Euryale sighed, a loud, theatrical affair, but there was no one to hear it. She set a hand to her cheek, and looked up to the ceiling. Heavy was the head that wore the crown, even if most of the weight came from the head itself. She reached up one bent finger and gently caressed one of her snakes under its jaw. It reacted happily, and her hand was soon crowded by all the others which could reach, affectionately brushing against her. The ones which couldn't reach squirmed and tried to regardless, and she lazily held up her other hand for them to fawn over. If only all her subjects were so easily pleased.
Almost all of the vipers were placated by that, but a few pulled away and pointed insistently to the other side of the room. They flickered their tongues and she could feel them eagerly trying to tell her that they had sensed prey. One instead insisted warily that it was a predator. She reached her hand up a little further and gently stroked the top of its head with a finger, as most of the nearby snakes followed to crowd her more. "Clever boy."
The Hero was laying on the bed on the opposite side of the room. She was dozing peacefully, chest rising and falling steadily despite the hole punched through it earlier. Euryale winced to think about having been the one responsible for it. Not that she was squeamish—if anything she was fascinated by that recovery—but it had been too hasty. Not too impulsive, but too pessimistic. She shouldn't have ruled out talking. She shouldn't have prioritized her image before her subjects. She shouldn't have shied away from the risk of being killed on the spot if doing so meant giving up the likeliest chance of long-term survival. This was about more than her.
And so she would at least try to salvage things now that she had a second chance. Even if she had almost certainly sabotaged herself, with a rock. And the chance was slim enough to begin with! The personal danger was much lower at least. Lyari had thrown a fit when she explained her decision, of course. She loved her as she would love the mother Lyari would never admit to being, but the woman was set in old ways. Of course, one of those old ways was absolute deference to the Demon King, so it had been no more than a fit, once they were out of the public eye. For the moment, Lyari was minding the throne room as everyone imagined she herself was torturing that terrible, foolish Hero. She could almost feel their regard for her swelling as the gossip spread. They were all stuck in the old ways, too. At least shrewdness was one of the ancient values, and they weren't all clamoring for her to reforge the empire and invite its redestruction all the sooner.
She glanced down at the Hero, still slumbering away. She hadn't had the courtesy to wake up when the sleeping spell was dismissed. Did she need rest after healing herself like that, or was it simply fatigue from marching upon her secluded fortress? And how had she discerned her existence, much less her location? Did any others know? She was getting tired of waiting for the answers. She clapped her hands together. The Hero's eyes flinched, her nose twitched, and then she settled back into her sleep. Euryale kept staring at her face for a moment, but there wasn't any sign she was awake and faking slumber. She frowned. Why did ratfolk look so cute in person?
She clapped her hands together again, and this time the sound rang out with a fierce crack. Euryale's heart leapt as she saw the Hero startle awake, blue eyes opening wide. She sat up, looked towards her, and actually squeaked. Euryale's face split into a grin, and the serpents on her head raised themselves up to their full heights, arrayed out and staring. Casually, she ran her hand over them, to get them to settle back down. "Rise and shine, miss Hero. I hope the rest did you some good."
The Hero looked surprised, and then narrowed her eyes, and pointed an accusatory pink finger at her. "What is the meaning of this? Where have you taken me?" She looked around at the room, which was rather bare. A bed for her, a cushioned chair for Euryale, and a heavy door. Euryale gave her a moment to ask another question, but it didn't come.
"This? It's a room under my fortress. Nothing special, just a secluded spot where nobody can listen in." The Hero visibly fretted at that, and Euryale laughed. "Don't worry. That's for your benefit as much as mine. I do have some questions for you, but it's up to you to answer them. But no, first and foremost this is an apology. It was terribly discourteous of me to break your heart, so to speak. To start, is there any amenity I could offer you?"
Silence stretched onward for what might have been a minute before the Hero stood up, face screwed up in an incredulous expression. "I don't understand. Do you think this is a joke? What do you mean, an apology? You tried to kill me!" Her voice was high-pitched, raised higher in confusion.
Euryale canted her head to one side, still sitting. "You had announced your intention to kill me, first. But you're right, that was wrong. That's why I'm apologizing." It took great restraint, but Euryale put a serious expression on her face. "I genuinely am. I want to talk—"
"Oh yes, you so want to talk. I can't wait to hear what you have locked me in a dungeon to talk about! Do you think I'm stupid? Do you want to use me as a tool? Your 'apology' has had you on the verge of laughter the whole time, and you were just as chipper when you tried to murder me! Whatever sick satisfaction you get from this," she stomped forward, practically shoving her face into Euryale's, "get it from my corpse. I am not going to abandon my dignity to entertain you in the vain hope you won't slaughter me as soon as you decide that would be more amusing."
Euryale blinked, the Hero's deep blue eyes practically boring into her own red ones. It might have been more intimidating if it hadn't thrust that adorable snout front and center in her vision. Her snakes had risen up again like they were her hackles, hissing in unison. She tried her best to make them settle back down without moving a hand. "I see. I will admit my demeanor hasn't been entirely appropriate, and will further apologize for it." The Hero's eyes rolled. "It's fine if you don't think I'm sincere, in the end. Personal matters aside, there are important things we have to talk about, involving both our peoples."
