Writing this while anti-bacterial gel goes to work on my eyes. Fun, fun, fun. Not painful but I can feel it almost like it's breathing, like cold air is being directly sucked into my eyes and it tingles and waters like mad. Best part is I'm not even sure it's working since I'm to take it until Monday and then report back to doctor if it doesn't work. This is mostly because it's lockdown and the GPs are having to limit appointments to emergencies, so they're kind of rushed and have been encouraged to prioritise COVID cases, etc. Understandable, which is why I'm putting up with it instead of demanding the doctors do more.

Fun times. Shouldn't impact too much other than time. What might take 4-5 hours will probably take longer, and maybe I miss a squiggly line spelling mistake or two.


Cover Art: Jack Wayne

Chapter 132


"Oi. You've already got company?" Qrow returned with two large bottles of Desert Rose in hand, ruffled hair and a wild grin. He nodded to Bertilak as he elbowed his way into the wall space and set the bottles down. "Congrats, man. You've pulled."

Jaune noticed the woman next to Qrow. "Looks like I'm not the only one."

Carmine Esclados was already wearing a huge smile and it only grew on seeing him. She winked and hefted her own bottle of cheap wine, half-drunk. Her chainmail crop-top had been switched out for a short white tee that covered her stomach, likely to protect her skin from the sandstorm.

"I see you old timers took my advice."

"Miss Esclados again," Jaune said. "Is this another coincidence or should I start to fear for my safety?"

"Ooh. Not bad." Carmine elbowed her way in on his other side, nudging some other partygoer out the way. Her bottle clinked down on the side. Jaune noted the label – Atlas grown and pressed wine. That must have been a rare commodity in Vacuo. "Except the fact I told you I'd be here, so maybe I'm the one who should be nervous around two lecherous old men."

"We're not old." Qrow defended. "I'm not even forty."

Bad move. Jaune knew what'd be said even before Carmine grinned and opened her mouth. "Mid-thirties is still old compared to someone like me. And you seem awfully defensive about it, gramps."

Qrow recoiled in abject pain, wounded straight in the pride. Carmine laughed delightedly as he mumbled some poor excuse and cracked open his bottle, taking a long swig of the powerful booze. Jaune poured his into the glass and sipped lightly. It was strong enough like that.

"I'm here every time a storm rolls in," Carmine continued. "Not much else to do when it's like this, and I tell you, no one throws a party like Vacuo in a sandstorm. Beats sitting at home listening to the windows rattle. I see you agreed for once, Bertilak. You don't normally come out. Why didn't you tell me you wanted to?"

"Maybe because I wanted to come alone."

"Here? Where you know I am? Nice try."

"He challenged me to another fight," Jaune lied smoothly. "Something about having figured out a way to best me."

"Seriously? Bertilak, please, he beat you. Get over yourself."

"He didn't beat me!" Bertilak spat defensively. He was either a far better liar than he looked or genuinely offended by the thought. "I yielded. He won, but he didn't beat me, and I'll prove that next time we fight." He downed his beer and pushed off the wall. "I'm done here. I've said my piece."

"We'll do it within the next two days," Jaune told him. "Qrow and I have to go after that, so I won't be able to stick around longer than that. I'll hit you up."

Bertilak nodded once and pushed his way through the crowd, tugging his hood up over his head as he made for the door out. Jaune turned back to Carmine and Qrow, sipping his Desert Rose as the two shared an amused roll of the eyes, none the wiser to what had been said.

"You're popular all of a sudden," Qrow said.

"It's fine. We're stuck waiting for Crown to try and find our information anyway. A good fight will help pass the time. It's not like I haven't been in his position either. Sometimes it's hard to find a good challenge."

"Is that a dig on me?"

Jaune smiled over his glass. "Maybe."

"Ha! You two have some real flirty byplay going on. If I didn't know he was engaged to the Schnee, I might have got excited."

"What?" Qrow spluttered. "No way! I'm straight!"

