Previous update: Sand Hotter than Blood
Everyone Has Their Price
Sivir looked out from her golden balcony, and as her eyes swept over the endless caravan train of new arrivals to the restored Shuriman capital, voyaging from Bel’zhun and Dar’khos to pledge their loyalty to the new Shuriman Empire, she thought about how she had a golden balcony.
A royal golden balcony. An imperial golden balcony. She traced her fingertips over the ornately carved rail of solid gold. It was the sort of thing that said: not only do I have the money for something like this, but I have the money for the guards it takes to keep something like this from getting stolen while I’m away.
She could see the Oasis of the Dawn from here. She thought about the absurd contrast of where she’d been all those years ago, bleeding out into the sand, then manhandled into the pool by a strange man who then transformed into a terrifying half-bird creature in front of her, and where she was now.
She was, in fact, standing on her golden balcony.
As her skin soaked up the lazy late morning heat, she ran her hand over her stomach. It was full from a delicious breakfast of unconscionably expensive pastries and Nyrothian fruit imported at horrifying cost, rather than torn apart by the traitorous blade of a literally backstabbing Noxian aristocrat. Smoothed over with some lovely after-bath ointment that a Dar’khosian merchant had all but begged her to accept, rather than slick with blood. The stomach, as it happened, of a Champion of the League, not a merc blacklisted by Noxus.
She wrapped her fingers around the rail. She could sense its heaviness in the richness of its luster, the indulgent thickness of its casting. It said: you win. You will always have as much as you want.
Her post-breakfast, golden balcony glow was almost—almost—thick enough to ward off the restrained frowns she received when she walked down her spiral staircase and crossed paths with one of the many mercenary captains who’d been paid mostly in promises.
Kalan Spiritmight greeted her with that obnoxious chest-swelling Demacian accent of his. “If I may.”
She glanced aside, to see who else was close enough to listen. Nobody. She looked back at him and spoke plainly. “Really. I thought you’d last another week.” She inclined her head, and drove the subtext home. “Before caving in to your mercs, I mean. I thought, Kalan’s got a good handle on his troops, he won’t be back for at least another week.”
He did that thing where he resisted the urge to indulge in some ordinary nervous tic, like adjusting his clothes or coughing into his hand, by instead tightening his frown as though it were driven by a winch. Most of his Demacian-ness had worn away after two decades in exile; Sivir entertained the thought that she was now looking at the result of a Demacian child from a Great House being cuffed about the ears for fidgeting like a commoner.
“My troops faced Noxian legions in battle three weeks ago, and held their own. They have received scarcely a quarter of what they were promised. I would ask that you remember that they are not common sellswords, and they expect appropriately greater consideration.”
He looked her over. “It is on their account that you are now a princess, rather than a prisoner in a Noxian dungeon.”
She started walking, and he followed. “Actually, I think I’m a queen. Possibly some kind of empress.” She gestured carelessly. “I have a couple Summoners looking into it over in Nasus’ library.”
She grinned at his barely restrained retort. “I was only trying to make you feel young.”
She continued down the corridor, and noticed the guards saluting. She’d never been saluted before, and she liked it much more than she thought she would have. It was better than the cheering crowds at the Institute.
She paused as she came to the door leading to the courtyard. “Kalan. Listen. When we were a pair of broke sellswords, and I borrowed six silvers from you for a new pair of boots, did I pay you back?”
He found a way to tighten his frown still further. “You did.” He raised a hand, to forestall her next sentence. “I take your point. And I trust you will not forget those who have brought you to your present station.”
“No,” she said, “I won’t. Tell your troops to settle down; once this truce breaks, there’ll be plenty of gold to go around. In the meantime, nobody’s starving. If they are, it’s their own fault, because there are full marching rations for the wounded, and the work crews are taking every able-bodied person they can get.”
