16 7 / 2014

Video game tournaments woo! I might write more along the way, but I can’t guarantee it. This post will be deleted when I’m ready to go again, next Tuesday at the absolute latest. :D

14 7 / 2014

They filtered into the building. Schuler was nowhere to be found, and the Jade Emperor was left unguarded in the middle of the room, a massive lump of inert terracotta. It was far more detailed than the sculptures that’d been sold out of China in the 18th century, even bearing what appeared to be an independently crafted suit of stone armor and an authentic ji, a short Chinese halberd with a spearpoint. The metal of the blade was covered in green paint too, but it appeared to be untouched by the passage of centuries, even millennia. At its waist, it bore a sheathed short sword, double-edged. He guessed it would be authentic too. This terracotta soldier was worthy of a world-class museum, if only someone first scraped away the acrylic.

The Chinese had nearly ruined it with house paint. So foolish.

The Zombie led them into one of the side halls and chose the first empty room on their right. Nobody was around to watch them walk inside, but Ivan was quick to shut the door once they were all inside. There was no lamp nor electric light. They waited in darkness.

“Talk quietly,” Ivan whispered, “I risk my life for you.”

“Why?” the Generous Man asked softly.

“I owe the Baron a great debt. That I can say.”

“We’ll be quick, Emin,” the Baron said. “What is the news?”

“The first, you have wondered. Baron, I did not supply soldiers in Landi Kotal with prestige. It was to prove we did not know about attack. But we knew, Baron. We planned attack! I helped plan attack, because we feared London investigations.”

“Are you still after me?” Beth asked.

“No, no. We have no need. Our secret is exposed.” Ivan’s voice was growing louder in the dark, an unconscious reaction to sensory deprivation. “Bolshevik were told by Yuri, you take care of woman. We failed, and Orthodox put Sannikov on cross, understand?”

“Did you kill Wells also?” the Baron asked.

“No idea,” Ivan said, “Yuri may have ordered that kill. Too many men, too many conspiracies. We are all afraid of each other, not comrades. Not with cult leaders unknown.”

“The Chinese are a mess of infighting as well,” the Zombie said.

“We know,” Ivan said, “we will fight them, and they will break.”

“So what’s the second thing?” the Baron asked. He’d been given a satisfactory explanation of the situation in Landi Kotal, but Ivan didn’t need to pull him aside for that. Anyone could’ve come to that conclusion after speaking with the Soviets directly.

“Number two,” Ivan said, “this is what pays my debt, understand?”

“Understood,” the Baron said.

“Did you see troop transport outside before bid?”

“Absolutely.”

“They were not sent to attack Chinese. That was threat? Bluff? We mobilize for another reason. We perform operation, but I do not know what it is. Sannikov does not know.”

“Who does?” the Baron asked.

“Yuri is in control. Last we talked with Moscow, Orthodox was ruling. He decided to send only Orthodox soldiers, real soldiers. Some are spetsnaz. After failure to kill woman, he keeps us outside. He does not tell Sannikov what he does until he needs him.”

“So there’s an unknown Soviet operation happening? When?”

“Now? Later? I do not know.” Ivan breathed out audibly. “May be important, may not? But you would not know if I did not say, Baron. I betray Sannikov’s trust for you. Are we settled?”

“It’s a paid debt,” the Baron said.

Ivan opened the door, letting in the soft light. Sweat was running over his jowls, even though it was quite a bit cooler this deep into the building. “You leave first. I leave later.”

The Zombie stepped out and waited in the hall. Beth and the Generous Man wandered out after him, but Ivan stopped the Baron before he could go. “Wait, one more thing. I almost forgot. Schuler, he is strong? He killed Malik, his guards?”

“Very strong,” the Baron said. “He killed them by himself.”

“Yuri, Sannikov, they both think they can kill Schuler.” Ivan shook his head. “Be careful. Schuler scares me. His burning arm… I heard he dodged a bullet in yard. He killed Chinese guard without being shot. He twisted his arm, fired weapon with a wish. Very scary.”