"Awfully defensive again…"

"W-What!?"

"She's teasing you, Qrow. Though… Summer did mention you've been single for a long time. Not many women in your life. You know I'd support you either way, right?"

Qrow fought for words before turning away, bright red, and downing another long swig. Carmine burst out laughing, while Jaune shared a chuckle of his own. The bar was so loud that no one could hear them, and with the off-tune music, raucous singing and the booming beat over the top, it was easy to relax.

"So," Carmine said. "You and Bertilak. He's not being a bother, is he?"

Jaune could tell she was curious – or maybe even worried. He didn't know if Bertilak's cover had been blown, but she was obviously digging as to what her teammate wanted with him.

"Not too much of one. Honestly, I thought you put him up to this."

"Me…?"

"Hm." He took another sip, enjoying her surprised expression. It was surprisingly natural. "I figured this might be Crown's attempts to get closer to me. It's known I run a training gym, so competition and fighting is close to my heart."

"Oh. You thought we were building bridges?"

He nodded.

"I guess I can see why you would. Actually, that sounds pretty reasonable. We're not, though," she said, shrugging. "At least not through Bertilak. He's the last person we'd send to try and impress someone." She laughed, a little more relaxed now. "He's not exactly the charming type."

"That would be you, I assume."

"Oh. I'm charming now, am I? You're not so bad yourself. I'm not interested in being a homewrecker though, especially not to someone who could turn Remnant upside down to find me."

"Winter isn't that bad."

"Trust me. Us girls are all `not that bad` until you upset us and then it's the apocalypse. I'm not the charming one either, though. That's more Jax or Queenie."

"Queenie is Gillian, right?"

"Yeah. I call her… well, it's an old nickname from school. I see Qrow has been sharing all our secrets."

"Did you expect me not to?" he asked.

"Guess not. He hasn't filled your head with bad stories, has he? We really do want the best for Vacuo. I know it doesn't sound like it, but we're not like the White Fang were. We don't discriminate."

"It's less about your methods and more your abilities," Jaune said freely. "The one I was most interested in was your friend Jax. That's quite the interesting Semblance he has there."

"Oh hell." Carmine sighed and cupped her face with one hand, elbow on the thin counter running around the outer wall of the bar. "Not this again. Yes, Jax's Semblance is controversial. Trust me, I felt just as freaked out about it at first."

"How can you be sure you're not under his control?"

"I can't!" she snapped.

"Sorry. Is it offensive to ask?"

"No," she said, sighing. "It's just annoying. I've had all this before. You say how can I be sure. I say because I can question him. You said what if he let me do that. I say because my personality hasn't changed. You say what if he told me to believe it didn't. I say because I could leave any time I wanted. You said he told me to believe I can even if I can't." Carmine waved her hand as if to say and so on and so on. "It's a circular argument. Any defence I offer is countered by saying maybe he makes me think or feel that way."

"The only thing I can say is that Jax was ostracised for his Semblance back in Shade," she continued. "People blamed him for anything they didn't like. Girl gets caught cheating on her boyfriend - Jax made her do it. Guy starts having erotic thoughts about other men – Jax's fault. Fail an exam – Jax's fault. He was an easy scapegoat for everyone and anyone that didn't want to own up for their own failures. You think his Semblance is scary? Trust me, you're not alone. He's been discriminated at his whole life for it."

Jaune frowned into his glass, muttering a quiet apology. He'd have felt a whole lot worse if it wasn't for what Bertilak had told him. That coloured his perception, even if it might have explained why Jax and Gillian turned to this scheme of theirs in the first place.

"Why change things, though?" he asked. "Vacuo is better off than it's ever been."

"You mean because of RTE? It's a bubble. Every good thing that has happened recently is because of them. Our entire economy has based itself on them now, so ask yourself, what happens if it fails?"

"I guess it's a recession," Qrow said.

