After his fifteen minutes of weakness in the middle of the night, Orison didn't know how to face Gan the next day. As a person who was comprised of one half child and one half modern man with little resistance to the limits of depravity that intelligent creatures can reach when unchecked, the carnival of obscenity within Avenar's private research facilities and the larger one that likely belonged to a group of like-minded and deranged mages had been more than he could digest. A few more days in daylight would ease that but the young mage felt like something good and wholesome within himself had been lost and trying to replace that lost innocence with something positive would be a challenge of years, he felt.
There was no avoiding it. There would be more and detailed questions for Gan and Orison, dredging back to the surface what both of them would like to bury and move past til they could shake the shadows off. If anything helpful could come from that then perhaps it would be that dissecting the event and recounting it into a numb litany would make the horror of it less personal but Orison told himself to never allow that numbness to turn into apathy within himself. He knew things could be better, the world and people could be better, and becoming ambivalent to atrocity was not how 'becoming better' happened.
The young mage recapped the choices he'd been making since he arrived on this world to see how they fit the ideal he was trying to sell himself over the late breakfast-early lunch brought to them. In the beginning, he hadn't had many options and was trying to make the best out of what was presented to him. Somewhere along the way, Orison realized he'd been slipping into dangerous decision making. Playing cat and mouse with a sociopath oligarch, long past the part of necessity, and making deals with a real demon were two steps in bad directions.
He needed time to get all the parts of himself on the same page and there was a perfect place to do that. Of course, if the Centerland Senate was going to give him too much of a hard time about it, he was done dancing to that tune. He had one or two more big plays left and then he was done. Either he'd get what he was owed or he'd find a wild place to carve out a piece for himself and make them accept it but first, he had to appease an archmage.
After sifting through the information presented the day before, the old Northland archmage worked into finer details, squeezing for a little more at a time until Gan and Orison weren't even sure if what they were saying was true or not. Eventually, in frustration, Orison expressed that he and Gan were done. To be expected, the archmage drew upon the might of his title and magical prowess to assert that they would be finished when HE was finished.
Orison said, "I personally cut the throat of four children who had been half eaten and still somehow alive in various degrees of f***ed up beyond repair. Mindless men were mounting mindless women as they screwed and chewed on each other, all the while opened up and partially dissected. There was no respect of race, age or gender in that place. Those mages wanted to make monsters, monsters that they could control. What else is there to know? Do you want to know how they did it? Do you want to repeat the process and see if you can do what they did?"
Calmly, the archmage said, "There is no evil inherent in knowledge, Apprentice. I'm not condoning what those elves did but much could be gained for the betterment of-"
Orison cut him off by saying, "Go dig for secrets in your own body before violating someone else's."
The archmage's eyes glazed over before he strode out of the room with grim purpose. As soon as the old man was gone, Orison dug around for examples of the archmage's handwriting and used transcribe to piece together two letters, sealing them with the non-magical wax stamp on the desk.
Gan took pace with Orison's speed walk and asked in hushed tones, "What was that?"
The young mage, keeping his purposeful stride to the transport circle, said, "Our favorite mummy left a wind-up key dangling out of the old man. Since he wanted to keep twisting on us, I twisted the key. For whatever good it will do, if he chooses to come looking for us to twist us again, I'll break the key off in him. He doesn't seem like a bad sort, just more thirst for knowledge than sensibility. A wake-up call on what it's like to feel powerless in the grip of another might make him more sympathetic to the victims than curious about the results of the experiments for awhile."
Once they reached the transport circle, Orison declared himself on official business of the archmage and politely asked the middle-aged woman on duty to send him to the Centerland Empyrean College.
With a bored expression, the lady said, "Even the archmage himself needs to pay the minimum. You are not he. Five hundred gold."
All patience gone, Orison said, "I don't know if this is a shakedown or what but these letters bear his seals. I'll give you 250 or a black eye and either way you'll be sending us. What'll it be?"
The woman laughed at him before he lunged and punched her in the face before she could even register what he was doing and as she stared at him in horrified shock, he said, "F*** up the sending if you dare. The Centerland Archmage is involved in this too. I don't have time to deal with inflated egos but maybe you do? I personally wouldn't want two of the most powerful men in this land looking down at me angrily at the same time but suit yourself."