“I’m very careful around Schuler,” the Baron said.

“Good, good.”

“Do you know how they plan to kill him?”

“Ikons,” Ivan said, “I know no more.”

13 7 / 2014

“Baron?” Beth asked, having waited long enough for his answer.

He had to be genuine. She was clearly measuring the degree of his trust. “I’m upset,” he said, “but I’m already thinking.” He wanted to say, I’m hoping you have good intentions, but he respected the secrecy she was aiming for, and there wasn’t much point in probing her moral intent. When the chance came to talk, the details of the kidnapping would be enough.

“Good,” she said, “I was afraid you’d just… accept it. You accept a lot of terrible things.” She turned about, walking backwards a couple steps, and looked the Zombie up and down.

“Oh, offense taken, and enjoyed,” the Zombie said.

“He hasn’t broken me,” the Baron said, “he’s just my keeper.”

“You have some control,” Beth said.

“I can try to talk him down.” He hesitated to say more. “I try.”

Beth spun back around. “This just means you have a heart after all.”

The Baron raised an eyebrow. “How did this end up being about me?”

“What else do we have to talk about?” she asked.

“Heh.” The Baron glanced back at the Generous Man. “Gen, anything to say?”

“No,” Gen said.

He might be involved too, the Baron thought. His criminal contacts could play a large part in Elizabeth’s network, giving a woman access to a mostly misogynistic criminal underworld.

More remarkable was the Apostate’s attitude. She was worried that the Baron wouldn’t be upset. The Zombie’s influence must frighten her terribly. She rightfully wondered if a man who could spend two centuries with an invincible murderer could feel anything at all.

“I feel fear,” the Baron said. “I just cope.”

“Mmm.” Beth started patting her pockets and found one of her pre-rolled cigarettes. She looked over. “Smoke?” she offered.

“Really, only cigars.”

She lit up and started puffing, with a concentrated fold on her brow.

The Baron looked towards the British tent. Beth was implying that the kidnapping upset her, even though she’d played a part in it. Now she’d be thinking about the status of her allies. She’d never lied, but she’d clearly left out this part of the story, and it cast doubt on the safety of her plan. Would Zin be reliable? He had turned in Tan, but that could be read two ways.

Zin might’ve turned in a failed traitor to deflect attention off himself.

Zin might’ve turned in his ex-partner to warn Song about the London threat.

There might be other outcomes for that matter. Beth would be wracking her brain for an answer to the question. Could her remaining man be trusted? If she’d kidnapped his family too, the Baron thought there might still be a chance. Both hopeful and terrible, but a chance.

“Baron d’Holbach!” called out a Russian man. “Baron!’

The party halted near the barracks. Ivan Emin was stepping out of the shade and into the sun, his porcine face glimmering with running drops of sweat. “Baron!”

“Mr. Emin?” the Baron asked. “How can I help?”

Ivan walked up, taller than the Baron, and offered his sweaty mitt of a hand. The Baron accepted and they shook. Ivan was all muscle and callous. He was clearly a working man. “Baron,” he said, letting go, “I must talk with you. It is important.”

“We have a moment,” the Baron said.

“Not out here,” Ivan said, “at least come inside the barracks. We can find a room.”

“May I choose the room?” the Zombie asked.

Ivan nodded eagerly. “If you must. Come, come!”

12 7 / 2014

Was he supposed to consider why she’d kidnap the families of Chinese soldiers? Or was she asking him to consider her innocence? But she hadn’t denied the crime. No, this was a plea for sympathy. She’d kidnapped them, but she must hope that he’d trust her judgement.

He could already hear her words. Was anything more obvious?

It’s the world, Baron. The whole world. The Rites are like the atomic bomb. Not a question of if. A question of when. Unless the instructions are lost again, men will carry the Ark on the global battlefield. What evils would you do for the sake of civilization?

We can mock the greater good, but society blindly builds itself on the notion. The comfort and power of others comes at the cost and labor of the meek. Even the occult relies on this system; women and men like us don’t toil at tasks. Their occult experience isn’t defined in the day to day struggle, routinely honoring the aimless demands of unknown gods. We are the scholars, the generals. Prestige flows to us through other means, and our time is freed. We make the decisions for the rest. You make those decisions even now, thinking you know best!

