“Mister President,” the aide said. “They’re ready.”
I cursed and jumped up from my seat. They delay the meeting for eight hours, and then call it again with no warning. Maybe it was a Domina thing, a show of strength. I didn’t really care how strong they were, I just wished I had a chance to finish dinner.
I cursed, struggling with my tie. Never had been able to get used to the stupid things. Normally Silk helped me before important events like this, but she was gone. Some sort of family emergency, she had said. I was curious, but hadn’t asked. To put it bluntly, I had more important things on my mind.
If I had thought ahead, I probably would have asked her to tie my tie before she left. Then I could have just never untied it. But then the knot would probably get dirty over time… maybe that was why people didn’t do that.
After a couple eternities, I managed to get the stupid thing tied. I took a deep breath and stepped outside.
There were dozens of people waiting for me outside my office. No press, thankfully, but I would have almost preferred them. Instead I had to deal with generals and senators who all wanted pieces of my time.
“Sir, I understand you have refused to have the so-called ambassadors arrested—”
“Now, I know it’s too late, but I still think we should have had this meeting in Domina City—”
“These stupid children think they can dictate terms to us—”
“Sir, please be careful, they are more dangerous than they appear—”
“Sir, I think—”
Senator Grain stepped up beside me as I followed my guards through the crowd. I smiled and nodded to everyone trying to give me advice, but ignored them. Most of the people I would be listening to weren’t here.
“We should make them wait,” Grain said.
“No,” I said.
He sighed. “Richard—”
“No,” I said again. I pulled open a door and slipped inside. Grain followed me, and the hubbub died as the door closed. This room wasn’t the meeting room, just a waiting room. There were half a dozen of my closest advisers sitting here, but they didn’t make any noise. “Stalling at this point would just make us look petty.”
Grain brushed some dandruff off my shoulder. “Fine. I guess I can’t argue with that logic. You remember the talking points?”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, mom. Start with requesting reparations for the damage done to our ships and armies. They’ll refuse, but it will put us in a better bargaining position for the rest. Ultimate goal is to get their toy maker mods, and figure out where the hell that shield came from.”
Grain nodded. “Yes, that’s perfect.”
I smirked. “This isn’t my first rodeo. I know what I’m doing.”
“Yeah, but you’ve never negotiated with someone who can rip you apart with their bare hands.” He brushed at my other shoulder, frowning as some piece of dust proved stubborn. “And now you have to deal with ten of them. And their bodyguards.”
“Thank you so much for that reminder,” I said dryly. A thought occurred to me, and I filed it away for later. “Anything else?”
“Nothing much.” He went to brush my shoulder again, but I batted him away. “The meeting is being recorded, but not broadcast live. It could be decades before anyone sees it.” He paused. “I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse.”
I sighed. “Neither am I.” I nodded to the others, and they all stood. My guards opened the doors, and I strode into the meeting room.
There were a couple of dozen people, all standing around a long table. They stuck to their half of the room, leaving us plenty of space. They were talking among themselves, but they all turned to look when we entered the room.
I had been briefed as best as possible, but it was still hard not to be shocked. So many of them all in one room… half of them barely looked human any more. There was one that looked like a giant lizard, or maybe a dragon. He was the most extreme, but there was also a naked woman with light green skin glowing slightly. She was speaking to an anthropomorphic white cat, who sniffed in my direction and frowned. There was a group of men who were all eight or nine feet tall. They were speaking with a man who appeared perfectly normal, but his bodyguards all had eyes of pure black. A man with horns was standing next to two women in wheelchairs. They had black eyes as well, but they had patches of fish scales and I could see tails peeking out from under the blankets they had in their laps. A woman in a stunning black dress, dusted with glittering stars, stood with her entourage, smiling at me. On the other side of the room, a normal-seeming woman and two normal-seeming bodyguards glared daggers at her.
I adjusted my tie and forced a smile onto my face. “Welcome, ambassadors of Domina City. I hope you weren’t waiting long.”
“We were,” the normal-looking man said. He stepped up behind a seat next to the head of the table. “But that was not your mistake. Please, do not feel obligated to apologize.”
The others seemed to take his lead, standing behind seats on their half of the room. Even thew wheelchairs were around so that the women could get a better view of the room. They were put behind the man with the horns, who had taken the chair next to the head of the table. Right across from the man with the black-eyed bodyguards.
The head chair itself remained empty. I wasn’t sure what to think of that.
My own people spread out to stand behind their chosen seats on our side of the table. I took the head seat, but paused before pulling the chair out. Was there some hidden ritual here I didn’t understand? Some part of Dominite culture I was missing?
