Dale and the Union leader clasped hands, and then we all sank down into our seats.
They were comfy seats, probably Old World. They had arms, padding, and a slight reclining capability. They matched the general atmosphere of the meeting ground, chalk it up to excellent Union logistics that they’d been able to fetch it in such a short span.
We were outside, of course, but they’d erected a ‘smart fabric’ pavilion for the meeting. It honestly felt just as cool and pleasant as it had in the Castle.
Everything had been arranged as we’d demanded it. One table, ten chairs, light sources behind both sides. They had accommodated us on every particular.
Going down the line, they’d sent an ugly woman who hadn’t had the training to hide how badly this situation had shaken her calm, a gimlet eyed pro who might as well have written ‘spy’ on his forehead, a bubbly friendly woman who seemed to be in charge, a cagey older gentleman and a soldier looking guy with a predatory smirk.
The two on the outside, the twitchy lady and the soldier fellow, were Ultras. They would only matter if something jumped off. The middle three were the actual dignitaries.
The introductions droned on, and I kept the Hook unfolded. I moved it around the tent’s perimeter in wide arcs, glaring holes through the security squads that they’d brought. I wasn’t going to start fishing right away, needed to establish a baseline first.
The woman in charge was named Meghan, she sounded basically friendly and conciliatory. The spy, Chad, was terse and guarded. Jamad, who sat across from me, was informal and almost unprofessional. He sounded a lot like Indulger would have, if we’d let him do any of the talking.
After lots more talking, Haunter explained that we were going to be taking security precautions and started sending out squads of her shades to exchange glares with the Union guys outside. That was my cue to withdraw the Hook. I pulled it down into my shadow and immediately sent it over Meghan’s way.
It had been a bit of a nasty shock when the main human had turned out to be a lady. I’d gotten very used to every dagger leader being a dude, but now that I gave the matter some thought that was probably due to the Process. Maybe the kind of women who would be in charge of things became Ultras in other countries, but the long waiting list in the Union meant that that didn’t apply here.
Meghan had an admirably disciplined set of priorities. She wanted to not screw something up, to do something proud, to not be fooled by someone and to get the best of someone in negotiations. The list went on for a while, nothing jumped out as a good replacement for lust as a lever to bend her decisions around. Disappointingly, the only romantic notions our side of the table evoked in her was a faint desire to tell her someone about us, probably her husband.
I let her be for a moment, checked out Chad. That poker face was hiding a soul in tumult. His priorities shifted constantly, but the foremost most of the time was ‘don’t get killed by someone’. I put a little weight under that impulse, keeping the need to not rock the boat at the forefront of his deliberations. Dealing with two people would be hard enough, I didn’t need this guy butting in.
Jamad was a bit of a puzzle. He was here to support someone, to protect that person and to satisfy someone else. I built a model of him as Meghan’s squire, officially here as a check on her, but really just intending to back her play.
Haunter was wrapping up our explanation for the nuclear strike as I finished my preliminary work. I let her yap while I put some thought into it.
The reason that seduction was my go to method was that people already had a story for how that played out. Everyone knew someone who had gotten themselves wrapped around someone else’s finger, or had read stories where that happened. The agenda of ‘mate with someone’ usually brought lots of useful auxiliary desires along with it. Nobody was ever as nice as a dude who thought that he had a shot. Best of all, outside observers were never given any reason to suspect an Ultra gift at work. They just chuckled at another bum thinking with his dick.
But I couldn’t be nearly as blatant using other impulses. Who ever heard of anyone suddenly diving in front of bullets in order to…put someone at ease? To save themselves a trip? To preserve symmetry?
People had an idea of being a fool for love, but a fool for annoyance wouldn’t fly nearly as well. If I wanted their masters back home to honor the deal that these clowns signed, then their motivations had to be clear and understandable to whatever experts they would have examine their recordings of these proceedings.
I decided to start with Jamad.
If I left him for later he would be a complication in my dealings with Meghan. He paid attention to her, but not vice versa. I didn’t need anyone focused on her when I started messing around with her mind.
