Lyari looked at the Demon King, and then at the Hero. The Hero, conscious, unbound, walking around at her liege's side! What was going on? What was she doing? She stepped over from the side of the throne, dumbfoundedness visible on her face as the King started laughing. She sighed, and placed a hand to her forehead. "Do I want to know what is going on here?"
The King grinned impishly, and shook her head. The snakes bobbed and twined excitedly, as if it wasn't obvious enough she was enjoying herself. "No, Lyari, you really really don't. But you're going to ask anyways, I'm sure. This, here, is the Ratfolk's chosen Hero, Pasha." The Hero looked to the King, and then over to her, with an expression she didn't know how to read. "Pasha, this is Lyari. I'll spare you her formal titles, since I think you got well-acquainted with her earlier."
Lyari took another step, and then gestured broadly at the Hero with her free hand. "Why are you introducing her as though she is a guest? Don't tell me you've somehow put a Hero under your control? No, you can't have. Euryale, I—" She glanced to the Hero, who was looking at her with discomfort written on her face. "Your Majesty, I don't think you understand what you're doing."
Euryale stepped the rest of the way to her, and set a hand on her shoulder. She looked at her with an expression that would have been reassuring in almost any other circumstance. "Lyari, it's alright. I know exactly what I'm doing. I will fill you in on all the details, and we can argue about it then. But—"
"No. No, you need to tell me this now. I am unfailingly loyal to you, and I trust you implicitly, but I cannot always trust your judgement without a word. Why is she still alive? Why is she free, to wander about even?" Another glance saw the Hero edging away from them, and she thrust a finger towards her accusatorily. "See!" The Hero edged a little farther.
Euryale snickered, and then composed herself. She nodded. "Alright. You're right, I need to explain at least the basics. I genuinely appreciate that you aren't some mere sycophant, Lyari. The Hero is out and about and free because I am allowing her to be. She is going to leave, in fact we're going to escort her out. She's going to return, in one month's time, whereupon we shall negotiate. Isn't that right, Pasha?" She looked over to the Hero, who stopped her slow sidling away from them.
"Yes, that's right. I'll return here and we can begin negotiations, and if they go well we can discuss later continuations. If it eases your mind at all, it was Euryale's idea." At that, the Hero's eyes looked over to the King, and then back to her.
"Who do you think you are, addressing the Demon King so ruph—"
Euryale pressed a finger up against her lips, cackling. "She thinks she's a Hero ordained by her goddess to kill me, Lyari, that's who. I'll happily accept that as grounds to be my peer. Besides," her voice fell into a mock-whisper, "I am fairly certain she heard you call me that only a moment ago. Besides, I wouldn't care if every subject or foe of mine called me by name rather than title. It's not the form of address that communicates disrespect, it's the intent behind it. Regardless, that's beside the point. I'm going to negotiate with her. And, if all goes well, the other Heroes."
Lyari looked at Euryale like she had just said something utterly insane. She set her free hand on Euryale's, and gently lowered the finger away from her face. Then she cleared her throat. "Your Majesty. Euryale. I don't believe I heard you properly. You want to hold negotiations with the other Heroes? What could you negotiate for? They want your head! The only reason any of us even still draw breath is that they don't know we're here, and you want to let this one scamper off and tell them?" She was speaking out of turn, but she couldn't help herself. Something was wrong with her liege. She was charmed, or compelled, or—or—
Euryale set both of her hands on Lyari's shoulders. "It's alright. She isn't going to tell them, not yet. I know it, as for a fact. If I didn't trust that, I wouldn't be doing this. You know that. We can discuss the specifics of this later, and outside of mixed company. Not that I have things to hide, Pasha, but—"
"No, I understand." The Hero nodded. "Discretion doesn't necessarily mean duplicity. I don't trust you, but I can understand that much. Now, I believe it would be in all of our interests if you can escort me out already?" She took a step towards the exit, not bothering to make this one small or subtle.
Lyari sighed. "Very well." She looked to Euryale, who smiled, squeezed her shoulders once, and then let go. She turned to the exit, strode forward confidently, and threw open the doors. Ever the flair for the dramatic. In that moment, she seemed a lot like her father, for better or worse. But what she was doing now, he never would have done. Lyari was hard-pressed to fathom how this might be for the better.