“If you would all take your seats, we can get started—”
“Not quite, President Martinez,” the woman in the black dress said. “We’re just waiting on one more.”
“You appear to have me at a disadvantage. What is your name?”
She smiled. “Lady Maeve, Maiden of the Unseelie Court, Princess of Snow and Frost.”
O…kay… “Lady Maeve. “Who are we waiting on?”
The doors opened.
A girl strode through.
She couldn’t be more than five feet tall. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was barely more than four. Though her professional suit covered up most of her tan skin, I could see tribal tattoos peeking out from her hands and neck. She had a pair of small red horns jutting out of her forehead, short black hair, and a lithe tail snaking up from behind her. Her eyes were red, in more ways than one. The iris was red, yes, but they were also bloodshot and puffy. She almost looked like she had been crying. Still, they were stronger than I expected. Whatever she had been forced to deal with, she had pushed through.
She had one bodyguard, a young man with hard eyes. His suit didn’t fit quite right and his gun was worn too openly, but at least he looked human. He didn’t have any modifications that I could see.
I cleared my throat. “Young lady, I don’t know who you are—”
“Mister president, you have a daughter, correct?”
I paused for a moment. “I think it would be more accurate to say I have a daughter-shaped bundle of energy, but yes.”
She smiled. It faded quickly. “Less than eight hours ago, I held one of my daughters in my arms as she burned to death.” Her eyes were as hard as steel. “She was not a loyal daughter. She died trying to take me with her. When she realized there was no way for her to win, she decided she wanted everyone to lose. But she was still my daughter.”
My eye twitched. I was pretty sure I could smell something scorched. I really didn’t want to know what it was.
“So we can discuss my credentials at another time. Right now, I am too tired.” Her bodyguard pulled out the chair at the head of the table for her, and she sat. The Dominite ambassadors all followed suit without a word. She looked at the papers in front of her. “Now, first on the agenda. Domina’s sovereignty.”
The rest of us slowly sat as well. “I—I think it would be best if we dismissed our bodyguards,” I managed. “As a show of good faith.”
The girl looked at me, frowned, then nodded. “Agreed.” She waved her hand. All the Dominite bodyguards immediately marched out of the room, not even bothering to wait for confirmation from the ambassadors. The girl’s own bodyguard paused for a moment, but left along with the others.
Our own bodyguards filed out as well, but again, slower. They exited the room behind me, and I was suddenly very happy that there were two waiting rooms. Leaving our bodyguards with theirs for the duration of the meeting would probably lead to a fight.
“Most of the difficult parts of Domina’s sovereignty are already accounted for,” the girl said. “We do not pay you taxes, and you do not support us in any way. The prisoner ships might require some new paperwork, but we already receive prisoners from other foreign countries. Putting America in that category shouldn’t be overly difficult.”
“Young miss,” I said. I felt like the world was spinning away beneath me, and my tie was too tight. “I’m sorry for underestimating you. But please—who are you?”
She looked up and met my eyes with a level gaze.
“I am Lilith,” she said. “The First Monster. The Mother Monster, the Great Matron. Everyone who uses the toy maker is my child, and everyone in Domina City uses the toy maker. Artemis suggested that my presence would be beneficial to these negotiations, and I agreed. So, I have come.”
I chuckled and glanced at some of the other ambassadors. “Look, I’m willing to take a joke pretty far—”
“I’d stop right there if I were you, friend,” the man from before said. The one with the bodyguards with the black eyes. He smirked, and I could see a hint of fangs in his mouth. “Some of these people might be willing to start a war over an insult to dear old Mom.”
“Dracul,” Lilith said. “Nu-l amenința. Mă voi ocupa de asta.”
Dracul rolled his eyes, but fell silent. His smirk didn’t disappear, however.
Lilith turned back to me. “Any other questions, Mister President?”
I sighed. “No. Not for now, anyway.”
“Excellent.” She tapped at her pad. “Let’s discuss trade. Currently, Domina only trades digitally with America. Outsourced server time, call centers, so on. That should be able to continue uninterrupted, but we can also add a few more things. We can give you toys and monsters, while you can give us food and other goods that are difficult to make offworld. This will take some pressure off some of our allies in space, which will be good for the system as a whole.”
Next to me, Grain cleared his throat. “We haven’t—I don’t think the president has agreed to grant you sovereignty yet.”
Lilith nodded, then gathered up her things and stood. The other Dominite ambassadors followed suit.
“Wait wait wait!” I said. “What are you doing?”