"You guess? It's worse than that, old man. The whole Kingdom falls apart. More than half our GDP is either from RTE or from companies supplying to RTE. If they go down, every single one of those businesses falls, too. Tens of thousands of people go unemployed and Vacuo implodes."

"If it goes bust," Jaune pointed out. "It might not."

"Even if it doesn't, it's not sustainable. They could decide to relocate – I hear Atlas is already offering them tax breaks to move there. Or they could decide to stop paying taxes here, enforce lower wage or start waving their power around. Vacuo relies on them, so what's to say they don't start making demands of the Kingdom? The Council would fold to RTE in an instant."

"The current owner doesn't seem like that kind of person."

"Doesn't he? And do you know Rashem personally?"

Yes. Yes, he did.

"Maybe he is a good guy," she said. "But people change all the time, or maybe when he retires his successor won't be as good. Whatever the case, it's too much power in one group."

"And you want to put your allies as King and Queen."

"That's different. It's fine for the Kingdom to be put first. Someone has to be at the top of the food chain, but it shouldn't be a privately owned company. Queenie has plans. Even if we take over, RTE will continue – but it'll be owned by the Kingdom. It'll run for the people and never take advantage of them."

"Not sure the current boss will be up for that," Qrow said.

"He'll change his mind. We can be persuasive."

"You're not persuading us." Jaune warned her. "I've no interest in joining your little revolution, nor backing it. So cut the recruitment pitch, Carmine. We have our own business."

"I'm not tyring to-" She buckled under the glare he sent over the rim of his glass. "Alright. Fine. Queenie just wanted me to put out feelers. You always had the right to say no."

"It's a no from both of us. Make sure she knows that."

/-/

The sandstorm was gone by the next day, replaced with burning sun and dry air. The sand left behind pooled up in doorways and alcoves, making little piles that would whoosh through the air in the slightest breeze, stinging eyes and making people cough. Some people in bright coloured uniforms worked with machines and brushes to sweep the streets clean as best they could, and the drainage system of Vacuo seemed to be made as much to filter sand away as rainwater – the latter being rare in the Kingdom outside the wet months.

Jaune nursed a hangover and a small container of fried shrimp and spiced potatoes from a stall he'd found working the docks. Qrow was still in bed, having decided to sleep the day away since there was nothing else to do. He'd continued to treat Desert Rose like beer, chugging it like it was nothing. Qrow was regretting that now.

Wandering through the better off parts of the city, which were growing thanks to RTE, he approached the tall, cylindrical tower of Vacuo's second CCT. A new installation commissioned from Atlas and a push for the Kingdom to be one of the best connected. The old CCT was still functional, but constant storms had the tendency to leave it disconnected at the worst of times, or so he'd heard. The new one based in the city was much more modern and could keep the city itself online even in the midst of a storm.

Entering it, he paid for a private booth at the front desk and received a key. Slipping into the booth, he inserted his scroll into the receptacle and typed in the number. While an international call was possible without it, the connection could be spotty at best. And potentially unsafe. After a few seconds of calling, Oscar Pine's face appeared on the screen.

"Ozpin here. You're reporting? Where is Qrow?"

"Dealing with a hangover."

"Of course. I hope he realises he's meant to be working…"

"We're waiting on intel from Crown and one of my own sources. We were given two days – this being the first of that. If we don't get anything, we're going to assume our target is in the Bone lands and strike out there. There's nothing to do today but wait."

"I see. That's better than I expected. I assume it's Crown that you're referring to as a contact?"

Jaune nodded and then, in case there was any lag on the call, spoke. "Yes. This Crown… Ozpin, do you know much about them?"

"Not too much. I know their goals are to return Vacuo to a monarchy and place two of their members in charge. I also know they are unaware our enemy and unaffiliated with her."

Salem hadn't mentioned them either, so he could assume that was true. Surely if they were loyal to her, Cinder would have brought them up as well. "Can they be trusted?" he asked Ozpin.

"On that, I'm afraid I don't know. The little I know refers to their intentions and to one or two of their Semblances. I'm sure Qrow has filled you in."