As she left him behind and walked out into the late morning sunlight, she thought about how exactly she was going to pay them all. Usually, there’d be battlefield looting to tide them over while the finances were worked out. Noxus letting that truce through the Council had proven strangely inconvenient, in that regard.
She saw Leona standing at the top of the steps leading up to the Sun Disc’s immense stone cradle, her arms outstretched. Solari warriors and a handful of Summoners knelt beside her, all gazing beatifically up into the face of the disc.
It was really kind of strange.
She glanced up at the Sun Disc. She’d have thought, given her imperial blood, that she’d feel something. But other than that vision in the Oasis, she didn’t seem to have any more reaction to the obviously very magical artifact than the guy who brought her breakfast up this morning. Actually, if she had to bet, she’d say less. She usually felt some kind of tingling around strong magic, like a Nexus. All the Summoners told her that this capital was absolutely flooded with thaumic energy, and she believed them, but it was virtually silent for her. Sometimes, she entertained strange flights of paranoia, wondering if she’d angered her ancestors by spending most of her adult life looting their graves. Maybe she’d ask Nasus about it.
Then she recalled the lifeless bodies of the “unworthy” among the Solari delegation being carried out from Nasus’ library. Yeah, or I could not.
She worked a bit of fruit out from between her teeth with her tongue, then looked over at Leona. She’d never asked, but she was pretty sure Leona was the sort of person to wake up with the sunrise. (How could she not be?) And it was hours after sunrise by now. How long had she and her pals been standing there?
So she asked. “How long have you been out here?”
Leona did not even seem to hear her. “I mean…what are you, a cat in a sunbeam?”
She looked back at a girl who was scrubbing the steps to a shine. “She’s like a cat in a sunbeam, or something,” she repeated.
The girl smiled awkwardly at her, and nodded. She stared up at her, in that annoyingly speechless way that people reacted to Champions sometimes. Just staring, amazed, a little scared, a little excited.
Sivir frowned, and looked around. “You people spend too much time staring at things. All of you,” she muttered, as she walked down the steps to the somewhat busier lower level.
She casually tossed her blade as she went. For a long time, it had just been her weapon. Then she found out it was some kind of priceless ancient artifact. She kept expecting Azir or someone to tell her to treat it with more respect—stop tossing it around like a toy, stop using it to pop open bottles of ThaumaKola—but he never did. She’d taken to deliberately pushing him, being even more cynical and generally disdainful of all his mysticality and reverence than she actually felt, but he’d just stare back at her.
The guard opened the prison door as she approached. She stepped through into the cool, earthy air. Time to get some work done. She clipped her blade to her thigh as the guard unbolted the cell door labeled with that weird-looking version of the character for “six” that until recently she’d only seen carved inside tombs, as part of colorful phrases like, “six plagues upon whoever disturbs this sacred place”. In fairness, it did give me a cold.
The Piltovian prisoner was sitting at the table inside, still wearing his battle-torn uniform. He stiffened as she took her seat. She kept a straight face, so as not to ruin the atmosphere.
“Lieutenant Hayworth Harrowmont. Serial number RF07438773.”
She looked him over. He was shaking.
“Hi. I’m Sivir.”
He tried to look fierce. “Lieutenant Hayworth Harrowmont. Serial number RF07438773.”
She arched an eyebrow. “You might need to write that down.” She rather casually got to her feet, opened the door to the cell, and asked a guard for a pen and parchment. She brought them back, and laid them out on the table.
He stared at the pen, and its sharp nib.
She waited for him to take it. “What?”
He slowly took it into his shaking hand. “You’re just giving me this…sharp…pen.”
“My day job is fighting the deadliest warriors of Valoran on the Fields of Justice.” She leaned in. “Yes, I just gave you a sharp pen.”
She watched him write his name and number down on the parchment. It seemed to calm him, and this was only going to take longer if he flew into hysterics, so she let him write it out on his own time, collecting his thoughts. It was a Piltovian style pen, with a thick barrel and smooth-flowing ink. Pilts liked that sort of thing. She’d been clever with the details.