Pasha followed Euryale through the doors and onto the streets of their stronghold, and Lyari headed up the rear. A homunculus waiting by the door entered as they left, to mind the throne room. The paths were narrow and lined with flagstones, flanked on both sides by squat buildings of stone bricks, with more flagstones forming their roofs. The fortress loomed tall and imposing behind them, built from massive stone blocks. The Hero was looking around intently, and Lyari frowned. It felt wrong to let her study the place, but there was little to do about it. And she had confidence in their ability to repel a traditional assault, in any case. Everything was austere, practical, and built with defense in mind. The small city it had become was built into and around a military stronghold, and that showed, from its high walls, the towers and fortifications spread throughout, the single path leading to the fortress, to the way everything was built on an incline, the fortress at its heart and highest point.
They attracted attention as they went. That was normal whenever Euryale went out in public, of course, but it was spurred along further by the gossip. The news of a Hero assaulting their capital, being defeated, and dragged away for interrogation by their King had surely spread faster than anything. Her homunculi throughout the city had certainly heard no end of it. It would not be much of a leap for anyone to realize the ratfolk marching along between them was that Hero, and she seemed to draw more eyes than even their King. Euryale of course grinned and waved to her subjects, as ever, while the Hero kept looking around. Lyari kept herself focused on the two of them for the time being.
The city grew more open as they neared the gates, although it was still cramped and narrow. More buildings were made of wood rather than stone, and gardens and a market square joined the defenses and houses. The Hero seemed to take a keener interest in that, and Lyari frowned. Did she think it was especially vulnerable? Exploitable? An attack using fire, perhaps? She would have to see about better defenses...
Eventually they arrived at the gates. The guards there and on the wall, more there than usual, saluted their King. The homunculus watching the gate bowed. Euryale nodded her head in return, and simply gestured for them to be at ease. The Hero looked around between them, and if Lyari thought she seemed intimidated. Good. If a Hero was really going to leave that place—something she could still hardly accept—it was good it would be while cowed by their displays of force.
Euryale looked things over herself, and then spoke up. "Your diligence is appreciated, men. This has been an exceptional event, and you have performed well. I am personally pleased to report that this has been resolved amicably. This is the Hero Pasha." She made a sweeping gesture with her hands to point her out, as if it was at all necessary. "Despite the earlier quarrel some of you witnessed, we've come to peaceable agreement. She's going to leave now." That sentence caught the guards by surprise, though some retained better composure than others. Euryale carried on as if she hadn't noticed, although she surely had. "She intends to return in a month's time, to further discuss matters. When she does, simply alert Lyari's nearest representative, and I'll arrive shortly. This includes if she shows up again outside of the established schedule. If another Hero should arrive here, do the same thing. Don't engage unless they attack first, and even then prioritize your own defense and that of the city over offensive measures. It's important we stay alert for that possibility, but there is no reason to worry it's likely to occur. Am I understood?" The guards nodded and announced that they did, albeit with some obvious hesitation. "Good. Now, if you would, open the gates."
The gates opened smoothly, without much trouble or noise. Euryale made another gesture, and the Hero looked around once more before stepping out of the city. The blasted, sunken patch of ground she had made earlier was already gone, replaced with an unblemished path once more. Euryale had fixed it, resolidifying and smoothing out what was there. It seemed to hold the Hero's attention for a moment. Then she turned her head back to the gate. "I'll return in a month's time. I hope we can have productive negotiations."
Euryale nodded again. "I hope so, too. And I'm confident we will." The Hero nodded, and began walking back down the path away from the stronghold, towards the surrounding farmland. The gates were then shut, as quietly as they had opened. Silence wore on for a short while, and Euryale beamed up at the guards on the wall, before turning to wave once more at civilian onlookers. She didn't have any more words to say it seemed, but the hush waited for her to break it.
Lyari heard one of the guards mutter. Not through her own ears, but those of the homunculus with the men on the wall. She turned to look at him from both positions. Euryale was facing away, but Lyari noticed some of the serpents follow the motion. He seemed to notice her gaze, and grinned, his mouth a mangled mess of teeth. He was a heavyset demon, about as tall as Euryale but built much larger. He laughed. "And the real power notices while the whelp is busy pandering. Pathetic, Lady General. Anyone with eyes could see she was your puppet but I at least thought you were strong. Just what did that Hero sell you to let her leave? Or what did you sell her for her to pretend to be a captive?"
Lyari's identical faces were screwed up in fury, setting her sharp teeth against each other almost enough to grind in place. She was tensed, and her hands balled into fists. How dare he? How such an impudent buffoon who thought such drivel could have ever been considered worthy to serve their city, she could scarcely understand. She wanted with every fiber of her being to lash out, to rebuke the miserable upstart, but that was not her place. No, if she responded to this challenge herself it might validate his claim Euryale was but a puppet, even just a little, and that she would not abide.
