave and followed the governor across a bridge, passing by a group of eunuchs in silence.

“You made the empire lesser, breaking that array,” Elenore criticized.


The governor shook his head with a faint smile playing about his lips. “I can recreate it. Me, and only me.”

Argrave hoped Anneliese would spot some deception. She didn’t, however.

“You expect me to believe that?” Argrave shook his head. “Why would you know, of everyone? Why not the emperor?”

“The Great Chu emperors and their descendants once knew,” Governor Zen nodded, stopping in front of a cavern that exuded steam. “But violent coups over the centuries killed off the original bloodline, until eventually that knowledge died out. I can tell you this secret, because you can’t replicate it.” The governor raised his hands, freeing his arm from his daughter’s. “It’s tied to an A-rank ascension.”

“And how did you discover that?” Argrave pressed further.

“Focused, directed study. Nothing more. I don’t lack for determination, talent, or perspective,” Zen put his hand on his heart. “Now, I could create such arrays anywhere. This palace. Your capital of Blackgard. Within these arrays, everything —ranging from divine blessings, to the gods themselves—would cease to function properly. I say this to demonstrate my value before we talk about what I want. More than all I already have, I could give you one of the keys that allowed the Great Chu to exist as the greatest empires in the world for tens of thousands of years.”

Argrave stared at Zen. The governor had gone through great lengths to place himself in a position where he was too useful to be disregarded. Between his political clout and arcane knowledge, Zen alone offered enough to be an equal of any of their allies, even Law.

Given Argrave’s reliance on the Domain of Law and the Domain of Order, such an array for Blackgard was out of the question. But elsewhere? A zone that could disrupt the power of the gods? It cut away innumerable undesirable influences, and could ensure the safety of numerous places for millennia… just as it had here, in the imperial palace. It enabled the Great Chu to resist the gods’ treachery during the cycle of judgment. It might even enable them to win the fight versus Erlebnis and Kirel Qircassia.

But since Sataistador was looming behind Governor Zen, it also spoke of darker things. Perhaps the gods of the Blackgard Union had a trap in store, somewhere, set by this man before them.

“And what’s your real price? The one you’ve been teasing since the very beginning,” Elenore spoke up.

“I’ll still insist on further marriage ties. Insurance, you see. But the big one… it’s humbler than you might expect.” Zen looked into the cave roiling with steam, then walked inside. “The Great Chu has come so far because of meritocracy. Every administrator must pass a civil service exam, for example. Every general has to meet a certain standard of prowess, and they must know how to read and write. Someone like me, born of lowly origins, can guide foreign conquerors around the palace grounds if their talents are up to snuff.” Zen stopped. “That’s no emperor’s doing.”If you stumble upon this narrative on Amazon, it's taken without the author's consent. Report it.

“Your point being?” Anneliese asked.

Zen took a deep breath of the hot steam in the cave, then gestured toward crystal blue pools. “Shall we take a moment to relax?”

“Let’s just hear it,” Argrave prompted.

Governor Zen gathered himself, mustering some courage before he looked at Argrave with a gaze of steel. “The Great Chu no longer needs an effective monarch. It no longer needs aristocracy of any kind. Both institutions, even though greatly diminished from their heyday, are a cancer that I intend to cut out.”

Argrave had expected many answers from the governor. This was not one of them.

“Have you been lying to us, Zen?” Anneliese asked, genuinely surprised. Argrave suspected it was because she hadn’t noticed lies.

“No, he hasn’t,” the empress answered on his behalf. “My father did intend to help one of you gain the title of emperor. But it would not at all be like it was, where the imperial decree is law. Instead, the governors would be delegated more power, with one elected as their head.”

“Acting as governor, I’ve come to understand that laws handed down by the emperor cannot effectively govern the entire empire,” Zen continued. “Laws in one region can be popular in one, but wholly repulsive in another. De facto, many governors have already taken to this, selectively enforcing imperial decrees. And governors promoted by merit run the Great Chu with such efficiency we’ve managed to reach the apex of our power.”

“I don’t understand.” Argrave held out his hand. “Why go through such lengths to seal an alliance by marriage if this is what you intended?”

“Because it works. Because I know it’ll benefit my family to be tied to yours. Because it’s harder to betray those who become family, even if only through marriage. It’s a simple strategy, but it’s proven to work.” Zen shrugged. “You know I have a source that delivers me information on your people. I haven’t been unsubtle about that fact. They’ve told me of your exploits; the parliament you’ve built, the methods you’ve employed, like with the dwarves or the elves of the Bloodwoods. I won’t bare my source’s name—I value their alliance, and hope to keep it.

