Chapter 2: Business as Usual
“Name your business, insect.”
I looked up at the kaiju lizard guardsmen, their bodies standing over the camp’s entrance like a living gate.
“Felsac Kesei,” I answered, pulling out a sigil patterned after my wings from my personal belongings. “Commander of the Azure Talons mercenaries. I’m reporting an urgent discovery to Captain Deusarg.”
“You don’t look like much of a commander,” a battle-scarred guard leered down at me, “And I’ve never heard of these ‘Azure Talons’.” For clarification, I was only six feet tall at the moment, and I had no interest in causing a scene by fully transforming in a crowded outpost. Instead, I took a deep breath and briefly tensed my body, just long enough for my adrenaline to flare. The scarred guard’s reflexive stagger, even if it was only half a step, told me he felt my aura brush against his.
“He gets it, Kesei, you can drop the horseplay,” the other guard nonplussedly assured me -- he must have been present for one of my previous dealings with the Armergidan knights. “You’re cleared to go through.”
“Thank you,” I hastily nodded, sprinting past the two of them. The hustle and bustle of the camp rang around my antennae, nearly drowning out the groans and grumbles of injured smallfolk warriors. As I approached the largest tent in sight, another pair of guards prepared to question me again, but a hoarse voice from inside had gleaned past them to catch a glimpse of me.
“Let him in,” Deusarg ordered without a second thought. His men agreed, and I sprinted in. “You’re reporting early, Kesei. Did something-”
I slammed the imperial emblem on top of his strategic map.
“What is this?” The lizard confusedly prodded.
“The return-to-sender address on the maomaoians’ new toys,” I sternly stated, leaning over the four-foot high table. “The Katacalisan Empire’s lending siege weapons to the natives, and who knows what else.”
“Preposterous. What business does the empire have aiding a bunch of cannibals?”
“Apparently, they were gambling on the maomaoians sniping your commanders from afar. On paper, it sounds like a relatively cheap way to strike your finest men down without getting their hands dirty. In practice, given the tribe’s lack of experience with long-range siege weaponry, that’s less of a gamble and more like taking out a loan with the maomaoians as-”
“Get to the point,” Deusarg impatiently tapped his table.
“I suspect this strategy was less about the attack itself and more about painting a big target on the maomaoians. It’s a classic in the imperial playbook. Make a lesser power look bigger and scarier than they really are, get you to divide your forces to attack them in their heart, and completely miss the bigger army that they’re mobilizing right under your noses. You need to play the defensive game.”
“Why are we even assuming this is a gift? The maomaoians could have just raided an imperial outpost and made off with the weapons.”
“The weapons had live kaiju toxins on them. They must have been prepared recently, possibly by the empire’s strongest men. Besides, that is far too aggressive of a maneuver for a tribe to risk. The empire must be offering this tribe their ‘protection’,” I raised my fingers in sarcastic air quotes.
“So you're telling me that these maomaoic invaders are wielding dangerous weapons personally handed to them by the empire… and you want us to stay away from them for that exact reason?”
“Nonono,” I rapidly shook my head, “They ain’t dangerous. That’s the lie the empire wants you to think. That’s literally the crux of my counter-stratagem here.”
“Sir,” a guard spoke out from behind our tent’s opening. “A bee woman is here to see you. She has a faint trace of kaiju blood, and she claims to be the mercenary’s second-in-command.”
“Let her in,” the captain agreed. I hailed her with a friendly wave, which she briefly returned before resuming a formal stance.
“Feilit Namai, reporting from the battlefield,” she bowed.
“What did the caravan find?” Deusarg folded his arms.
“Several arbalest snipers were stationed or moving into position on the outskirts of the battle. Each was escorted and manned by a scarce few maomaoian warriors, who had only fired off a few bolts at most. As of our first sweep, our men have reported and dispatched thirty arbalest escorts.”
“You told me you weren’t dispatching many men to scout,” the captain turned towards me with confusion.
“We’re a quality over quantity kind of company,” I nodded proudly.
“So says our coffers,” Deusarg smirked. “Very well, you’ve fulfilled your end of the bargain. Your caravan will receive due payment. Speaking of which, the battle continues to wage on. Might I convince you to lend your claws to our front lines?”
“Hard pass,” I shook my head. “I’m not interested in making an enemy of the tribes, and I’d rather stay in relatively-okay-ish-graces when I visit them on a personal business trip. I have questions about what they’re doing with the empire.”
“Felsac,” Feilit gave me a stern, almost scolding look. It probably was a bit scolding. “We just attacked almost a hundred of their men, several of them by your own hands. If they’ll recognize us at all, they have no reason to see us as anything but hostile,”
“That’s why I’m using my non-lethal giant obsidian pillars.”
“Doesn’t that just mean they’ll recognize you smacked them with megatons of blunt force, not that they’ll think you’re a merciful warrior…?”
“A mercenary would rather secure allies with a backwater tribe than the strongest kingdom this side of the continent?” The captain tilted his head at me.
“I’m just saying that the empire’s a hassle enough to deal with by themselves. That’s why it’s a personal business trip. Also, if we go, you don’t have to take the empire’s bait and leave the anywhere-in-this-country unguarded.”
“Suit yourself,” the despondent captain sighed. “Then let’s make it professional. Bring us enough information on the maomaoians’ supposed dealings with the empire, and -- if your hunch is correct and -- your men will eat like dragons.”
“Oh,” Feilit chimed in. “If you want in on this info, we’re gonna need 3000 Scales up front. Travel expenses.”
“2500, and our men get to join your kaiju’s feast tonight.”
“She’s got a point,” I backed her up. “You want this info as quickly as we do, and our wounds are gonna take a toll on our travel times if premium kaiju like us have to stick to rations.”
“We have a deal,” Deusarg held out his claw, and I shook it.
“I’ll start drafting the formal contract,” Feilit made her way out, gesturing me closer for her to whisper in my antennae. “I hope you know what kind of risk you’re taking, Felsac.”
I didn’t. To be fair, neither did she.
WORDS UP! 1138
TOTAL WORDITUDE: 2286