The Adari delegation filed into the room one family at a time. Gelgan Jo'an Adar was in the lead, her train rustling on the floor behind her, held by her primary advisor, while her two guards walked solemnly on either side. As the Lanto family followed her in, Jhim paused to look over a room he hadn't seen in over ten years.
It wasn't very different on the surface. Large enough to accomadate a gathering of five nations' traditional envoys – the leading five families of the nation, each with an advisor and two superhuman bodyguards – it seemed oddly quiet with only the Adari and the Varnn present. The ceiling was crystal-light, tinted to dim the brightness of the sun overhead and faceted to send thousands of rainbows capering across the floor, each striking crystal-studded pillars and splitting again until the room was filled with fragments of colour and shape that moved as the sun slowed passed overhead. The five benches in the centre of the room were plush blue, the color of Adar's banner, and the two rows behind them left easy access for anyone to move if necessary. Although it had been decades since there had been trouble at a conference, everyone knew the possibility existed, and the guards of both sides watched each other carefully.
Jhim turned his attention to the Varnn delegation. Unlike the Adari, whose bodyguards included five espers, four vanguards, and Jhim himself, the Varnn were clearly focusing on vanguards for their guards. Of their ten bodyguards, seven had the distinctive size of a vanguard – towering over a foot above the mostly five-foot-tall Sayleen, with builds that would rival human football players, vanguards wouldn't stand out on Earth but were obvious amongst the much smaller and lither population of Sayleen. Of course, they were far more powerful than any nonpowered human, with strength and toughness that would rival many human strongmen, but Jhim couldn't help but think that they were much less impressive-looking than he had thought before his time on Earth. By contrast, the three artificers that the Varnn had brought along looked alert and dangerous, although Jhim admitted to himself that it might just be his professional pride saying so. All three were equipped in complex-looking battle armor, and had weapons holstered on their hips. Studying his counterparts' technologies for a moment, Jhim tapped the hilt of his own artifice-pistol thoughtfully. The Varrn artificers were outfitted for long-range support; most likely, in the event of a fight, they would fall back and let the vanguards charge forwards. Espers would be the primary targets, before they could use their psychic capabilities to bring the vanguards down.
There were no Varrn espers present. This didn't surprise Jhim, given the content of the meeting.
A brush of motion brought his attention back to his own side, as his mother began her own soft glide forwards, and he smoothly stepped up to her side to walk along with her. Since her husband's death, Carath Ahliss had taken the reins of the Carath family firmly in hand, and Jhim did his best to emulate her stoicism. As the Fourth Family, it was unlikely that the Carath would be called on to do more than simply nod along with Gelgan, but such was duty.
At the front bench, Gelgan Jo'an was facing Heran Kyall Varrn, leader of the Varrn delegation and nation. The two bowed to one another, their distate almost palpable but hidden beneath the veneer of polite smiles. Jhim took his place on the far left second bench, behind his mother and her aide, as the other bodyguards did the same. He glanced down the line, hiding a frown as he noted that the bench wasn't quite large enough for the Adari vanguards to sit comfortably. Something else he'd never noticed before.
Once everyone was seated, the meeting began without any preambles. Heran Kyall crossed his fingers delicately in front of him, looking across at Jo'an. “Has the Adari senate had time to consider our request?”
“We have. And our answer is no.” Jo'an shook her head. “The traditions have been in place for over a hundred and fifty years without changing. We are sorry that you feel they unfairly disadvantage you, but despite your presented opinions, we found no evidence sufficient to change our minds.”
Kyall's eyes narrowed. “My coalition showed ample proof that the Rites of Conquest, as they are arrayed, are unfairly biased towards those nations with a surfeit of espers, and against those whose gifted population is primarily vanguard. The Adari, among other nations, have used this to their advantage to win such rites disproportionatly, claiming population and newly-revitalized territories for themselves that should be rights have been ours, while hiding behind an increasingly outdated challenge code to justify their aggression.”
“We've been over this a hundred times, Kyall. You aren't losing because you lack espers. You are losing because your gifted simply aren't as good as ours.” Jo'an waved a hand languidly. “The Rites of Conquest were designed for a reason, and we will not support your desire to change them.” She shook her head, sighing. “If you would like to discuss specific points of contention, we may be able to negotiate something, but unless you've come to tell us that ten of the fifteen nations have lined up behind your little quest, you might as well let it drop.”
“I don't think we've been entirely clear.” Kyall's jaw was clenched hard enough that Jhim could make out every muscle, and his antenna were curving back – a sure sign of barely-contained rage. “Varrn, Khosai, and Trell are agreed that we have been badly mistreated. If those nations currently benefiting from the Rites are not willing to modify them, we see no reason to continue following a system designed to keep us out of power.”
There was a dead silence in the room. Jhim glanced down the line of bodyguards, meeting a row of shocked expressions that mirrored those of the main Adari delegates. Even suggesting changes to the Rites was something that many Sayleen considered a step down from treason. To threaten to abandon them completely was madness. Then he frowned, this time not hiding it effectively. Across from him, the Lanto delegates – an esper and a vanguard – were not looking surprised. They were only trying to look surprised. His hand inched down towards his weapon reflexively.
Up front, Jo'an's voice was filled with horror. “Heran Kyall, the Rites were put in place for a reason. That you could even suggest what you have just said is abomination. If your nations refused to follow the Rites, it would be chaos.”
“No, it would be war.” Kyall's eyes glittered with the promise of violence, and he stood dramatically. “If you will not change the Rites, we will force you to abandon them as well. We have the forces. Your espers may win challenges, but our vanguards will win battles.” He leaned forwards. “If you continue to refuse to acede to justice, Adar will fall.”
“The other nations would never stand for it.” Jo'an said, shaken.
“You might have fewer allies than you think. Between those who are tired of your peoples' smug superiority, and those who fear battle, there aren't many left who will support you." Kyall's voice sharpened. "Sign the documents, and revise the Rites."
There was a long pause, and then Jo'an drew herself up, standing to face her rival. "No. We will not be threatened by your bluster or your criminal threats." She glared at Kyall. "Do your worst, and remember - it will be on your head."
Kyall laughed. "Very well." He gestured lazily.
The artificer behind him drew and fired in a single fluid motion. Sensing the danger, one of the Gelgan bodyguards began to throw himself forwards, but by the time he was in motion it was over.
The laser singed across the empty space where Jo'an had been standing a moment earlier. She was no longer there. Instead, she was sprawled on the floor, her limbs tangled with two other people who had popped into existence under her.
As the room exploded into violence, Jhim spared a glance at the strangers who had saved his leader's life so ignominiously. He nearly tripped.
Timebender and Lucky Lad gaped as they looked around. Timebender said, "Jim?!"