The Hero furrowed her brows—not that she had eyebrows per se—and jabbed her finger into Euryale's chest. "If you expect me to sell out my people to your empire, you are wrong on every count. I have no authority, ability, nor inclination to do so. I would suffer your worst tortures indefinitely before I would allow them to come to any harm or subjugation at my hands!" Euryale nodded slowly as she looked down at the finger, still poking her. Maybe she should have worn something to cover her sternum.
"I understand." She cleared her throat slightly, and swallowed. "I had no illusions you did, but can understand the suspicion. You probably won't believe me, but I have no interest in subjugating your people."
"You're right. I don't believe you."
Euryale sighed. "As I'm sure you expect, I do wish to restore my father's kingdom. But not in the way you are probably imagining. It's not the territory I care about. It's the subjects. I want to take them under my authority and protection, so they'll stop killing each other over a throne only I can hold." "And—" "And your people aren't my people. I've studied the histories, it's been more dubious in the past, but my father conquered your nations and enforced their servitude. Your people would object to my rule, and I have no interest in forcing that upon them. Much less in suppressing revolts afterwards."
The Hero finally pulled her finger away, and took a step back. She still looked hostile, although she was talking, and that was what mattered. "Right. Because reclaiming all those demon warlords won't require any conquest, and afterwards you won't have to suppress their challenges. I don't trust you to be so noble as to keep to yourself by choice, for the first time anyone in your position has in history, and I can't accept you're actually so naïve as to think it would be impractical to conquer neighbors. It is what your people do. Your father's death only stopped their conquests because it removed the power keeping them from warring inwards instead."
Euryale sighed. "You're right about that last part. That's precisely what I want to stop. But reconquering the petty kingdoms and warlords won't take war. Oh, it will take strength and force, but it will take mine. It won't be bloodless, but it will be deathless, if I exercise enough restraint. They'll fall in line, and do so gladly. The later challenges can be faced down the same way. And yes, I could then turn to your people and conquer them, and gain laborers and soldiers and what other resources could be plundered from your lands—and not kept by my soldiers. But in the end, what would that get me?"
"...The resources? The territory? A new border to conquer?" The Hero said it like it was obvious, which was fair enough.
"And a new border to defend. If I were to decide I wanted to conquer outside territories, I would need to be prepared to conquer every outside territory, because the wars would start again. Oh, we would probably win for a while, but as we stretch ourselves thinner it becomes easier for whoever holds out to band together, form one narrow offensive, and send their Heroes towards my capital. Then I would die, which I don't particularly desire, my empire would collapse, most of the conquests would be lost, and everything just repeats a generation or several later. What good does that do for us demons? It's a complicated way of getting ourselves killed, for the sport of it. It's disgusting."
The Hero made a face that was difficult to read. It was certainly expressive, Euryale simply wasn't sure of the expression. "Yes, it is. I could suppose you're all just disgusting creatures. But I don't think that's it, not entirely. You all want to plunder what you can, when you can. For how long you can keep it doesn't matter. You just keep coming back again and again and pushing a little further each time and get pushed back not quite as far and unless we make something change your kind will finally overrun everything else, and inherit the despoiled ashes of the world." Euryale took a second to respond to that, and then laughed. The Hero's expression got more emphatic, but Euryale shook her head.
"Is that what your people tell you? I don't laugh because I find the idea of my people conquering the world funny, Hero. I laugh because that's already happened." The Hero was about to say something, but she held up a finger to her. "Obviously that's not the case now. But the first Demon King? He took over the entire world, and ruled it until the first Heroes appeared and led their peoples in revolt. The second Demon King came later and overran the whole world again, and his rule was toppled sooner. The third didn't manage to conquer a few last bastions of opposition. On a few later occasions, exceptional Demon Kings repeated the feat, or came close to it. In fact, one of them was the founder of my line and first bearer of its curse, the younger sister of my namesake ancestor. A Hero slew her during what would have been the conquest of the last 'free' city. Regardless, the last of those instances was quite long ago. If things remain as they are, a full conquest of the world may never happen again, and it certainly isn't inevitable. And even if it happens again, it would be doubtful that it would last. Your people are a good example of how our conquests are far from absolute, aren't you?"
The Hero hesitantly nodded, then. She wrinkled her nose. "You have a point. I still don't entirely trust that you don't suffer this same destructive ambition, even if you understand its faults. But if you aren't asking me to betray my people, what is there to talk about them?"
"Well, I have no intention to conquer them. And at least for the moment, I don't think any of the nearby demon warlords has the ability. But, and again you might not believe me, there are other nations among your fellow 'blessed' races who harbor some—"
"Oh, that. I knew as much already. In fact, I had my own plan for it." The Hero shrugged.
Euryale raised a scarlet eyebrow. "Oh, you did?"
"It was presenting the other Heroes your head."
"Ah." She lowered her eyebrow. "I probably should have guessed."