"You don't know about anything they might be up to, then?"

"Other than trying to put themselves in power. No. Why? Has something happened?"

Jaune tested the words in his head before speaking. "I may have received some information on them while I'm waiting for more on the maiden. Some of it is a little disturbing."

"How so?"

"Human trafficking."

Ozpin remained silent and his face was impassive. That Oscar could reflect him so well was a worrying sign for the boy's time on Remnant, if he wasn't gone already. In their time, Oscar and Ozpin had been their own people for a long time before their souls merged, but this time. Well, there was nothing to say it would take as long, and it was more Ozpin in control than Oscar nowadays.

"That is… troubling. Very troubling. The maiden has to take responsibility. You know that. As horrible as this is, so many more will suffer if our enemy gets hold of what the maiden unknowingly protects."

"I know…"

"That said…" Ozpin sucked on his lips, eyes closing. "If something were to happen to them in the short time before you leave, if Crown were to suffer an accident and it did not interfere with your search for the maiden, then I would not shed any tears. Not if what you say is true."

"I haven't had definitive proof yet, but I aim to find out."

"Yes. Good. Look into it. Keep it to yourself for now, but if it turns out to be true… well, if they will go that far for their goals then who is to say they will not jump at the chance to join Salem if she offers more? I was originally of the opinion that it did not matter who rules Vacuo, but that was assuming both parties to have the Kingdom's best interests in heart."

"Thank you. I was going to try anyway but I'm glad to have your support."

"We're of the same mind here, Jaune. I, myself, have ruled, and I rose against my Queen when she would have sacrificed our people. To rule is to take responsibility for the lives of everyone. This is something Jax and Gillian appear to not understand." He paused. "Assuming your information is true."

"Assuming that," he conceded. "I'm open to it being proven wrong."

"Good luck, then. Just remember that the maiden has to take priority. As much as I might wish it otherwise."

Jaune nodded and ended the call, slipping his scroll out and quickly wiping its memory of the call. Putting it into his coat pocket, he stepped out the door and handed the key over to the woman at the reception, then moved over to the doors leading outside where a hulking figure was already waiting for him.

"Half a million." Bertilak said sharply.

"I said it and I'll stick to it. We'll go to the bank right now." Bertilak nodded, pleased with the swift action. The large man moved in to walk alongside him, his green armour flecked with sand and scratches. "Your information had best be good, though. I won't be pleased if it's a ruse."

"You beat me once." Bertilak spat.

True. Perhaps Bertilak's spar hadn't only been to find out if Jaune was strong enough to stop Crown, but also to show that Bertilak wasn't strong enough to escape him if he lied about this. If so, that was a lot cleverer thinking on the man's part than he would have expected.

"If it's good, I'll see about getting you a good job after. I can swing you employment with the SDC if you like. Maybe even RTE."

"I'm no pencil pusher."

"There are dangerous jobs there, too. Frontier scouting, private huntsmen, security contractors."

Bertilak considered those ideas and slowly nodded. "Better."

"Tell me about some of the other things Crown do."

"It's not all as bad as this. The trafficking is the worst. There's murder, too, but that's usually corrupt people, criminals and the like. I don't give a damn about that. They run protection and promises of power and authority for money. There are a few businesses that back 'em on the idea of being given noble lineage after Crown take over."

"Do Jax and Gillian intend to?"

"Maybe." Bertilak shrugged. "I don't know. Can't see why not if they really do help – they'll need people in good positions. It's why I joined up. Make no mistake, I'm a bad person, but even bad people have shit they find distasteful."

Everyone had morals, even Salem. "Go on."

"They run a club, a fight club. It's legal over here, even if it's frowned on. Big money for people who come and win. Thing is, none of that money ever goes to the winner. It's a recruitment ground for their own personal army. The `winners` get taken to meet Jax for their prize money – and then bam. Suddenly, they're loyal soldiers. Crownsmen, they call them. Pah."