Despite sitting right across from the Lure his priority list remained absent of any carnal impulses. I figured that the problem was probably that I wasn’t playing enough of a role in things. I was wallpaper at this point, pretty but unimportant.
I tuned back into the goings on in time to catch Meghan protesting about the Regime’s past behavior.
“… many times are we supposed to accept these truces? How many cheeks can we turn?”
“One more?” I interjected, making my voice bright and hopeful. There was a little of Dale in it, a little bit of the breathy seductive baseline that I’d never take out of the Lure as long as I live, but mostly it was Haunter’s idealism that I was shooting for.
It wrong footed Meghan for a moment, and even as the conversation continued along I felt a new priority creep up on Jamad’s radar. ‘Don’t disillusion someone’.
Now I had his symbol for the Lure, and I looked through the rest of the top of his priority list for anything else about me. Only thing I could find was ‘Don’t underestimate her’, which was nice. He’d done it anyway, of course, but he was only human, can’t help that.
I put a floor under ‘Don’t disillusion her’, and held it there, about on the same level as his desire not to make a fool of someone. It wasn’t a major part of his motivation yet, but with my Hook holding it in place it would only ever rise. It slid up as moments passed.
He glanced at me again, and I let him catch me looking. I didn’t have any idea how actual humans managed the complicated dance of eye contact, but I used Ultra speed, and that worked pretty well. I flushed the Lure’s cheeks a bit, and stared down at the table.
Right on cue, way out on the edge of his priorities, far far away from anything that would ever be expressed, ‘fuck her’ bubbled up. I slid the Hook under it, and carefully pulled it up.
There was a bit of an art to this, actually. I’d watched a few genuine crushes in my time, there was a kind of rhythm. If you just jerked it to the top he’d jump up and make a fool of himself. Too fast, and he’d reject it, try and focus on anything else, rather than the sudden turn his life was taking. I was shooting for movie level plausible, hoping he’d heard stories of grand romantic gestures such that this insane infatuation felt plausible.
You couldn’t actually ask too much of a dagger with my gift. History had plenty of people I’d never touched who managed to twist themselves to the point that they leapt in front of bullets for their loved ones, shielding them with their very flesh. But there was a danger of asking too soon.
I kept the Lure focused on Meghan, letting Jamad’s awareness of me build. Almost against his will he’d be stealing glances, preternaturally aware of everything I was doing. I held the priority steady, felt it rise as the random back and forth of his other, natural desires yielded to it.
Over the course of a half hour or so I pushed it into his main motivations, letting his attraction to the Lure find a place alongside his fervent wish that something not break down and his earnest desire to not embarrass someone.
Once that was done I went through his Meghan related motivations, trying as best as I could to ceiling them off and let them drop down the list. It didn’t work perfectly, but I got his need to support her about half way down the list and let it go. He wouldn’t spend much effort on something that unimportant, so as long as I didn’t make her have a breakdown he shouldn’t really notice anything.
I pulled my shadow out of him, sent the Hook into Meghan’s shadow. I was a little worried about my work with Jamad coming undone, but there was nothing for it.
I started paying attention to the conversation again. Meghan was pressing Preventer for the ‘real reason’ that we were here, seeming to find it implausible that we had actually come to help them deal with the Pantheon.
Knowing Preventer, it was hilarious how committed Meghan was to not offending someone. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what her mental model of us was, that she thought if she said the wrong words we’d jump up and attack, but that was presently her most pressing concern.
I watched her shadow for a few minutes, but it remained almost utterly immobile. She had a disciplined mind, or soul or whatever. I’d need a lever of some kind.
“She is concerned for your wellbeing,” said Preventer, laying it on a little thick. “This is only a continuation of the mission we carried out with Commander Martinez. Your enemy overmatches you, and She would prefer a more even fight.”
Her priorities jumped and rearranged a bit, then settled back. I focused on her shadow again, trying to see the way in. I needed a passion that would make her pliable and agreeable, without making her unseen masters scrap her efforts.
