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“So why are you here?” Kouen leaned his bearded chin on his fist, amused. “Come to beg more favors for Balbadd, as you tried from my sister? Or have you finally decided to accept that your kingdom is part of the Empire, and come to join us?”

Funny, how Kouen could put a twist on kingdom that got in bastard son, never the heir, who ran as far and fast as he could.

It burned, and Alibaba wanted to fling those words back in the prince’s face. He hadn’t run, he’d been kidnapped; he never would have left Balbadd of his own will-!

But he wouldn’t. Because Sinbad was right at the table, listening intently; and the king of Sindria’s decision, high-handed as it had been, had been the right thing to do.

If I hadn’t run then, I couldn’t save Balbadd now. And not just Balbadd….

“Neither.” Alibaba hoped his voice didn’t shake. The way his heart was fluttering, it was an effort just to lock his knees and stand. “I came to tell you that you’re going to free Balbadd, and destroy the Empire.”

Which had everyone’s aghast attention, from Mu Alexius blinking red eyes to Koumei’s silence, Kouha’s dropped jaw and Hakuei’s wide-eyed worry.

Yeah. She likes Aladdin. And she thinks the Empire’s the way to go. Does she even know what’s happening to people in most of it?

Didn’t matter. What mattered was Kouen’s level stare, smoldering as it’d been when he’d stomped Alibaba into the lava. One corner of the Kou general’s mouth turned up, dryly amused. “You’d better get your lost prince to a healer, little Magi. I think he took one hit to the head too many.”

Aladdin was staring at him too, blue eyes full of worry. And one faint glimmer of hope.

Alibaba smiled back. Told you. If you have problems, we’ll figure it out. Together.

“Kouen thinks he’s got you pinned,” Alibaba told the young magi, deliberately ignoring the Kou general’s unamused stare and lifted brow. “Because it doesn’t matter that what the Kou Empire is doing is evil. Doesn’t matter that they’re spreading slavery, and wiping out people’s pasts, their culture; and without those, everyone loses their hopes and dreams. It doesn’t matter, because Al-Thamen might call another Medium any time, and you’d need them. You’d need every Djinn Warrior you could get your hands on, just to try to save the world. They think they’ve got you right where they want you.” Trying not to show how much he missed the weight of his sword, Alibaba turned his gaze on Kouen, and then Koumei. Because Kouen was the General, the contractor for three Djinn, the most powerful force in the Empire-

But he’d kept his ear to the ground and listened in Reim, and it was amazing the variety of travelers who’d come to watch people fight and die in the arenas… and how much they knew, if you had the tenacity and patience to put it all together. Kouen was the power. But Koumei was the planner. The one who’d come up with the Empire’s strategy to demolish other kingdoms, and burn out the last remnants of other cultures. The one organizing Kouen’s efforts to unite the world in one bleak Empire. Not to mention, the brother currently in charge of Balbadd.

Koumei’s the one I have to beat.

“You think Aladdin doesn’t have a choice,” Alibaba went on. “But he does. Because we’re friends. And I know the truth you won’t look in the eye. You think you’re using Al-Thamen to rule the world? They’re using you. They’re letting you have all the power you want to make war and heartbreak, everything that gives them more dark rukh-”

“We’ll unite the world in peace,” Koumei said calmly. “Not that I expect you to understand.”

“Oh, I get it,” Alibaba shot back. “I get exactly what you’re trying to do. It won’t work. The minute you think you’ve won, that you’ve destroyed everybody who could stop you – that’s when they’re going to destroy you! And then there’ll be a dozen, a hundred Mediums. There’s no way we’ll stop them all.” Alibaba took a deep breath. “And I know how they’re going to do it. So. You free Balbadd, and destroy the Empire. Or I will.”

Aladdin let out a deep, shuddering sigh. “You figured it out. There is a way.”

“I should have figured it out before.” Alibaba gave the young Magi a grin. “I just wasn’t thinking big enough.”

And Sinbad was not glancing at Ja’far. Meaning the ex-assassin had kept his word; he’d warned Sinbad something was up, but not exactly what.