The King herself seemed content to let that tension hold for a moment, before she laughed. It carried far, and Euryale was still giggling as she turned around. The snakes on her head were bobbing and shifting, but each kept its gaze strictly on the man atop the wall. She held the show of laughter a little longer before quieting, and she clapped her hands together. "I can't fault you for spirit, my good man. I suppose I also can't deny your charge that I am still but a whelp. But I am your King, not Lyari. And as such, any criticism of my decisions, as with the Hero, should fall on my shoulders. I'd ask you if you would like to direct such to me, but I'll cut to the chase. You're saying I'm weak, aren't you? Too weak to rule. If you have the boldness to imply that, surely you'll have the boldness to state it."
The man snorted and rolled his eyes. "The kind of show I would expect from a performer like you. Playing at being the Demon King. Just like you're playing at being a woman, playing at being strong, playing at being anything more than the last Demon King's unworthy brat this woman stole away to shore up her claim since she couldn't prove herself as a real warlord." Lyari's homunculus bit her tongue to keep both of herself quiet. Euryale furrowed her brow, which was less reaction than she would have expected. "It's obvious, but not a bad show. But now a Hero comes, and we're supposed to accept you're strong enough to stop her, but then chose let her go?" There was a quiet murmur amidst the ranks after he said that. "I don't understand what your show was there, but I don't trust it." He huffed, and stepped forward, before leaping from the wall and landing on the ground below with a thud. Lyari could actually see the way his form absorbed the shock of the landing. "We need strength now, not a show."
The Demon King didn't budge as he landed. She took in a deep breath, and let it out slowly, composing herself with a serious expression. All of her serpents had gone deathly still, staring into the man's eyes. He didn't waver, either. When she spoke, her voice had a hard edge. "Very well. We will dispense with the show, then. Do you challenge me for my title through a contest of strength?"
He laughed again, a deep, guttural thing. "I do! I challenge you now, Demon King Euryale Thekaia." He bellowed, and then immediately fell to the floor. He seemed to strain to get up, but it looked as though he was weighed down by his back. He was splayed out, futilely trying to scrabble with his hands to lift himself. He huffed and grunted, but couldn't speak if he was trying to. Euryale hadn't moved a muscle, still simply staring at him. Then she cast her gaze up at the guards on the wall, then around at the civilian crowd. She turned her back on her challenger, though one of the snakes was still pointing insistently towards him.
"Normally I would have put on more of a show, but he requested I didn't. And I wouldn't wish to mislead you all." She held out her hands in a broad, encompassing gesture. "Because this is important. I used the barest exertion of my strength to subdue that man. And he is no weakling, trust me." A little smile cracked across her face. "I could easily best him with traditional strength too, should he insist upon it afterwards, but it would not do to give you a false understanding of the power I wield. Because it is vast and potent and unmatched. I do believe most of you knew that already, but it apparently required a demonstration. I want you all to understand my strength, because I want you to trust in it. If any of you feel I am leading unacceptable danger to your homes, I will do what I can to safely bring you elsewhere. But this is my city, and I will do my all to defend it. That means doing so in the way I believe is best. And that is what I have done today. Are there any among you who don't see me as your rightful King?" Everyone present went deathly quiet, and Euryale nodded. "Then I ask of you all, as your King, who here would die for me?"
The crowd erupted into loud cheers. That is not what Lyari had expected her liege to say, but she added her voices to the chorus from the street and the loud shouts from the guards on the wall. She had shirked a death in the defense of her liege once, and would not do so again. Even the prone figure made a loud grunt. Euryale let the noise subside, nodding her head solemnly before continuing. "And I, in turn, would die to protect all of you. I would gladly perish to save my people, if I must." That struck the crowd as less familiar than its converse. Euryale didn't leave it to linger long. "But against that Hero? Or any other mortal rabble who might challenge us? None of us will need to. Any can challenge me—challenge us—if they dare, but they will fail. Because I am the Demon King, and I am the strongest being alive. And together, we demons have the power to shake the world!" She threw her hands up, and the crowd cheered once more. "I am—we are—almost prepared. Soon, we will reclaim the rest of the divided kingdom that is ours by right. And after that, we will bring our true enemies down to their knees. We will finally punish those insolent and arrogant gods for their sins, those self-same sins they claimed to condemn us for! We will do this the way I see fit, but I swear to all of you, on my power, that we will do it."