He looked up at her, and swallowed.
Go on, let’s hear what you’ve come up with.
“Whatever you do, I will not betray Piltover.”
She gestured vaguely. “Whatever I do?”
He met her gaze. “I assume,” he said, trying to grab hold of some semblance of control by acknowledging the inevitable, “that you’re planning to torture me.”
She feigned surprise. “Oh. Would that help?”
She gave him time to finish his mental stumble into disorientation before she continued.
“Because I think you’ve been through enough.”
He had absolutely nothing to say.
She took the pen from him, and the paper, and sketched the part of Shurima that he’d been taken from. “The way I see it,” she drew out a few boxes to represent units, “you were written off as ‘acceptable losses’.” She marked out the sequence of battle in the sort of standard military notation that he’d be familiar with from his academy. Her mercs driving a wedge between the Lieutenant’s small expeditionary unit and the larger regular force to the south, Azir’s militia flanking them from the north. She slashed a double-hatch through his unit, the Piltovian way of marking “unit broken”. And finally, she used a line with a single loop leading into an arrow to show the regulars retreating, leaving the Lieutenant and his friends all alone.
She pushed the paper back to him. “I’m assuming you radioed for reinforcements. But Piltover decided that wouldn’t be prudent. Which is why you’re sitting here now.”
She set the pen back down on the table top. “You know the problem with torture? The problem with torture—one of the problems—is that you have to keep torturers around. They’re hard to come by, they’re not well-balanced people, and they’re usually more trouble than they’re worth. Bit of advice from someone who’s seen her share of combative operations: the ones that have torturers on the payroll? They’re not the stable ones.”
She shrugged. “I mean, yeah, I can slap you around for a bit and maybe figure out something with pointy implements, if you like, but I’ve got a busy schedule today.”
She smiled. “So instead of torture…how about gold? You like gold?”
She held the silence until he didn’t seem to know what to do except to nod, very slowly.
She nodded back, as though working across a language barrier.
“You’re a doctor. A graduate of Branton Academy for the Caducial Sciences. I’d like to pay you,” she paused, deliberately, “gold, in exchange for your assistance treating my wounded soldiers. Those Noxians put some nasty hexes on them. I’ll gladly pay you to figure out how to put them back on their feet.”
She could see the wheels turning behind his eyes. Curing hexes? He knew how to do that.
“In case you’re wondering, no, the alternative is not being tortured or killed. Or sitting in this prison eating our food for free. The alternative is that we turn you out on the street here. You try to leave, the guards bring you in, and don’t expect them to be gentle about it—you’re a prisoner of war. You’re free to join a work crew like anyone else. You get as much food and water as your crew leader thinks you deserve for the work you do. No promises that they’ll be fair about it when they’ve got Shurimans holding their bowls next to yours. You slip, you try to lift a rock that’s a little too heavy, you can’t work, you go hungry. Unless you’ve made some friends who’ll share theirs with you, and somehow, I don’t see you making a lot of friends here. We have been kicked around by you Pilties for a long, long time.”
She crossed her arms and settled back against her chair. “But speaking of friends. You find a way to cure those hexes? You set some bones so people don’t limp for the rest of their lives? You’ll make a lot of friends. Maybe you think we’re all a bunch of savages and cutthroats and fanatics. But let me tell you, nobody’s more popular in a merc camp than the medic.”
He smiled uncertainly, like someone slowly setting their weight on ground they think might cave in. “Alright, then. Let’s go with that.”
She smiled back. She was pretty sure she could see the moment at which he felt that relief washing over him, told himself that he was going to be okay, that it was over. She knew how dearly a person would pay, in that moment, to hold on to that feeling.
“One more thing, and we’ll shake on it.” She pointed at the piece of paper, at the drawing of the unit of regular troops that had fled. “These guys. The ones who ran and left you surrounded. I want to know where their ammo depot and supply center is.” She picked up the pen and offered it to him.
