1100 Chapter 1211 - Commerce

The best way to ensure peaceful cooperation with your neighbours, is to make sure it's far more profitable to continue living together than it is to go to war. Wars are expensive, messy affairs after all. Pay for arms and armour, pay for training, pay for wages, food, transportation and shelter. And after you've paid for all of that, what does your soldier go and do? Dies! They die! Investment is lost on so many levels that it makes my heart bleed.

And for what? Territory? Raw natural resources?

Those raw resources are the cheapest possible form of that substance. After the artisans get their hands on it, the enchanters have worked their magic on it, then you have something of worth! Being the person to dig it out of the ground is hardly a privilege.

Embrace your neighbours, and profit. Only fools and fanatics go to war.

  -  Excerpt from 'On Ruling' by Satrap Umizan

Eran Umizan, wife of the Satrap, wasn't an easy woman to impress. She had seen rivers of gold. She had seen a pagoda of pure sapphire gleaming with fractured light beneath the waves. The fortress constructed by the ants lacked the elegance, lacked the sparkle and shine that she had grown accustomed to, but still… there was something about it that she found impressive.

Was it the scale? Certainly it was enormous. The ants had provided an escort, welcoming the diplomatic envoy from the Conglomerate within their mountain, opening the vast gates to allow their safe passage. Within, they found cavernous halls with high-arching ceilings and grand passages that dwarfed the brathians within.

Perhaps it was the time frame? She knew that the ants hadn't been here long, a month perhaps? What they had put together in that period was nothing short of remarkable.

The precision? Every line was perfect. She leaned close to inspect the walls several times, and to her trained eye, she could find no flaw in any of them. The stonework was perfectly smooth, without chip or indent. The angles seemed to stretch out into infinity. Every arch, the neatest possible curve, every corner exactly ninety degrees.

A strong argument could be made for the art. She hadn't expected to see it within a monster's den, but it was everywhere she looked. Frescoes, statues and carvings decorated almost every surface. Each depicting glorious scenes of ant triumph, or incredible landscapes dotted with ant workers tending to crops and fields, or battle in the tunnels. Perhaps had they been formed of gold or silver, or carved in-relief from a diamond pane, they would have moved her more deeply, but there was still something about them that soothed her heart.

"They wish for us to sit," her advisor, the Court Mage, Irisod told her, gesturing toward the round table before them.

The table was carved of stone directly from the mountain itself, a part of the room as much as the walls. The chairs, thankfully, were more comfortable, made of gleaming wood that thrummed with earth mana, and appropriately cushioned.

"Thank them for their hospitality," she replied and sat, dignified.

Her flowing robes fell back from her shoulders, exposing the shimmering blue scales of her upper arms as she folded her hands in front of her.

There were several ants in the room, but not as many as she expected. The large one remained, though the monster was forced to curl its body up so as not to dominate the space. Certainly, it couldn't fit around the table.

Eran took a moment to examine the rest of her diplomatic mission. Piris, predictably, was vibrating with excitement, staring at everything around her with wide eyes. Thankfully, Theraz had taken her words to heart and stayed by the girl's side, keeping a tight grip on her arm and reminding her of proper behaviour. 

Her guards were as stone-faced and prepared as she should expect, given their perilous position. Should their hosts turn aggressive, it was up to them to hold on long enough for the Siren to arrive from her position in the waters outside to secure a path home.

The mages were similarly grim-faced as they monitored the area for any hint of danger and communicated mentally with the ants.

Irisod leaned close once more.

"They are offering refreshments, Eran. Are you willing to accept?"

"It would be rude to decline."

"What if they offer Biomass?"

"Then we gracefully excuse ourselves from partaking."

It was a valid point. What would the ants offer besides what they themselves ate?

Shockingly, a smaller ant entered with strangely formed front legs, gripping a tray in its claws as it walked on the other four. With a strange insect grace, the tray was slid in front of her to reveal a steaming cup of tea, along with a buttered scone.

A confused Irison spoke in her ear again.

"They apologise for not being able to offer cake and a proper selection of biscuits. Apparently, they don't have direct contact with their other nests and are short on supplies." She hesitated. "They are surprisingly sincere in their apologies."

"They take hospitality seriously, then?"

"Apparently so."

Discreetly, she leaned forward to inhale the fragrance of the tea, allowing her necklace to hang close to the food. No reaction. Unpoisoned, then.

With exquisite motions, she lifted the cup and brought it to her lips, allowing herself a sip of the liquid. She considered for a moment, then took another.

"This tea is incredible," she murmured. "By the waves, where did they get this?"

"You want me to ask them?"

She hesitated. Would it be taken as a sign of weakness to be asking questions already? Surely not.

"Please do."

She managed not to jump in her seat as several ants clacked their mandibles, breaking the hushed silence in the chamber, though her guards lacked the same level of self control. Several swords were halfway removed from their sheaths as Irisod hastily spoke aloud.

"They were expressing happiness," she said clearly, "the Eran enquired where they sourced their tea and spoke of its quality. The ants were pleased, as they grow the leaves themselves. Apparently, the drink is a favourite with their Queen? Among their Queens. Please excuse me."

"So they have more than one, then?" she mused as she took another long sip.

"Should I ask?"

"No. They are ants. Asking after their Queens will likely lead to trouble. Let us deal with those in front of us."

These negotiations would be amongst the most interesting of her life. First contact with an entire new civilization of monsters. Who knew what could come of it? Most importantly, did they have anything to trade?


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