If we are asked to judge the good of the planet, we must judge!

That’s why I’ve kidnapped innocents. I don’t want to kill, but I’ll risk their lives for a key advantage. I’ll save them and countless more from a Biblical death, from the tyranny of Old Testament wrath, or from a drenching bath in the lake of atomic fire.

Or was that just philosophical fantasy, the Baron wondered. He didn’t know the depth of Beth’s moral character. He couldn’t measure how deeply she’d struggled over a decision of this magnitude. Maybe she committed terrible crimes with ease. Maybe they wounded her, double-edged, effective but brutal. He had a notion that she was reflective, from what he’d read of Apostasy, but that was writing. Everyone was different when reflected off a page.

11 7 / 2014

“Justice, from your mouth?” Song asked.

The Baron ignored the insult and walked outside. Song snapped his fingers irritably, and the guards pulled the tent flaps closed. Then the Baron slid between his allies to his friend, where he very carefully tapped the Zombie on his invincible shoulder. “Question.”

The Zombie started walking, and everyone followed the steps of his confident stride. “What?” he whispered, once they were a few yards away from the tent.

“Why?” the Baron asked. “He already antagonizes us.”

“He hates us,” the Zombie said.

“You ate a gun barrel. How does that help?”

“Song made it clear, he already had his conclusions.”

“So you undermined his authority in front of his men?”

The Zombie grinned and stopped, turning to meet the Baron. “After that song and dance, I had to intimidate him back. We aren’t children. We aren’t afraid.”

“Song and dance?” the Baron asked.

The Zombie’s grin grew wider.

“Terrible,” the Baron said, sidling around the Zombie and taking the lead of their march. He wanted to return to the London tent at the other end of the yard. Major Callum had to answer questions. Beth would volunteer her own explanations, he imagined.

She stepped quickly into sync beside him. “I wish we couldn’t be overheard,” she said.

“Again?” the Baron asked. “Who is insane enough to waste prestige listening in? We could talk any time. They can only eavesdrop for a few seconds a time.”

“Tan once told me that Song spared no expense.”

“You think he’s listening?”

“I didn’t ask for much time,” she said. “No stupid questions.”

The Baron wasn’t offended. “Go on.”

“Don’t tell any of this to Major Callum.” She glanced around, as if looking for observers with a spyglass that might read lips. “We’ll talk about it later.”

“Is that all?” the Baron asked, tapping his watch with his fingers.

Beth understood. “Sorry.” Yes, her wish had run out.

“Time to collect your thoughts?” the Baron asked, now shifting the subject to the situation at hand. Even if he’d agreed to postponing the interrogation, he couldn’t let this slide without any questions. She’d been accused of kidnapping Chinese nationals to use as hostages.

“You should think about it too,” she said. “Okay?”

09 7 / 2014

“I suggest you mend him,” the Baron said, “then send him home.”

“We don’t need instruction,” Song said. “I appreciate your time, Baron. Your opinion is valuable, even when I believe it’s wrong.”

“Why is that?”

“Why is it valuable, or why is it wrong?”

“Both.”

“It’s valuable because you would only lie for a noble cause. It’s wrong because I think you’re lying, but I don’t know how much you know. Tan truly has given me nothing.” Lieutenant Song shrugged. “We’ll deal with London in good time. Let them out.”

The medic stood by the door, and the outside guards pulled open the canvas flaps, filling the tent with harsh sunlight. They’d been standing ready, likely aimed to shoot at the interior of the tent. It wasn’t something the Baron cared to comment on, but the Zombie straightened.

“I’m invincible,” he said to Song. “I would slaughter the nation of China.”

Song was angry in kind. “I wouldn’t shoot the Baron in the back.”

“Then these rifles?”

“If someone aided Tan, wished him healthy, he might run.”