One last round of cheers came, this time the loudest, with applause and stomping feet. Lyari cheered once more, and threw her free hand up to the sky in a fist. Her homunculus atop the wall cried out and stomped her feet. Euryale seemed to relish in the applause and adulation, and stood tall to receive it. She glanced around the crowd, to the wall, and then turned once more to grin at Lyari. She beckoned for her to approach, and Lyari did so. She noticed the challenger from before finally standing, and he bore a stupid grin between flushed cheeks. Lyari didn't pay him much mind, and Euryale apparently didn't bother to look. Together, they walked back to the throne room, as the rest of the city rushed out to see the news and then returned to its business around them.
Lyari's waiting homunculus opened the doors for them, and stepped out as they stepped in. Euryale made her way to the throne and sat herself down in it, back straight and knees together. She looked especially regal, compared to the way she usually lazed in it, but Lyari couldn't help but be reminded of her sitting upon it as a small child, ramrod stiff and practically dwarfed. She stepped up before the throne, and bowed her head deferentially as befitted a supplicant. "A rousing speech you made today, Your Majesty. But—"
Euryale snickered, and the sense of formal proceedings was whisked away. Euryale spoke up with her usual light tones. "It's alright, Lyari. I know what's on your mind, we don't need to make a play of court to discuss this. If the Hero betrays us, I will kill her myself, and lead our armies to seize her lands. And then I will kill the other Heroes, conquer their nations, and force peace on their peoples." Only at that one word did an edge of hardness color Euryale's voice, but it was gone as soon as it came. Lyari began to reply, but Euryale spoke over her. "No, Lyari, listen to me. This is no empty boast, nor foolhardiness or simple naïvete. I can, and if I must, I will. Pasha may be inexperienced, but our altercation has cemented my confidence. I may not yet be as strong as my father was, but I can use my strength much more ably." Lyari nodded. From what she had seen that day, the last part at least was difficult to deny.
Euryale carried on, and her voice was still measured, calm, almost conversational. "I am not going to perpetuate another bloody, pointless turn of the wheel. One way or another, Lyari, I am going to build a better world. Even if I have to shake it down to its foundation to do so, I will see that done. But if this works? If we can broker a peace, instead of take the world by force? It will be that much easier to ensure that my designs are stable. I don't share my father's ambitions, Lyari, nor my line's, but I am still the Demon King. My enemies are the gods; I wish to destroy the order they have ordained and avenge the curses they put on our people. But the best way to do that? It's to build a world Heroes won't want to topple."
Lyari nodded as Euryale spoke. She thought about the words for some time before shaking her head. "You certainly have conviction in this, Euryale, that I can tell. But I do not understand exactly what you mean. The Heroes serve the gods. I don't entirely understand what order you intend to bring, but surely if it opposed the gods, the Heroes would strive to destroy it?"
Euryale shook her head. "No, that isn't quite true. The Heroes are empowered by the gods, yes, but they serve themselves, and their peoples. In that sense, they aren't that different from you or I. Sure, theirs may be called a blessing while ours is a curse, but neither let the gods control us directly. They have personal desires and ambitions, and might share those of their people. Just like you or I. Putting our interests into conflict with theirs is the mistake at the heart of our people's every past failure. More than that, it's a trap. A trap I hope to break with this generation, but if need be I can break it with the next. But it must break if we are to have any hope of defeating the gods."
Tentatively, Lyari nodded. She took a moment to think again before answering. "That is a unique perspective. I think I can understand your ideas, although I'm not sure I agree with them. But... How do you plan to align our ends with the Heroes' without abandoning our vengeance on the gods? However effective your diplomatic tact may prove, I can't imagine the other peoples wishing for us to conquer them and seize the world."
"You're right, of course. They would certainly not acquiesce to conquest. But that doesn't matter. Perhaps every Demon King before me sought to defeat the gods by stealing back the entire world, destroying or subjugating their every favored people and worshipper, but I find that thought appalling. Were we to go back far enough, all of us descend from servants of the gods, later spurned and cursed. Those people the gods have yet to turn their backs on aren't our real enemies, they're merely fellow victims who have yet to realize it. Mostly because we've made ourselves a much worse foe! We could instead serve as an example of how to flourish without the gods' approval, a people to trade and share with. We could spread the rituals to ward off the gods' malign influence over nature, to ensure good harvests and weather without wasting sacrifices in appeasement of distant tyrants, and be a people to learn from. We could grow stronger and mightier and be a people to offer defense against any final petty vengeance from the heavens. We could win, Lyari, along with everyone else! We must at least try. I will, even if I have to box every other demon's ears and drag them along behind me."
Lyari didn't know what to say.