The woman began her weaving but added, "In this moment, you have two men behind you. Little lamb, you have no idea-"
Orison said, "I'm not trying to go to the Marshlands just yet. Fix your coordinates before I rip out your heart like the last specialist who messed with my teleportation, assistant. Yes, I remember you but I'm not surprised you don't remember me from when your late master tried to murder my family and Captain Nadir. In less than a few months, I'll be as good as the two MASTERs of spacial magics I killed, if not better, Journeyman I-don't-care-who-you-are'. Maybe you'd like to pretend another sneeze? Oh, that's right. This circle's parameters are preset and it will only accept valid beacons. If you're too tired, should I do it myself? Your job looks pretty lucrative maybe I'll-"
Gan and Orison disappeared in a curtain of light before they found themselves in another circle made of precious materials.
Orison muttered to himself, "Now I've got you. Centerland coordinates, get!"
Gan said queasily, "Why did you have to rile her up so bad?"
The young mage said, "One, I hate her. Two, I could see what she was doing and could interrupt it at any time. Three, I wanted her to set the coordinates without masking it. Four, she already has it in for me and mine. Why should I be anything but as offensive as I can be to someone who tried to kill me once and would do it again if they could?"
Gan chuckled nervously. "Fair enough, Little Boss. She is a teleport mage too though."
Orison laughed as two Centerland soldiers approached for identification. "She can't cast a teleport. She can only attend a preset one. Otherwise she wouldn't still be wearing journeyman robes."
The young mage declared himself and flashed the sealed letter, requesting to speak to the archmage. Once his request was accepted, Orison pulled a small box out of his space under his robes. Once he stood in front of the grim and battle magic scarred Centerland mage, Orison handed the letter over.
After speed reading through it, the archmage offered his hand and said, "A real pleasure, Orison. In this office, feel free to call me Tertius."
After the archmage shared a soldier's forearm clasp with Orison, followed by a nod of greeting to Gan, Tertius waved the two into a seat. Contrary to expectations, the Centerland archmage called for refreshments and chatted with the young mage about all the adventures 'the boy' had on Obsidian Island.
The archmage said, "You couldn't even begin to imagine my disbelief at hearing the snake pit below us sent an untrained, untried mother and child to deal with THE most difficult diplomatic assignment our country had to offer. If it wasn't for the Empyrean Court augury, I would have brought you back to safety and sanity with my own hands. Well, now that you are here, no need to worry about going back. The pit has already sent your replacement and if it all falls apart between now and when he gets there, it has nothing to do with you."
For the first time in what seemed like ages, Orison let out a genuine sigh of relief. "I have two sets of people making their way to my estate. After the events spoken of in the beginning of that letter, if I hadn't earned it then I don't want it any more."
Orison slid the small box across the desk at Tertius. Once the archmage had seen it's contents and taken out the papers, he slid it back.
Tertius said. "Offer the rest to the Vox Populi as prepaid land tax at the senatorial session. I'll pretend, very unconvincingly, to be surprised at seeing them and immediately requisition those eternium crystals for the good of the empire and all that. Since you have to hand them over for yours and your family's safety, you might as well get something out of it. Still, why didn't that old blow hard up the way get his claws on them first?"
Orison shrugged. "I didn't offer and he was preoccupied. If he asks, I don't have more."
Tertius smiled and judging by how awkward it looked on his face, the archmage apparently didn't have a large amount of practice doing it. "Of course you don't. I'll relay the message if asked but I think I can do one better by insinuating that I DO know what you have and support you having it. This whole setup is garbage and what passes for a decently trained master slips by notches every year. Is it any wonder when the older of us constantly rob anything of value the younger generation find and make them burn out their potential to earn it back?
"I'm going to make myself clear, Orison. I want you for Centerland and I'll fight for you as long as you don't start acting like a typical academy snot who walks around like the world owes them something. Surviving your ordeal was admirable. Getting ahead was impressive. Making it look like it was easy scared the delicates off the powdered pigs in the senate which, honestly, tickles my ulcer ridden belly. I've never had the pleasure of meeting your father but I'm certain he'd be proud of you."
Orison smiled bitterly and said, "It was anything but. My survival is greatly due to chance than anything else... Um, about the Domain activities in the letter?"