“If you are not willing to grant Domina sovereignty, then we have nothing else to talk about,” she said. “The war will resume, and we will be forced to take drastic measures.” She turned to Maeve. “How fast can you get a dozen gargants in Washington DC?”
Maeve grinned. “Tomorrow. Easy.”
I took a deep breath. I didn’t know what gargants were, but the context made them frightening enough. “You’re trying to scare us. It won’t work.”
“No,” Lilith said. “I am trying to do what is best for my children.”
“A good mother wouldn’t get them killed.”
Half the Dominite ambassadors gasped. The giant growled under his breath and grabbed the table. I couldn’t tell what his plan was, but Lilith stopped him with a raised hand. He reluctantly stepped back.
Those red eyes bored into me. “Is this truly how you want to play this?” she said. She just ignored the insult, which I was thankful for. It had slipped out, and I hadn’t meant it. “Do you really want to jump back into a war? I understand bluffs. I understand acting stronger than you are. But if you do not accept Domina’s sovereignty, people will die. People you could have saved. Do you really want that on your conscience?”
Grain scoffed. “Little girl, if you think—”
“Shut up,” I said.
Grain glared at me, but shut his mouth.
I continued holding Lilith’s gaze, looking deeply into those red eyes of hers.
She didn’t blink.
“Everyone out,” I said.
Everyone stared at me. Grain was the one to speak. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me,” I said. “Everyone out. Lilith stays, but that’s it.”
They stood silently for a moment, as if they couldn’t believe what they were hearing. I couldn’t quite believe what I was saying. But when I didn’t retract the order, they grumbled and started packing up their things. Everyone, on both sides of the table. They all filed out, muttering and whispering. Even the wheelchairs got pushed out by Dracul and the giant.
Once they were gone and the doors closed behind them, I leaned back in my chair and sighed. “You would have done it, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes,” Lilith said quietly. “I am sorry. But my children must come first.”
I cocked my head. “So that’s real? You’re not just pandering to the audience?” I jerked my thumb at the camera. “It’s not live, if that’s what you’re worried about. We can delay it for years, if that’s what you want.”
Lilith walked over. She didn’t come all the way to my side of the table, but she did come over to the half way point. She sat on the table and smiled at me.
“None of it is faked,” she said. “I’ve never been a very good liar.”
I stood and walked over opposite her. Now we were only a few feet apart instead of almost twenty. “That’s exactly what good liars say.”
She chuckled. “The truth is… I’m doing my best.” She shrugged. “Parenting is hard enough with a handful of kids, or even just one. I have over four hundred million. I can’t possibly look after them all.”
“What do you do, then?” I asked. I could tell that she was being genuine. A woman like this wouldn’t take the title without trying to live up to it. She had to get to know her children somehow, or she wouldn’t call herself their mother.
“I’m a waitress,” she said with a smile.
I blinked. I wasn’t sure what I had been expecting, but it wasn’t that.
“I know it sounds silly,” she said. “Everyone always says that.” She leaned back on her hands, a wistful look on her face. “But it lets me meet people. Talk to them. Find out what they like, what they do. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
I didn’t say anything. I had spent some time as a waiter when I was a kid, and all it had done was test my faith in humanity. Luckily, we had served alcohol and my boss was very understanding.
“I have to do what is best for my city,” Lilith said. “I am sorry.”
I nodded. “So your sovereignty is non-negotiable. I understand. But I need something in exchange. Favored trade status would go a long way to making this pill easier for congresscritters to swallow.”
She quirked her head. “You’re afraid of them overriding your decision?”
I smirked. “It’s not that bad. They’ll grumble about it, but they don’t want to start a war either. I pretty much just need to give them an excuse to accept it.”
She smiled. “And favored trade status is a very good excuse.”
I smiled as well. Then I stopped. “How does trade with your city work, any way? I know you exchange packages with the space stations, but I don’t know the exact details.”
“Artemis normally sets the specific trade tariffs,” she said. “Smuggling isn’t a major problem, due to the difficulties of trading at all. I suspect we’ll start seeing many more problems once we start trading with the mainland more. And not everyone will like the idea of giving you toys.”
“If it makes them feel any better, we’re not going to be usurping their monopoly any time soon. We still have all those laws against the toy maker in place, and getting rid of them won’t be easy.” I rolled my eyes. “It’s part of the reason we attacked in the first place. Kind of like invading because someone kept parking on the sidewalk.”
“What about the monsters?” she asked. “What do your laws say about that?”
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
“The fey modify animals. Make them larger, more dangerous. Gives them interesting properties that are useful. Food, some types of medicine, that sort of thing.”