The Zombie looked around the tent. Nothing appealed to his sense of destruction. “It’s principle,” he said, finally sighting the medic standing with his rifle. He held out his hand. “Give me your weapon.” The man eyed the Zombie’s open palm but didn’t move. “Tell him!”

“Gěi tā de qiāng!” Lieutenant Song ordered.

The medic handed over the rifle, barrel pointed to the earth. The Zombie flipped it over, put the barrel in his mouth, and bit down hard. With a single squeal of cold steel ripping, his perfect teeth pinched and severed the barrel, and the closing of his mouth crushed it with a sound like tin in a distant garbage compactor, crackling interspersed by bangs of bursting metal and screeching rips, all small and muffled behind invincible cheeks and lips.

The medic was horrified. The guards took a step back.

The Zombie simply swallowed the half crushed steel, and it could be heard grinding down as it slid into his tender throat, perfectly defiant to nature, without a moment of pause or discomfort, as if raw metal edges were as soft as overcooked noodles and easier to eat.

“My point is made.” The Zombie dropped the rifle on the ground. “Show everyone.”

“Are you finished?” Song asked.

“I spared your men,” the Zombie said. “Aren’t you happy?” He didn’t even wait for an answer, but took the lead and stepped out into the open sun, smiling. “Perfect.”

The Baron waited for Beth and Gen to follow, then gave Song a final word of warning. “You’ll look like a fanatic if you kill Tan. Do you want that reputation?”

“Armies throughout history have slain their traitors,” Song said. “They weren’t madmen. They were practical. They knew how little time there was when battle loomed.”

“Is battle… looming?” the Baron asked.

“You believe it is,” Song said.

“I do,” he agreed, “I do, but it’s not urgent enough to justifying killing Tan.”

08 7 / 2014

Song stalked along the back of the tent, staring intently. “Can I trust you, Baron?”

“I didn’t turn Tan against you,” the Baron said.

“No, but the Artemisian. She says she’s with you.”

“She hasn’t turned me against China.”

“You hardly supported us during the bid.”

“You were picking a fight.” The Baron wove his fingers together. “Song, make your accusations clear. I can’t answer them otherwise.”

“Do you trust her? Even though she’s London cult?”

“As much as she trusts me, I’m sure.”

“A smooth answer. Is that what you’d call it? Smooth?” Song stopped walking. “I’ll say it a different way. Will you vouch for this woman? With your reputation at stake?”

“Yes,” the Baron said. The true answer was no, not with accusations of kidnapped families and London involvement, but he needed her assistance, and his reputation was already at risk. If he succeeded in losing the Rites to the Ark, he’d be known as a failure. What was one more lie heaped upon the future ruins? No, if that didn’t break his reputation, this wouldn’t either.

“Thank you,” Beth said quietly.

“And your reasoning?” Song asked.

“My understanding is that she never chose to involve herself in Chinese affairs. She was asked to by Wells and Callum to join the investigation.”

“Thin evidence, Baron.”

“Thin evidence both ways. You have a traitor’s word. I have her actions. My word will have to make the difference, Song. I vouch for Beth. For all you know, if London is involved, the orders are coming from the Duke. He’d have the resources to hire kidnappers.”

Song grunted. He turned to Tan and said, “You have permission to speak. Is there something you want to say, now that you’ve heard their claims?”

Tan looked up slowly. He had difficulty turning his neck, probably after being batted around the skull. Whiplashed spine. He looked at Beth. “Tell your people.” His voice was thin and wet. There was a broken rib, probably fluid in his lungs. He wasn’t coughing because he couldn’t breathe deep. He could only say a little at a time. “I’m sorry.” Another breath. “I tried.”

Beth said nothing. She didn’t even frown.

“My family,” Tan said. “My family.” And now he’d spoken too much, because he began to cough, wincing with every shudder of diaphragm, every squeeze of lung.

06 7 / 2014

“Is he responsible for the death of Captain Wells?” the Baron asked, the first step of misdirection he could muster. He had to take the lead in the conversation, no matter what. If Lieutenant Song directed the discussion, he might learn more than he already knew. As it was, it was best to assume Song knew everything but act as if he knew nothing.