What about that statement had prompted the jump? She must have, just out of my detection range, nascent feelings which would be useful to me, but I wasn’t sure exactly what nerve Preventer had touched.
“We aren’t trying to be rude,” I said, interrupting another of their back and forths. “It isn’t your fault that the Pantheon is stronger.”
Jamad jumped in his chair a bit when I spoke, but Meghan’s shadow showed no movement when I disparaged their forces. Must be the incident at the last negotiation then.
I pulled the Hook out of her shadow, manifested it out among the patrolling guards again. I passed a message to the shades with a simple code that we’d come up with a while back, telling Haunter to press Meghan about the last time we negotiated with them.
It took a bit for the guards to cycle back through Jane, but ultimately she turned the conversation back to the ambush, and I saw what was eating at Meghan.
Whenever it came up there was a surge of ‘prove something to someone’, or ‘teach something to someone’. It bothered her that we kept acting like the Union had been the treacherous ones at that meeting. It didn’t fit with her image of their behavior. She needed them to be the good guys, couldn’t stand the idea that we didn’t think of them that way.
Could I use that? It was a really thin motivation for what might be seen as treason, but it was the best I had. I put a floor under ‘prove I am not someone’, presumably the last Commander we had negotiated with’, and started pushing it up.
The rest of the meeting ran smoothly.
Anytime Meghan got uncooperative Preventer would talk about how this just proved that all the Union was the same, and she caved. Chad sat like a wooden manikin throughout, and Jamad was so focused on whether or not the Lure had noticed how much attention he was paying to her that he probably wouldn’t have noticed if Meghan and Haunter started making out.
We had planned out our demands ahead of time, and once I gave the go ahead we went about extracting them.
First, the talks would continue. We would be meeting with these guys for as long as we liked, or rather, as long as their masters felt that they were getting useful information.
Next, the Union accepted our presence on their soil as a diplomatic gesture, rather than an invasion. They were still the official owners of our little slice of their island, but so long as we didn’t make a fuss about it and kept to ourselves they would keep their noses, and drones, out.
Beyond that, they were also going to keep us abreast of the goings on to our east, as the fighting season ramped up. This was pushing it a bit, but we sold it as necessary so we could step in and help them when the occasion that She had sent us for arrived.
We had chosen these demands carefully, for plausibility and for usefulness.
Keeping their delegation around lent weight to our claim to be ambassadors, but it had a much more important purpose. Outside of the heavily monitored meetings we didn’t need to worry about what their superiors would think, and we could drain these daggers dry of useful intel.
At a bare minimum, we could get on their computer network. Haunter assured me that as long as I could get them to give me some passwords and the like she had some shades who would take care of the rest.
Establishing ourselves as ambassadors gave us a measure of stature, but mostly this move was about keeping the Union anti Fist measures docile and far away from us. The catastrophe of Sixth Fist had taught us all a healthy skepticism of our own invincibility.
The updates on the War was something I didn’t quite understand, but Dale and Jane had insisted on it. For my part, I figured it was a point that the Union’s leaders could strike down and feel like they were still in control of the situation.
After the meeting was over we retired back to our spot on the beach.
We didn’t talk too much about how the meeting had gone, painfully aware that surveillance drones might well be listening to our every word. Meghan had assured us that our ambassadorial dignity would be respected, but I doubted that the people in charge of making agreements and the people in charge of keeping an eye on invaders were in the same part of their organization.
We were all painfully aware of the setting sun, the general quiet of the island sounds. The Union liked to fight at night. If their leadership had detected my subversion of their agents, had simply rejected the treaty entirely or even had been playing a long game, using the negotiations to lure us into complacency, then tonight would be an ideal time to strike.
I stayed up as the rest of them got some sleep. I let the Hook range in the direction of the Union garrison, almost certain that I’d see someone approaching before the end of the night. It might be Jamad, or it might be their countermeasures. Might even conceivably be both.
It took a little longer than I’d guessed, but he brought chocolates.