"They're thralls?"

"Slaves. And they have no idea."

Jaune clenched his hands tight. "Maybe you should show me this place."

"No use. They know your face and name, or I'd have suggested you go in and win, see it for yourself. The second you enter it'll be a legitimate club. You'll win, they'll cheer, hand you the money and let you go on your merry way."

Damn. If he had more time, he'd love to call Roman and ask for Neo's help, but then she was in Beacon now. Maybe Adam would have been up to come down and compete. He couldn't risk Raven given the fact she was a maiden, and there was no way he could get in on a disguise.

"I also heard Gillian mention to Carmine once that they might even consider looking past Vacuo."

Jaune rounded on him. "What-!?"

"Once they have their power base sorted," he said. "They can start to expand. Take over Vale first, then Atlas and finally Mistral."

That was… impossible. Actually impossible. Ozpin would kill them long before they had the chance if Salem didn't first for becoming too powerful. The siblings had no hope of actually pulling that off, but it didn't mean they wouldn't be stupid enough to try.

Honestly, they sounded childish. Arrogant. Assuming they should have power because of their names and Semblances. They were bound to run up against someone too powerful to control, and then everything would come crumbling down, but it was that same stupidity that made them so dangerous. Too stupid to know when to back off, when to cut their losses and how far to not push their ideals. If what Bertilak said was true, Ozpin would want them dealt with just as much as he did.

"Do you know of any weakness to Jax's Semblance?"

"No."

"Nothing?"

"There has to be one or he'd have used it on me and everyone in Shade. They're not going to tell anyone what it is, though. I think aura," he said. "Those of us not under his control are huntsmen. There's a few of us and we're all strong, so maybe it's based on how much aura a person has."

"The fight club is amateur, isn't it?"

"Hn." He nodded.

Most huntsmen and huntresses had better ways to earn money and fame then fight for entertainment. There were always Grimm to kill. By taking untrained people and putting them under their control, however, they could unlock their aura and train them later. Presumably, they'd remain under Jax's control since they'd already lost their free will by then. If that was true, then he should be immune to Jax's power. Should be. It was a lot to ask for him to risk it out of hand.

"Let's get you your money and then we'll talk plans. I'm not above killing him before he has the chance to test his Semblance on either of us."

/-/

"It's a no."

"What do you mean it's a no?"

"I mean that he's not interested," Carmine said. "Neither of them are. They saw through me the second I approached them and had their guards up. There wasn't anything I could do."

Jax Asturias slammed his fist down on the table. "Damn it, Carmine. Do you not realise what he could offer-?"

"Brother." Gillian's voice was as sharp as her eyes and never failed to make Jax flinch. Carmine hid a smile. "I'm sure Carmine did the best she could. She has never failed to give it her all, so I won't have you shouting at her for something that is not her fault."

"Well she's clearly failed on some level," he argued. "Jaune Ashari-Schnee. With the backing of the Schnee Dust Company we'd be unstoppable. Try again. Harder. Seduce him if you have to-"

"He's not interested." Carmine insisted. There were times when Jax was like this, too stubborn and lost in self-belief to even think he might be wrong. "I'm the one who talked to him. I tried. I flirted. From the second I appeared, he was on guard. He's not someone who trusts easily."

"There you have it," Gillian said, always the more reasonable of the twins. "Not everything will go to plan, Jax. We'll simply have to adapt."

"No! Malik would not have let an opportunity like this pass, and neither shall I." He rose, lips peeling back into a wide smile. "If he won't see reason then we'll just have to make him see reason."

"He's allied to Beacon." Carmine warned. "Qrow Branwen will-"

"Branwen is an alliance of convenience. Nothing more. Besides, they want to find this missing woman of theirs – that will be the perfect opportunity to take him."

"He knows about your Semblance."

Jax froze, snarled and rounded on her. "You told him!?"

"Qrow told him!"