Had to run it past somebody, Alibaba thought. Aladdin doesn’t know enough about trade; Morgiana doesn’t know enough about the Empire. And I didn’t want to blindside Sinbad.

At the same time, he’d needed Sinbad to still be surprised, because… well. Alibaba had seen Kouen, on and off the battlefield.

If I’m going to crack a head that hard, I need a really big hammer.

Even now, Kouen was looking at him the way he had on the battlefield against the Black Djinn; a nobody who’d dared to insult Kouha by suggesting a prince of the Kou Empire needed help. “You think you can threaten the Empire.”

“That wasn’t a threat,” Alibaba said plainly. “That was a promise.”

Kouen’s eyes narrowed.

“You’ve got three days to think it over,” Alibaba went on. “Tell me yes, let Balbadd go, and I’ll tell you how to disarm the trap Al-Thamen set for you. You’ll lose your Empire, but you’ll save your people. Tell me no… and I’ll start disarming it for you. You’ll still lose your Empire, and it’ll be a lot uglier.” He paused, because here was the bait. “Decide to break the truce, or let those Al-Thamen guys you think you’re using do it for you….” He gestured at the dungeon-conquerors around the table. “And you go down anyway. Because now everybody here knows it can be done. They might not know how, not yet. But they know they can. Give Sinbad a week, a month tops? He’ll figure it out.”

I bet he would, too. Even if Ja’far didn’t slip him the hint.

Kouen’s gaze cut to Aladdin. “Magi, are you going to-”

“Am I going to what?” Aladdin cut him off, stepping to Alibaba’s side. “You’re hurting people. You saw the Medium. You know what Al-Thamen’s doing! The Medium was pulling in Il-Ilah to destroy the world, we needed your help, and you used that just to get what you wanted!” His hands were white-knuckled on Mogamett’s wand. “If Alibaba says Al-Thamen’s going to use the Kou Empire to create more Mediums – I believe him. I have to stop them.”

“You know our strength.” Koumei’s voice was quiet. Almost careless. “Whatever Al-Thamen has planned, they are many. You’re just one lone dungeon conqueror, without even as much magoi as Kougyoku.”

Oh, way to insult your own sister. Not to mention, in case you missed it, I was fighting those bastards long before you ever showed up.

But Alibaba kept a hold on his temper, and just looked levelly back. “Yeah. I’m just one guy. I really think that ought to scare you more than it does.” He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter if you believe me or not. I do know your strength, prince of Kou. I know about your armies, your magicians, your Djinn. And none of it’s going to make a difference.”

Because none of that’s your real strength.

He’d had a lot of time to think, after he’d burned out his rage in Sindria. Thinking about how he’d lost his home and his city. Thinking about why he’d lost. He’d followed Ja’far across Sinbad’s palace and through their libraries for weeks, until the ex-assassin had halfway been tempted to cross out the ex part, searching for every detail Sindria had on just what had gone so horribly wrong in Balbadd. He hadn’t put together all of the answer, not then, but after spending time with Hakuryuu, and then in Reim, pulling together every detail he could from anyone who dealt with the Empire….

It’s the Fan. The Fan is the key to everything.

The Kou Empire’s strength wasn’t their armies. It was the fact that they could use their army to force other nations to use the Fan, instead of gold and silver cash. And then their bankers destroyed kingdoms, long before Kou ships showed up in the harbors.

And I’ll just bet Al-Thamen set them up that way.

Al-Thamen was the bankers, after all. The Kou princes – they were imperial princes. Trained warriors. Not merchants. What did they have to do with trade? That was for lesser-born subjects.

Like the nobles of Balbadd.

Nobles who’d barely kept an army or a navy, because Balbadd lived and died by trade. Only Abhmad and Sabhmad had been as bad at merchant wiles as Alibaba had been at polite politics; and Rashid hadn’t been able to convince them to listen to their youngest brother, he hadn’t had time….

Don’t think about it.

The strength of the Empire was the Fan. And the Fan was just paper.

All Al-Thamen has to do is wait for the Empire to get powerful. And then – poof.