He took the pen, but hesitated. “That’s military intelligence. That would be treason.”
She gave him a skeptical look, and allowed a moment for him to weigh the consequences of a hypothetical court-martial against the less dramatic but still rather unpleasant alternative she’d sketched out for him. “So don’t tell them you told me. Or pretend it was tortured out of you, if you want to be dramatic about it.”
She watched him think it over. No need to rush him, no need to scare him. Just let him do the math. And, in particular, to realize that lying to her would be profoundly stupid.
He flipped the paper over, and began drawing a map. “Here. Not far from the oasis. They keep the supplies in the caves.”
She was mildly surprised. That wasn’t far from Bel’zhun and Zaun’s mines. An aggressive position for Piltover. And a vulnerable one.
She took the paper and shook his hand. “I’ll send your chief nurse up with lunch. He’ll get you sized for some new clothes while he fills you in.”
He didn’t thank her, but she didn’t particularly mind.
She was halfway down the hall when Summoner Sajj, the Icathian, came around the corner. She looked up into his eerie purple eyes. Now here was a seven-foot-tall, robe-wearing, altogether rather unsettling magical phenomenon that did give her a rather unpleasant tingling sensation.
She tried not to look too perturbed. A strange itchy-shivery sensation radiated from her Shuriman armor into her skin.
“What?” she asked.
He unlocked Cell Four with a wave of his hand. The enchantments glowed unevenly, and the bolt screech-scraped along its track. She’d been surprised when Azir didn’t protest her hiring of Void-touched Summoners; she was no arcane theorist, but Shuriman magic did not seem to get along with Void energy. Of course Azir isn’t perturbed. He’s Azir. Being immortal must make you pretty cocky.
“In here,” the Summoner said, and ducked his head down as he entered the empty cell.
She stepped aside from the entrance. She didn’t really want to be standing in between him and the door when he used that Void mojo to close it.
She crossed her arms. “I’m waiting.”
He grumbled inaudibly and traced some figures over the tabletop with his fingertip, then dusted them with silver powder from a pouch inside his robes. The powder revealed the pattern he’d traced out. He struck his fist into the center with a heavy thud, and she had the distinct impression that something had changed. Judging from the way the Summoner’s eerie aura now seemed to echo around inside the room, she figured it was a silence field going up.
She glanced over the walls, and didn’t see any melty purple abominations dripping down them.
“So. Silence field? Wait—let me guess. You’re really Reginald Ashram. I knew it.”
He laughed, lowly, which she hadn’t expected.
“You are most amusing, Sivir,” he said, which she also hadn’t expected. “Your quips fill my heart with mirth.”
“Yes,” she said, “I can see that.”
She briefly considered what his heart was actually filled with; she’d bet on some kind of purple-black ichor at two coins against anybody’s one. She briefly sensed her blade urging her to hurl it into his chest and find out, but this was not a promising business prospect.
He continued. “Your Emperor has unleashed great power, long held apart from your Runeterra. But it has flowed far beyond this city’s walls, and there are others who can wield it.” He stepped forward. “The lich queen Nefara has stretched her hand to the sky, through the Void, through the veil between life and death.” He spoke about these things the way a sane person would describe…an inspired work of art, a misty lake, something nice.
“She raises an army of harrowed souls, Shurima’s ancient dead. Your Emperor speaks of the resurrection of Shurima, but though the ruined walls rise at his command, the dead hear him not. They hear her, and she them. The oath by which she bound herself to the masters of the Void loosens. Azir’s throne, she would make her own.”