“On the contrary,” Song said, “he lost a master or an ally.”

“Wells was an investigator,” the Baron said, implying that Wells’s position over Tan was purely a function of the Chinese hiring London. “If he didn’t betray him, what did he do?”

“This is why I wanted your opinion, Baron,” Song said. “Tan won’t talk.”

That was impossible. Someone beaten that heavily would say something to end the pain. Even a lie would’ve escaped Tan’s lips. Torture was deeply unreliable for a reason. “He said why though,” the Baron guessed. “He told you something.”

Song smiled wanly. “Very good, Baron. He said, my children, my wife.”

The Baron felt a chill drip over his spine like sweat. “His family?”

“He can’t talk because they’re alive,” Song said, “If he confesses or fails, they’ll die.” He reached up to the oil lamp and turned a knob to open the shutters further. The wick burned higher. The yellowing light spread throughout the tent, casting thick shuddering shadows behind every figure. “Do you understand now? Someone coerced Tan to betray us.”

“Who?” the Baron asked, knowing the full answer in his gut.

“London,” Song said, shifting his gaze briefly to Beth.

“I’ve heard nothing of it,” Beth said. A simple, calm lie.

“Do you know what London came here for?” Song asked.

“Observations, I was told. We don’t have enough to offer a bid.” She wouldn’t dare ask, how do you know it was London that turned Tan? The Baron knew she would speak carefully, or she might find a trap by putting her foot in it. Regarding motivations, she had to seem ignorant.

“Tan told us, London came to win back their empire.” Song’s face was flat, but his voice was strained. The notion of a British return to China clearly frustrated him—to what degree, the Baron couldn’t tell. “Tan said, they wanted to use China again.”

The Zombie said, “You beat the crap out of him. What’d he do?”

Song hesitated. “Nothing,” he said, “but hide the truth.”

Tan shifted in his seat, a single shuddering jerk. “Zin,” he whispered fiercely.

Song swung around and kicked Tan in the shin with the heel of his boot. The smack of meat, the whole chair creaked from the blow. Tan flinched but could hardly pull away for all his bruises. “Quiet!” Song kicked a second time, “Quiet!” Tan barely reacted beyond shutting his eyes. A breath escaped his gritted teeth like a hiss of steam.

“Zin Weiyan?” the Baron asked. “The banker identified Tan?”

“Zin found him stealing arms and artifacts. During the interrogation, Tan confessed to betraying the Chinese to London.”

“You’ve nearly killed him over petty theft,” the Zombie said.

“I didn’t ask for your opinion,” Song said.

The Baron jumped on the Zombie’s train of thought. “How do you know it was London?”

“He told us,” Song said irritably.

“Right, but how do you know? I’m sure he’s betrayed you, he would steal for a reason, and certainly his family is in danger—but why give up the organization?” The Baron frowned. “There’s only three Londoners here. Two now. One was sent as a guest because the Duke of Cornwall is a Hound of Artemis. Who’s left to mastermind this? The Major?”

“Are you suggesting Major Callum?” Song asked.

“I’m suggesting it’s not London at all. He lied because you were killing him, and he wants to live for the sake of his family. He has to finish something, or they die, right?”

“He’ll die anyways,” Song said, “for that very reason.”

The Baron scowled. “Are you putting the responsibility on me?”

“You made the argument. I can’t even trust him to tell the truth.”

“You said you changed your mind,” the Baron said, “you were planning on killing him. Otherwise, you wouldn’t leave a half-stitched, weeping wound.”

Tan slumped over in his chair. The guard shifted his rifle, but there was no escape.

“He’ll die,” Song said, “because he won’t even tell me if it’s the woman or the Major. Because someone is giving him orders. Someone is his master.” He pointed to Beth, “It’s you, or it’s your leader. Wells died, but he was still working for someone. He won’t tell, because he thinks you’ll order the kidnappers to spare his family, because he died trying, because he died keeping the secret.” He clenched his hand into a fist. “The Major didn’t attend. You did.”