Destroy the Fan. Or duplicate it, and watch things spiral into riots and chaos as inflation tore cities apart. Or heck, why not both, here and there and everywhere?

Chaos. Despair. All the Black Rukh they could ever want.

So the Kou Empire had armies? So what? Who had to attack an army if you could wipe out how they were paid? Equipped? Transported? Fed?

Animal fodder costs money. Draft animals cost money. Cavalry mounts cost money. Ships, uniforms, weapons, everything down to fishing line…. Everything depends on the Fan.

And oh, what a coincidence. Amon was a Fire Djinn.

Koumei was still staring at him, one eye hidden behind his bangs. A sleepy, deceptive stare, like a sand-ermine blinking from a rolled-up rug.

Oh, how cute and cuddly I am, before I rip your face off.

“Think about it,” Alibaba said quietly. “Like you said. I’m one guy. There’s no way I can take on your armies, your Household Members, your Djinns. Everything you think is going to let you beat Al-Thamen, the moment they decide they can turn on you. That’s your problem. Al-Thamen can beat you without ever lifting a sword.”

Oh boy. He could feel the taut attention in the room, singing from a dozen trained wills. He’d bet Aladdin saw the rukh swirling like a hurricane.

And… he finally had Kouen’s attention. Eep.

“I’ve seen enough death,” Alibaba said, to that dangerous scarlet gaze. “I’ve seen too many people die for revenge. You think I want the Empire brought down because of what you did to Balbadd? You’re wrong. I am going to stop you, because if I don’t, Al-Thamen’s going to kill all of us.”

Keep it together. Breathe.

“I don’t want anyone else to die,” Alibaba said quietly. “If you figure it out – and I know you can figure it out, if you just think – you can stop Al-Thamen right in their tracks. You can save your people. But you’ve got to start soon, you’ve got to move fast, and you’re going to have one hell of a mess to fix. Because the Empire is fragile, Kouen Ren. It looks strong and hard as a wall of ivory. But all it is, is an eggshell. One crack, and it’s done.” He raised one brow, cool and practiced as he’d learned under his old court tutors, years ago. “I learned a lot from how you took Balbadd. Did you?” He pulled together his nerves, and his best manners. “Gentlemen. Ladies. I won’t take up any more of your time.” He glanced at Aladdin. “Want to find Morg and get into some trouble?”

Aladdin smiled, and Alibaba knew everything was going to work out. Because that smile was relief, and trust, and all the hope in the world.

I believe in you.

He grabbed Aladdin’s hand, and they ran for it.


It was an interesting silence left in Alibaba’s wake, Ja’far reflected. Assembled kings and warriors were shifting and trying not to obviously glance at each other, as Kouen and Sinbad stared each other down.

“You can’t possibly take him seriously.”

“The last time I didn’t take Alibaba seriously, he managed to dethrone the royalty, back your sister down without even drawing a weapon, and rebuild half of Balbadd before you got there,” Sinbad reflected. “The timing on that fleet of yours – tch. You should have sent them at least a few weeks later. Then it might not have been glaringly obvious you never meant to give Balbadd a chance to pay back their debts.” He shifted in his chair, and glanced at Ja’far. Well?

The ex-assassin allowed himself a small, thin smile. Alibaba might not have realized it, but he’d come to exactly the right person to hear his plan. Both as a merchant… and as a former assassin.

The Fan is like arsenic, Ja’far thought. Small amounts make a horse fat and glossy. But raise the dose abruptly, or withdraw it completely – and the victim dies.

“I’d take him very seriously,” Ja’far stated. “You took a gift horse from Al-Thamen. You should have checked its teeth.”

Sinbad wasn’t quite grinning. Years of kingship had made him a bit too sly for that. But his eyes were dancing.

You’re going to kick yourself later, Ja’far thought wryly. I should kick us both. We were merchants before we ran a country – and merchants should have figured this out a long, long time ago. Rashid would have seen it in a heartbeat, if he’d been alive. Thank Solomon Alibaba takes after him more than those… idiot brothers of his do.