“There’s no way we’ll be able to ship live animals,” I said. “Maybe if you were still a client city, but as your own sovereign state, it’s out of the question. Not sure if there will be enough of a demand for that sort of thing anyway.”
“As long as the option is on the table, it’s a good start.” She headed back to her seat. “I think that is enough for the moment. Should we call the others back in?”
“Maybe.” I paused. “Just one last thing. Your daughter. The one who died.”
She stopped. She didn’t look at me. “Yes?”
“You said she died eight hours ago. That means it happened here, in New York.”
“What, exactly, happened? Does it have anything to do with the fugitive I heard about?”
Lilith sighed, and turned to face me. She still didn’t look at me, though. She kept her gaze turned down. “Malcanthet… always wanted power. When Domina City wouldn’t give her enough, she fled here. Tried to build what she wanted. When I arrived, she kidnapped me, we fought, and she killed herself. That is all.”
I took a deep breath. Oh boy… “That is the kind of thing we would like to know about.”
She looked up and met my eyes. She didn’t seem defiant, just a little confused. “You want us to send you our criminal profiles?”
“That would be nice,” I admitted. “I think Interpol might be necessary. I don’t know. But what I meant was the part about a foreign ambassador almost getting killed on our soil. That sort of thing can cause… problems.”
Lilith smiled. It seemed genuine. “Don’t worry, Mister President. I was never in any danger.”
I gave her a look. “Yes, because every time someone tries to kill an ambassador, we just ignore it if they survive. Do the others even know what happened? How will they react when they find out?”
She thought for a moment. “I’m not sure. I think that they will decide that Malcanthet was our problem. They will not blame you. Several of them were at the Battle of Shendilavri. They will blame themselves for letting her escape in the first place.”
“Okay. Just as long as they don’t say that.”
She frowned. “Why?”
“Because my people will blame you,” I said. I shrugged. “Not you specifically. Domina. Whoever was in charge of this… Shin…”
“Shendilavri was Malcanthet’s domain,” Lilith said. “An alliance of cultures drove her out and burned the building to the ground.”
She said it so casually. “Right. Sure. But then she came here. How much damage has she done in the past few weeks? Do you even know?”
She frowned. But this time it was in confusion, not annoyance. “What?”
“I doubt she’s just been sitting around doing nothing.”
“Well, you’re right, but… why do you think she’s only started trouble in the past few weeks? Did something happen?”
“I was just guessing,” I said. “I don’t know when all this happened. She got driven out before the war started, right? So at least a few weeks.”
Lilith looked like she was struggling with something.
“What?” I said. “What is it?”
“Mister President,” she said slowly. “Malcanthet was driven out of Domina almost six years ago. I have to assume that she has been here this entire time.”
I sat down.
“Oh,” I said.
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
I rubbed my forehead and sighed. “Well… that might be problematic. From a public relations standpoint, at least. More of that ‘all immigrants are criminals’ crap.” I looked up. “What exactly did she do?”
She winced. “I think my sister can explain a little better than I can.” She pulled out her phone and started tapping buttons. “She wrote an article a while back summarizing everything. It’s required reading in most universities these days.” She slid the phone across the table to me.
I grabbed it, frowned, and started reading the text on the tiny screen. She could have at least put it on a pad.
I blinked. I continued reading.
I blinked again.
“Yes,” Lilith said.
“But—she could have taken over the city!” I said. “We’re not prepared for this sort of thing!”
“It’s harder than you’d think. Anyone who holds political office is very closely scrutinized. It’s unlikely she could brainwash anyone. Not to mention that routine medical checks would have caught their odd blood chemistry.”
“But—you should have told us!”
“And what would you have done?” she asked. “Or your predecessor, rather. Would he have believed us? And if he did believe us, what would he have done about it? Would he have decided that Domina City was too dangerous to leave free? Would he have sent in the armies, looking to arrest every single one of our warlords?” She shook her head. “Artemis made his choices. I agreed with them at the time, and I still do now.”
I swallowed and slid the phone across the table. “Maybe keep the details to yourself for now. Just until we get something signed, and people calm down a bit.”
“But for the future, we will need some system of sharing criminal profiles.” I shook my head. “Even if I didn’t understand what half of those crimes were. Like, what is retribution evasion?”
She smiled. “Short version? Tax evasion.”
I rolled my eyes. “That’s always what gets them in the end.”
She walked over to the door on her side. “So should we invite them back in?”
I nodded. “Let’s try and finish this up quickly.”
Behind the Scenes (309)
This is another scene that I ran through a dozen variations of, from random monster attack to Malcanthet secretly still being alive and declaring undying revenge. This is one of the lower-key versions of the scene, but I think it works better.