“I’m with the Baron,” Beth said.

“The Major must’ve known Tan failed his task,” Song said. “That’s the reason. That’s why he didn’t show. Schuler was a sleeping tiger. He wasn’t a threat.”

“I’m not sure I believe any of this,” the Baron said. “I’m sorry, Song.”

“Then who, Baron? What is your story?”

“The Soviets,” the Baron said. Langley would’ve been an easier accusation, but he needed Song to remain receptive to working with Fairfax. “They’ve been killing Roamers. Kidnapping Chinese nationals would be easy with their resources.”

“Tan says London,” Song said, “I believe that much.”

“I don’t believe a traitor’s account,” the Baron said.

05 7 / 2014


“Who do you have?” the Baron asked.

“I cannot say in front of Schuler,” Song said under his breath.

“I don’t care!” Schuler shouted at him.

Song looked back and shouted back at the Theist. “Go die, you dog!”

The Zombie laughed gleefully.

“Schuler could listen in with a wish,” the Baron said.

Schuler laughed. “I already know your secrets, but I have no reason to tell.”

The Baron glanced back at Beth. He hadn’t even considered—but it must be obvious to Schuler. If she’d been injured, he might hear the healing. No, no. It wasn’t obvious yet. It’d only be obvious if Beth was hurt. Then she’d “sound” different to Schuler’s occult awareness. Hopefully, Schuler wasn’t referring to her identity at all. But what secret?

“Baron? Do you have the time?” Song asked.

“We can spend a few minutes,” the Baron said.

“Don’t damage the statue,” Song commanded Schuler.

Schuler gently tapped his forehead against the helmet of the terracotta soldier. “I can’t.” He tapped twice more. “I can’t. I can’t.”

“Beth? Gen?” the Baron asked.

“Yup, yup,” Beth said.

The Generous Man nodded. “This, I think, will be productive.”

The Baron felt they were at a loss for any way to regain control of the situation. The only path was through, and the only way through was to find a greater understanding of the factors in play. If the auction fell apart, guessing at and reacting to motivations would be key—otherwise, the fog of war would descend on them and leave them helpless.

Lieutenant Song snapped and the guards fell into place behind him. Then he led the Baron’s party out of the barracks at a brisk pace. “I’m glad you could all come,” Song said, as they exited into the sun, “your commentary will be illuminating.”

The Baron wondered why Song was trying to intimidate them with the unknown. Was it just a general part of his personality, the casual and constant exercise of authority by withholding information, or was there something they would personally be surprised to learn?

The Baron had to assume it was the latter, but what could it be?

There was a small tent far afield, next to a jeep whose old suspension was overburdened with a single dense crate laid on a pallet in the bed. Song directed the group towards this destination, eliminating with every step the possibility of another location.

“That’s Colonel Jacques Cavey’s tent,” Beth said. “Is he involved?”

“We bought it off him,” Lieutenant Song said, “as well as his supplies.”

“Where is he now?” she asked.

“Staying with the German in Jamrud. They opted to abandon the auction.”

“Fairfax,” Gen said, “told them to go?”

“Correct,” Lieutenant Song slowed as they approached the jeep. “Please, follow my lead and remain silent unless I directly ask you a question. This is a difficult situation.”

He pointed to the tent door, and the guards took up posted positions on either side. Then he pulled aside the flap and stepped into the darkness of the canvas, lit by an oil lamp hung from a hook. In the filtered, dim light, there were two men. One was slouched in a chair, barely responding to their arrival. The other was a man kneeling by a first aid kit, hook needle in hand, halfway through the process of sewing a gash shut on the man’s elbow.

“You can stop,” Song said to the medic, “I’ve changed my mind.”

The medic nodded and cut the string with a knife, taking away the needle and leaving the wound half-sewn. Pink flesh, pork-like and coated in yellowing lymph, peeked through the wound. There was a fly buzzing around the arm, waiting idly for death.