Too bad for Rashid his wife had raised those boys to be nobles, and nothing else. Like the Rens had been raised; lesser nobles, perhaps, before their uncle’s death and their father’s ascension as Emperor, but nobles nonetheless. Which was why they hadn’t seen the Fan was a gift drenched in poison. Kou nobles didn’t deal with anything as common as money, much less trade.

Al-Thamen did that for them.

And it took a very special sort of merchant to look past the lure of short-term profits and the Kou Empire’s glittering spears to what was good for his company, his country, in decades to come. Rashid would have managed it….

Rashid is dead. I doubt that’s an accident.

Once Sinbad realized the bones of Alibaba’s plan, he’d know it was no accident as well. And then things might become… difficult, for the Rens.

Well. More difficult, Ja’far thought, firmly sitting on the temptation to give a puffed-up prince a truly evil smile. Alibaba is going to put them through pure hell.

Oh, he believed Alibaba when the young Djinn Warrior said he’d seen enough death. That he didn’t want revenge. But what the young man was going to do to the Empire in the process of destroying the Fan would probably be more revenge than Rashid could have ever asked for.

If he does it, Ja’far reminded himself firmly. He did offer them the chance to fix it themselves.

Which made the assassin want to cackle as evilly as Yamraiha unleashing a new spell, and that must have glittered in his eyes. Kouen was tense, Koumei expressionless, and Sinbad wide-eyed with wary amusement.

“Alibaba can keep a secret,” Mu Alexius mused. “I never knew he had a Metal Vessel until he stood between me and Aladdin.” He raised an intrigued scarlet brow. “This sounds like an interesting one.”

“Ah, but he did give the Empire three days,” Sinbad said easily. “It’d be shameful not to give one side the time they need to live up to their half of the bargain.”

Ja’far deliberately did not hold his breath. That was Sin, dancing on the razor edge again. Deliberately drawing the Kou princes’ ire on himself, and away from Alibaba.

Though not away from Balbadd.

No, definitely not. Not with every king here reminded by Balbadd’s example how the Kou Empire only held to bargains they found convenient.

But Sinbad had done what he could for Balbadd a year ago. Now he had to take care of his Alliance, his kingdom, and his Household; even if he hadn’t quite talked Alibaba into joining Sindria’s Alliance. Yet. For now, Balbadd was part of the Empire. The Kou would either destroy it further, or not.

For now.

Solomon, but Ja’far hoped Sinbad did talk Alibaba into staying. He hadn’t seen Sinbad this eager for adventure, this much himself, in far too long.

And part of that was the sizzle in the air, as every pair of eyes tried to size up just what, exactly, they’d missed, facing down the Kou Empire’s unstoppable juggernaut.

The silent sound of a dozen daggers, ready to plunge into an unprotected heart, Ja’far smirked to himself. And they only have themselves to blame. They have no allies; only conquered subjects, stripped of any strength that would threaten the Empire’s iron grip. Slaves in all but name – because they can keep nothing the Kou choose to take away.

Which was Al-Thamen’s second dose of poison. The Kou family believed they needed no allies in their quest to conquer the world, and they planned to conquer all of it. So they had no friends here, at all.

Even the Sham Lash kept their promises. When they promised to kill you, they did their best to do it.

Ja’far let his gaze drift over the assembled Rens, as if he were already measuring them for the pyres. It was possible – barely possible – they’d see the threat Alibaba had identified, and move to thwart Al-Thamen themselves. Which would put them in the fight of their lives.

The real trick will be holding back our allies so none of them fall into any of Al-Thamen’s traps themselves, Ja’far thought. It’s going to be all too tempting to take advantage of the chaos. But Sin can hold them back. If we can make it clear that mundane armies are a passing threat; Al-Thamen’s desire to destroy the world is eternal.

This is going to be interesting.


Kouen leaned back against their suite’s main door, heart racing. He wasn’t sure how he’d gotten them out of that conference with face and dignity intact. Sinbad… had not been pushing, which had made it easier.

The Sindrian idiot doesn’t have to push. Ja’far already knows what Alibaba’s planning.

“We’re in trouble,” Koumei said quietly.