Sivir did not, as a rule, rely upon the word of Icathians. You could never be sure what dimension they were coming from. She’d once made small-talk with a Summoner by cracking about how Malzahar’s dire prophecies—the destruction of Runeterra, the coming of the “daddy” that Kog’maw went on about, the annihilation of the League—never seemed to come true. The Summoner, a spectacled Zaunite who fidgeted with his sleeves when anxious, had tugged his cuff against his wrist and mumbled something about how they did come true, somewhere, and we’re lucky it wasn’t our somewhere, lucky this time.
“Alright. And if I ask you how you know this, are you going to say something other than ‘I hallucinated it’?”
He frowned. “I have seen it.” He took a step toward her. Her blade seethed for her hand.
She forced her hand up to rub the back of her neck, and nodded as skeptically as she could.
“As have others of my order.”
“Alright. And who else ‘knows’ about this?”
“The Council. And they have forbidden any to speak of it. Or of the expedition they dispatched to her city of the dead.”
That did get her attention. “And?”
He smiled silently.
She held up a hand. “Fair enough, stupid question.” She nodded. “Alright. Consider yourself to have just earned a bonus. Even if I’m fairly sure you Icathians live for delivering eerie prophecies.” And even if I know you aren’t telling this out of the purply-black goodness of your heart.
She probed further. If there was an important truth here that he was hiding from her, she sensed it involved the Council.
“You’re a Summoner. The Council forbade you to speak of this to anyone. So why are you?”
He spread his lips out into his cheeks, and flourished a bow. “I am your loyal servant, by the oath I have sworn.”
She pressed on. “Why is the Council keeping this so quiet? How many of their souls do you guys own?”
“You are most amusing,” he repeated. Her skin crawled.
Of course he’s keeping something from me. Of course this is a scheme. But it seemed to her that trying to wring the real truth out from this Icathian was the sort of thing only a lunatic would endeavor to accomplish, and Sivir intended to return to the land of sanity.
She walked past him to the table, and took her blade into her hand. It sang as she swept it up through the hexed air to hold it aloft. She struck its edge into the center of the gleaming silver pattern, and the Icathian enchantment burst apart, silver burning black. She found it strangely satisfying.
She glanced at the engraving on the side of her blade. If you start talking to me, I swear I’m booking four weeks on Aeaea. She clipped it back into place against her thigh.
“I do so enjoy our little talks, Summoner,” she said, as she passed him on her way out.
“I am ever pleased to be of service,” he answered.
She made eye contact with a guard standing in the hallway, visibly wondering what had just happened inside that cell.
“Did you know Reginald Ashram has been living on Nyroth for the past three years?”
He furrowed his brow, as though finding all possible responses equally dangerous.
And so she continued on, back out into the sunlight.
Why warn someone about an enemy? Well, to force a pre-emptive strike, perhaps. He’d said they were losing their control over Nefara; perhaps they wanted her gone. But the thing about undead enemies, besides the fact that you just cannot bribe them to switch sides, is that if you don’t win, you lose double when your casualties get back up from the killing field and start hacking at you. For all she knew, they were trying to feed Nefara.
But you also warn someone of an enemy when you want to distract them, set them up for a sucker punch. The geopolitical equivalent of hey, what’s that behind you?
Or it could be something a little more mystical. She was sure that Nasus had some ancient lore about banishing the undead, and the Void. And this was a good reason for her to ask him for those spells. She did not like the idea of an Icathian giving her homework. Nasus was always scowling about THE SECRETS OF SHURIMA, and YOUR PRESUMPTION THAT YOU COMPREHEND THE POWER YOU SEEK. Maybe they’d find more than they bargained for in those old books and buried temples.
But the thing about Icathians was that, though they were just about always up to something, always trying to manipulate you into something you’d never wish for, they weren’t necessarily averse to you getting what you wanted, either. Here’s one securus; buy me a big bag of diabolical schemes, but you can keep the change, mwahahaha, the Void hungers for your soul, have a coffee on us.
She knew that everyone had their price, and she was going to make damn sure she knew what Sajj and his associates were trying to buy.
Next: The Sun Rises for Dar’khos