The medic stepped back and picked up a rifle that’d been leaned against a support post. He was also the primary guard. The man in the chair looked up. He wasn’t restrained, but they’d clearly beaten the fight out of him. The visible contusions on his skin were swollen and purple-black like blood sausage. One of these bruise-balloons, especially fat and drooping, spread over his forehead and closed his left eye.

“A bat or club,” the Zombie judged, “but too wide to break bone.”

Beth and Gen stopped beside the Baron, but they didn’t seem to react. They couldn’t afford to react. They couldn’t risk recognizing the victim.

“This is the guard,” the Baron said, “Tan, the man who witnessed Wells die.”

“Correct,” Song said, “this man is a traitor.”

This man, the Baron thought, was one of Beth’s two sleeper agents.

04 7 / 2014

The round of first bids ended reluctantly, with all factions unwilling to walk out with their backs turned on the others. It was the Soviets that broke first, declaring, “We have an operation to cancel,” before moving out en masse. They looked back nervously at Song’s armed guards, but no weapons were raised again. Schuler cried cowards as Emin brought up the rear, but nobody responded, and Schuler seemed satisfied with being ignored.

Fairfax left after that, stating clearly, “We’ll return when the fighting starts.” Goffe and Smith went with him, sneering at Javed Khan and his personal bodyguards.

“It hums,” Schuler said to the Jade Emperor, whispering in its painted terracotta ear. “You ring like a bell when my weight sinks against you.”

Javed Khan retrieved Wu once Langley was gone, and together they retired to his office, whispering fiercely but ultimately unheard as they retreated into the hall.

Those who remained in the barracks were the Baron, the Zombie, the Apostate, the Generous Man, Lieutenant Song and his two direct subordinates, and Schuler himself.

“Is he safe to leave here with our artifact?” Song called out in English.

“Probably,” the Baron said.

Lieutenant Song walked towards the Baron’s corner, guards in tow. The Zombie shifted position to stand between them, all the while grinning in silence. Song stopped in front of the taller man and looked him up and down. “Is this needed?”

“Yes,” the Zombie said.

“Baron d’Holbach?”

“His actions are his own,” the Baron said.

Lieutenant Song grunted. Up close, the Baron could see that he was a little older than originally thought, likely late 30s, and Song’s posture was rigid and practiced, a parade stance. Given his participation in the Chinese military, he’d likely been a teenager when he became a officer. It’d be all he’d known for his adult life, and even after becoming a cultist, he would’ve had difficulty abandoning the discipline that’d defined him for a decade or two.

“Can we help you?” Beth asked Song.

"You can,” Song said. He glanced away from the Zombie. “You can tell me why you refused to take advantage of Schuler’s evidence.”

“Honestly,” Beth said, “I can’t fend off the Soviets as a group.” Now that the accusation had been made, there was no reason to pretend the murderers were unknown.

“Are you allied with the Baron?” Song asked.

"I stand here by myself, not for London,” Beth said. “The Baron accompanies me for safety. The Zombie doesn’t protect me, but he’s still a deterrent.”

Song nodded slowly. “Good, good. You believe the Soviets are the murderers?”

“Absolutely,” Beth said, “We just didn’t feel secure reporting it yet. We found similar results to Schuler, but they weren’t enough to make a public accusation.” She was throwing her own evidence under the bus, but she was washing her hands of the responsibility to China as their hired investigator. It was a simple deception, one Song could recognize.but allow.

“Baron, did you learn anything?” Song asked.

“Nothing you don’t know already,” he said, lying again about Ivan Emin’s presence in the fighting at Landi Kotal.

Lieutenant Song smiled gently, folding his hands together at his waist. “Then we have an understanding. Bethany West of London, you are relieved of your investigations, and I thank you for your service. You’ve already been paid in advance, correct?”

“Yes.”

“Am I relieved?” the Baron asked.

“Baron, you are to be paid later,” Song said, “but I have one more request for you. Ms. West and the Generous Man should come along, but I will not compel them.”

“What is it?” the Baron asked.

“I need you to meet with someone in my custody,” Song said, “More than the Soviets, there are other factions hiding daggers in the dark. I want your judgement.”