"Jax." Gillian warned. "Control yourself. Carmine is our loyal subject and has done her best to see our will done. Never has there been a better supporter, and your anger doesn't do you or the crown credit. Continue, Carmine."

"He knows about your Semblance and he's on edge about it. I tried to spin it in your favour but he's paranoid. I doubt he's going to agree to meet with you, and he's definitely not getting close enough for you to affect. I think we should leave him be. I know he's a great steal, but there's way too much risk. Upset him and it'll be the SDC, Beacon and more coming down on us."

"Do you think we can't take them?" Jax demanded arrogantly.

"For the love of Vacuo, Jax, stop!" Gillian did not often raise her voice, and the sudden yell had Jax recoiling angrily. "It is one thing to be confident about our chances, another thing to be delusional. We don't need more enemies. Let us focus on Vacuo first and then consider more later. There's no point declaring war on half the world on the off-chance we can take him."

"Malik wouldn't have-"

"Malik is dead and gone. His empire as sundered as his name. Even if it wasn't, you're not Malik."

Jax bristled. "I am descended of him-"

"We both are, but that doesn't make us him and the same things he did wouldn't work now. The world is different, and we need to adapt." Shaking her head, Gillian addressed Carmine. "Let Ashari go for now. There's no point poking a sleeping Goliath. Help Rosa and Argento with the search. We may as well try and find this person for them and reap what rewards we can. The lien will be put to good use."

Carmine nodded, relieved. This was why she followed Queenie, and why she secretly wished it was just her. So much more reasonable, so much more realistic. If Jax had been alone in ruling them, they would have died in a wild assault on the Kingdom years back.

"There is one thing," she said. "Bertilak has been approaching him on the side. Ashari was as suspicious of that as I was – suggested you had him approach if the soft touch didn't work. Did you…?"

"I did not ask Bertilak to speak with him," Gillian said. "Did you, brother?"

Still angry, Jax bit out a quick "No."

"I will speak with Bertilak when I next see him," Gillian said. "It may be nothing or, knowing him, he may be trying to solve their little problem and pocket the money himself. A quick reminder of what he stands to gain should have him back on track."

"Or you could drain his aura and let me take him," Jax said.

"Yes, and the moment he senses that happening he will try and kill us, as would anyone in their right mind. No, Jax, your Semblance is useful, but we can't rely on it for every little problem."

"It's the strongest Semblance on Remnant."

"It may well be but that doesn't change the point. Too many eggs in one basket. What happens if you are injured and all our thralls decide to turn on us?"

"Easy. I order them to slit their throats."

Carmine shivered, more bothered by the callous sadism than she cared to admit. It wasn't what he said but the way he said it, with an almost hidden degree of glee. Jax Asturias wasn't a madman, but he could become one. Of that she was sure. There was just a subtle wrongness to him, one that Gillian had managed to keep in check all these years.

"Let's avoid a mass slaughter if we can, brother. There's not much point ruling over a Kingdom of dead people."

"Fine!" Jax moved out from the table and away. "Do what you wish. Just remember that I wanted us to claim him for our ends, so don't come whining to me if things don't go our way." He stomped away, furious beyond belief.

It was becoming an increasingly common occurrence lately, even though things were going well for Crown.

"Forgive him." Gillian said. "He's impatient."

"He's going to be a problem." Carmine said. She wouldn't have dared say it in front of him but Queenie, she could trust her. "I think he's going to try for Ashari and Branwen whatever you say, Queenie. All the success we're having is going right to his head."

"He's excited that our plans may finally be coming to fruition."

You only see the best in him, she wanted to say. Queenie was always like that, always so soft and quick to side with her brother despite that she was the real brains of the operation. You deserve to rule more than he ever could, so why don't you see that?

"I will speak with my brother. I'll approach him in private and calm him down, don't you worry. Our guests will be gone soon on their merry way, and then we won't have to worry about them any longer."

Damn it. Jax was going to get them in trouble if he went after Ashari.


Next Chapter: 28th November

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