“Your enemies are the Qircassian Coalition and Erlebnis. I am more than willing to ally with you to end them. The Great Chu will join your Blackgard Union—I will be sure of it. Furthermore, trade can flourish between our nations when this test from the heavens is over.” Zen shook his head. “But I will not give you our great country in anything other than name. You lack the men and the influence to hold it without my help. You may have the title; I’ll keep my agreement. But if I’m right, I don’t think you want it. You didn’t come here to conquer.”

Argrave stood, agape, then asked the obvious question. “Why not be honest from the beginning?”

“It took some time for my source to gather all the information and deliver it,” Zen explained. “I couldn’t be sure you were fully trustworthy. I didn’t know your character, nor your aims. I thought you were a conqueror. Bluntly put, you would be forced to rely on me once you became emperor. And I intended to strip away your power, bit by bit. Now, things have changed.”

Argrave felt doubt fester—was Zen’s source Sataistador, or not?

Elenore crossed her arms. “You’d give up the opportunity to have an emperor in your pocket? To share absolute power?”

Zen nodded at her. “Having risen so high by merit, I see its… well, I see its merits,” he laughed. “Of course, I place my family ahead of others. But my family has ascended because we stress merit, hard work, and the benefit of intertwined connections with other meritorious people. Like your family, Argrave. Despite how my kin may ebb in power in the long-term, I fully believe it will be better for this nation to change in this manner. And what is better for the nation is better for all, my family included. Our vast technology would never have developed without proper rewards for developing it. And besides… you’re intending something similar, aren’t you? I’ve heard of your reforms. I think I see where you intend to take your parliament.”

Stunned into silence, the only noise for a few seconds was the sound of dripping in the steamy cave.

Anneliese grabbed Argrave’s shoulder, then said to Zen, “Could you give us a moment to speak?”

“Of course.” Zen nodded.

The empress and her father left the cave of the hot springs, and Anneliese conjured a ward to block out all sound.

“What in the hell did I just hear?” Argrave exclaimed at once in total surprise. “Anneliese, was he…?”

“Totally sincere?” Anneliese nodded. “Yes, he was, barring his lie about Erlebnis. But I think that was only to save face.”

“But what he said… wasn’t that… I mean, if we can get past his hatred of Ji Meng…?” Argrave babbled, seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. He thought there might be a beautiful union out of all of this.

“Am I the only one that sees it?” Elenore looked between them. “Seems so. I’ll say it plainly, as I see it. Sataistador’s using him as a cudgel to entrap us.”

Argrave was thrown off balance for only half a second before her words put into focus so much of the confusion he had. That nonsense about the source ‘taking some time to gather all the information…’ it was Sataistador selectively feeding the governor information. Elenore gave voice to his thoughts as he came to them.

“Zen’s been caught in the middle, strung along by Sataistador so that the god of war could influence how we move indirectly. That god knows, of course, how we fight, the things we’ve done. He would’ve known all along that we’d prefer an allied nation over a conquered one. But he chose now to reveal that information to Zen, suspecting we’d act in a way he wanted when Zen made the offer he just did. That’s my perspective.” Elenore looked off into the steam, gaze distant.

“But Zen does believe in what he says,” Argrave pointed out. “If we can bring him around, surely he’d…?”

“Maybe we could.” Elenore crossed her arms and nodded. “But at the same time, I’ve just seen a very clear route to getting a shot at Sataistador. If this is the god of war’s trap for us… to have us ally with this man, who’ll somehow unwittingly put us into danger… we can be ready to strike back.”

Anneliese nodded in agreement. “And if we loop Zen in, and things go awry somehow—either he doesn’t believe us, or acts in a way that draws Sataisdor’s suspicion—we could lose that opportunity.”

Argrave looked between them, thinking deeply.

“We don’t need to betray Zen if we do continue to deceive,” Anneliese said. “All we need is to play along until Sataistador’s plan comes into vision, whereupon we end him.”

Sobered by their words, Argrave nodded. “I’m with you, for now. We play along to sus out Sataistador. But something about Zen, about the way he does things… we need to be prepared for the worst. I can’t be enamored by the idea of an ally, here. He’s been incredibly ruthless in the past.” He looked at Elenore. “We have another option. But let’s keep preparing to uproot him. And let’s not get too comfortable.”

“Alright. That sounds… basically perfect.” Elenore nodded, almost proudly. “But if it’s so, the matter of another marriage still hangs in the balance.”