Tertius said, "I doubt you actually WANT to be a part of that so consider your part done and I'll take it from here... You seem to do pretty well on your own so I think the academies would ruin you. How about I send up some books once you're settled in and try not to let your tutor cram your head with any weird ideas about what's what in the world of mage craft. When you reach a dead end that the spy from Fort Frost can't help you with, just write to me. I'll see what I can do to help you out. I'd offer to take you in as a disciple but that would do you further injustice. Believe me.
"Hmm, would you be adverse to having a small mage guild on your land? Things are a bit thinly spread but if you can take some of your gains to get it started, I'll see about increasing the funds that way. Where one goes, the other usually follows but the mercenary guild charter houses have always footed it's own bill."
Orison said, "I, uh-"
"It's settled then. Follow my servant to get whatever you need and sometime later this evening, you'll have your snake pit meeting. I'd suggest getting some rest in if you need it. Those pedants can turn anything into a circus if given half a chance," Tertius added before standing up and seeing his way out."
As the servant led them to a reclusive suite with just about anything a person could want on short notice, Gan said, "What in the Abyss just happened?"
Orison shook his head and chuckled. "I was treated like a smart, brave and potentially useful 'child'. To be honest, I don't care. He's right. I don't want to be involved. I don't want to go to an academy and spin wheels for years to get what I could on my own in months. Better yet, he stated plainly what he wants from me and what he's offering in return. As long as I don't step out of those generously wide lines, I can do what I want... Nothing to complain about."
Gan said, "Help ME understand."
Orison nodded and broke it down. "As long as I'm a Centerland mage, Tertius will keep everyone off my a**. If I stop being a Centerland mage, I'll be on his sh*t list. He warned me to not get too friendly with my tutor and that the mage guild I'm supposed to build is his answer to that tutor's presence... I'm not certain about the last part but either a mercenary group is interested in getting close to me or wants to keep an eye on me. My best guess. There may have been some hints on not learning things he doesn't approve of but on that, it's better to do and ask forgiveness than to be asked permission and be denied. He'll be much clearer then and I won't have to guess."
The carefully planned round of back and forth Orison had prepared for the senate was not to be. Unlike his envisioned circle of vultures looking to tear a chunk where they could as he fought with cunning and valor for every little piece he escaped with turned into a pageant. He was paraded around, complimented by the archmage and emperor and barely had a breath of time to hand over his 'land taxes' with a promise of ten years paid in full off of them.
It irked him that him or his heir would be looking at 3000 in annual taxes after ten years off a thirty mile diameter blob of a mountainous gray zone which didn't really belong to anyone because no one really wanted it but didn't want anyone else to have it. The Northland High King did agree to letting Centerland have it but Highlanders don't cede anything they aren't forced to which potentially left him dealing with their interference if Orison expanded development in that direction or found something worth fighting over. Northland's side wasn't much better considering the Forgotten were uncomfortably close to being a neighbor on the north-eastern portion.
It didn't take much thinking for Orison to realize that the senate still got their digs in. The young mage's merits and the eternium crystals taken from the two machines had bought himself ten years of fiscal freedom from the emperor and Tertius but after that, the senate would slowly dismantle and eat up anything he'd made of the place. He smiled secretly to himself that he'd do more for less time. If the senate thought that they'd be able to squeeze anything he didn't want to give from the place he was leaving for his loved ones, they were in for a rude awakening.
To some degree, the emperor must have been wise to Orison because he deemed to give the young mage the tenth official offering of the baron title. As a feudal system title granted outside the senate's power to address, as long as the emperor himself or one of his descendants didn't revoke it, a baron could be infinite in debt and the senate could seize nothing. The previous emperor had robbed the patricians of military power and it seemed that this one wanted to take away the right to regulate taxes. If successful, the senate would be nothing but a collection of rich land owners with legislative power easily overthrown by angry commoners or vetoed impotent by the emperor.
It took several days but Orison collected up a large caravan worth of provisions, tools and a few essential 'journeymen' of harder trades to make the final stretch of the trek to his new home with him. Since it was already in the works, Orison decided to forego waiting and sent an invitation to the mercenary guild within the capital to send some people to prospect and help the young mage pick out a site. The reply was lukewarm but some gold and a promise to let them choose before the mandatory mage guild made them far more friendly.