The Hero smiled, at least she thought that was a smile, and then sat back down on the bed. "Unfortunately I don't think that solution is particularly likely. I don't suppose you have an alternative to offer me?"
Euryale shifted in her chair, letting herself relax again. When had she grown so tense? "I'm afraid I don't, exactly. I do want to assure you and your people through you that they have nothing to fear from me. I would offer support beyond promises, but I think that would only draw the ire of those nations who might attack you. If you're already aware of this threat to your sovereignty, I don't actually have much leverage."
"Always a shrewd fact to announce." Euryale laughed, and then leaned forward. The Hero's eyes flicked down, and then up, and she looked vaguely uncomfortable. Oh, right; her snakes were starting to move about again, experimentally tasting the air and writhing amongst themselves. It was so easy to forget about them sometimes.
"I could let your country expand some, if necessary, after I take back my throne. Abandon some useful but uninhabited ground by your border and let your nation 'seize' it. Still, I think the best thing that I can offer your people is a rather long-term proposition. If I can end this cycle of conquest, I think the benefits to you and yours would be immediately obvious. Admittedly, that is a large if. I can understand you don't immediately trust me, and frankly can't fault you for it. You might also reasonably ask how, even if I rule peacefully, I can avoid my descendants returning to the old ways."
"I am confident I can head that off, with enough time to do so. But even if I fail, I can at least allow your country, and all the others of the world, some additional time to rebuild. To prepare, if necessary. I'm better than the alternative."
"If we can trust you to stick to your word." The Hero's expression was more than a little skeptical.
"Yes." Euryale bent herself further forward, setting her elbows on her legs and resting her head on her hands. "I imagine you're wondering what I expect from you, in the hypothetical scenario where you and your people decide I can be trusted, at least enough to negotiate with, yes?" The Hero nodded. "I need your cooperation."
The Hero shook her head. "You just pointed out that would bring the other nations against mine—"
"Sorry, I don't mean the cooperation of your people. I mean you, specifically. Theoretically it could be any Hero, but I think you're the least likely to murder me at the negotiating table. And not for lack of trying."
The Hero hesitantly nodded. "I see. What do you want me to do, specifically? If I do decide to cooperate."
"Help me get to a negotiating table with the other Heroes without being murdered there."
An awkward silence fell over the room. The Hero was looking forward and slightly downwards, and Euryale was idly staring at her face. And then she unfolded herself, leaning back in her chair again. She lifted up a hand to reassure the serpents who were getting antsy. That drew the Hero's attention, and again she couldn't read the expression. After a little more time, Euryale spoke again. "I should probably say I don't expect you to do so immediately. For one, I doubt you'll agree to cooperate right away. For another, I don't think you could manage it. Not yet. There would need to be something I could show them beyond the fact that you trusted me. Besides, I'll need something like that for you to trust me anyways. What I want you to do right now is agree to meet with me again." The Hero looked at her suspiciously. "We can do it on your terms, though I highly doubt you would want me venturing into your territory to do so."
The Hero shook her head. "Definitely not. But why should I come back here? Why should I trust you wouldn't just take the opportunity to kill me? And why should you trust I won't use it to get you killed?"
Euryale grinned. "Well, respectively, the fact I haven't tried to kill you, well, not a second time, and the fact you brought that idea up. If you wanted to assassinate me, you wouldn't try to give me cold feet about it. Look, Hero, I'm incurring a severe risk with this. Even without the pretext of a meeting, letting you go alive risks you telling the other Heroes of my existence and location, however you learned that, and having them storm in. My protection, beside my own strength, is obscurity. I tried to kill you because I wasn't prepared to take that risk, but now I've rethought it. What use is living longer if I use that time only to preside over another iteration of my people's self-destructive cycle? If I wanted to cheat this, why not just kill you? If I couldn't kill you, why not keep you captive? Ah, well. You'll decide what you decide. For now, can we arrange a meeting?"
The Hero took a moment to think, sighed, and then nodded her head. "Would meeting you at the gates here in one month to discuss things be agreeable? I can't promise I'll cooperate beyond that." Euryale nodded, and smiled.
"That sounds perfectly agreeable. Then I swear on my name and title, Euryale Thekaia, the reigning Demon King, that I shall meet you then if you arrive, and we shall hold negotiation in good faith. And, as much as I can ensure under my own power, I will not allow you to come to harm for the duration. Although, I should note, violent action on your part would likely bring negotiation to a premature end."
The Hero nodded, and replied, "And I, Pasha, chosen Hero of the Ratfolk, agree to meet you in good faith and honest intent. This I swear, with the Warren-Mother as my witness, if she might secure an oath to one such as you." She then held out her hand. Euryale looked at it for a moment, slightly confused. She stood, stepped to the bed, and gently took that hand in hers. She then helped the Hero stand, which apparently hadn't been what she expected.
"Here, I should escort you out. I don't think anyone would believe it if you said I was allowing you to leave. Even I'm going to have my hands full explaining all of this..." Still holding the Hero's hand, she opened the door into a stone hallway. Then the Hero—Pasha—slipped her hand free.