“You noticed?” Kouen growled. He’d been on too many battlefields to count. He could feel the walls of the trap closing in around him, ready to wipe out himself and his troops in one fell swoop. And he couldn’t even see it.

What the hell does Saluja know that we don’t?

“I don’t understand!” Kougyoku protested, glancing between Kouha and Hakuei as if they might suddenly make more sense than her older brothers. “We’re strong! Alibaba – he’s… nice. And alone. How could he think he could destroy us?”

“And why would Aladdin help him?” Hakuei rested a gentle hand on her half-sister’s shoulder. “He helped me bring the Kouga tribe peacefully into the Empire. He doesn’t want a war. Why would he stand with Alibaba when he says he’s going to start one?”

Kouha frowned, fierce as if he saw another Black Djinn approaching his people. “He didn’t say he’d start a war. He said he’d destroy the Empire.”

Kougyoku scowled. “It’s the same thing!”

Kouha blinked, and shook his head. “No, it’s not.”

“You would think so,” Kouen muttered. And wanted to bite his imprudent tongue. Solomon, he had to be tired. Kouha’s troops might be the outcasts and rabble of the Empire, but he made them a viable fighting force. The whole Empire could be like that. In time.

“He’s right, though,” Koumei reflected. “Alibaba doesn’t have the resources to start a war. A war might happen if he disrupts the Empire, but he wouldn’t start it.”

“And the difference is?” Hakuei said, almost patient.

“The difference between taking Magnostadt by force and assassinating its royalty,” Koumei replied, bangs hiding his face in shadow. “Think about it. One of the strongest heads of the Sham Lash ever thinks whatever the Balbadd prince has in mind, it’s not just possible, but entertaining.”

“What?” Kouen asked, stepping away from the door to meet his quieter brother eye to eye. “What is possible?” What weakness do we have that I don’t know about?

“…If it doesn’t involve weapons, yet it can destroy the Empire, then I see two possibilities,” Koumei said at last. “The first option would almost have to be something that interferes with our logistics. I just don’t see how that’s possible.”

Nor do I. Their supply lines were always, always one of the first things on Kouen’s mind. Maintaining the wagon trains, the navy, the roads so goods and Fan flowed where the army needed them… that was Koumei’s responsibility, yes, but no general would ever dare take his own eye off it. “The second?”

“Rashid Saluja died of illness,” Koumei said coldly. “Like our father.”

Now that was a truly terrifying thought.

Kougyoku paled. “Alibaba wouldn’t!

“Never underestimate a cornered rat, little sister,” Kouen snorted. “It’d amuse that little assassin, wouldn’t it?”

“Brother, you’re not even making sense.” Kouha glanced between them as if he were considering finding them a bunch of bandits to go kill until they felt better. “He knows you have Phenex. You could stop even a plague in its tracks, with enough warning.” The slight prince shrugged. “Besides, he said this was a trap Al-Thamen set for the Empire. Disease would be a problem for everyone. Aladdin would never let that happen.”

Koumei looked at him askance. “You think the little magi has any say in what a desperate exiled prince might do?”

“You do,” Hakuei said calmly. “Or you wouldn’t have tried to get leverage over them both, Brother.” She folded her hands in her sleeves. “I’ve seen desperate people. Alibaba’s not desperate, he’s determined. So what will we do?”

“Stall,” Kouen said bluntly. “And think.”


The next three days became very, very interesting. The other nations obtained an extensive education in two areas. First, that Ja’far had very good reasons to be amused at them all; because despite being a Magi, a blond Metal Vessel User, and a Fanalis, Alibaba and his Household could and would slip out from under any watching eyes, magical or mundane.

Second….

The Kou princes were surprisingly good at research. And invective. And bluffing.

Day four came and went.

Then day five.

By the end of the week, various nations’ representatives finally realized Sinbad – or maybe his Generals, no one was quite sure – had been up to his eyeballs in misdirecting anyone looking for the trio, the Yambala Gladiator Alibaba had associated with, and that terrifying giant ape.

They’re gone.


 

A week after that, Kou treasuries start going up in smoke.