Raea and company walked down the streets under the gaze of all the sitting lizardmen. Most of them were thin and scrawny compared to the lizardmen in the army that had arrived under the banner of the greater demon. Raea frowned as she saw goblins and branded lizardmen kneeling in the mud beyond the general crowd. Their faces were dirty and flies buzzed around them. “Are those slaves?” she asked the chieftain. The bulky green lizardman’s tongue flickered as he turned his head to the side.
“Yes,” the chieftain said and nodded. “They come from the tribes we’ve defeated. The weak submit to the strong and we grow together.”
“There are children among them,” Raea said, blinking at a blue lizardman who was even tinier than Cleo. Its face was smudged and mud caked its legs, coming up to its thighs. Its eyes were glassy as it stared at the armored angels passing through, its mouth slightly parted. A grown lizardman smacked the back of its head, causing it to kneel and stare at the ground.
The chieftain nodded again. “Even children can weed the fields and sow the seeds. If they work hard enough, families can buy their freedom together and incorporate into our society.” The dirt road gradually changed into a stone walkway as the chieftain continued walking. The chieftain hesitated. “Except for the goblins. They can never buy their freedom.”
“That is appalling,” Raea said. The chieftain’s guards stiffened behind their group as they walked, but they didn’t have weapons in their hands. They had relinquished them as a show of peace.
“Is it?” the chieftain asked and whirled his body around, tilting his head at Raea as he walked backwards. “Then how do you describe what you angels do? I’ve heard the rumors.”
“We take you under our wing to improve the quality of your life. We are seeking to help you,” Raea said as her brow furrowed. “Ultimately, it improves your living conditions and the quality of your lives. Killing your neighbors and enslaving them to do your bidding is wrong.” Palan snorted, the sound muffled by his visor. Raea’s lips pursed as she shot a glance at Palan.
The lizardman chieftain’s laughter was dry as his eyes narrowed. “Do you really think we’re that stupid?”
“What do you mean?”
“You truly believe you’re improving the quality of our lives?”
“Of course,” Raea said and nodded. “Those words were decreed by the archangels of the council.”
“The same council that Anidun was on?” Palan asked. Raea frowned and ignored him.
“Then do you know what your council’s definition of improving is?” the chieftain asked as his lips curled, revealing a row of pointed teeth. The boulder that Anidun resided in grew larger in the horizon as they got closer to the center of the town. The majority of the doors had brown crosses painted on them. The ones that didn’t were open and creaking in the wind.
“I do not understand the question,” Raea said and drew her lips into a line. Her eyebrows creased slightly as the doors softly creaked, unsettling her. “Improving means to make better, correct? Then we are making your lives better. Imagine a society where everyone loves each other and no one goes hungry. There are no murders because no one covets others possessions and no one loses themselves to wrath. There would no longer be any wars over territory. That is the kind of environment we are striving to create. People would stop dying in vain.”
“Yes, yes,” the chieftain said and nodded as he glanced behind himself, careful not to trip over a rock while stepping backwards. “Instead, we can die while cutting down trees for you because it’s cheaper than feeding us. Your described environment is for you, not us.”
Raea blinked. “What do you mean?”
“Still feigning ignorance?” the chieftain asked and tilted his head. He wrinkled his nose and spat on the floor in front of Raea. “Our scouts have seen what you make our kind do. You force us to build your outposts and roads, working us to death. You don’t spare the women and children from heavy labor, yet you dare say our conditions are appalling. At least we feed our slaves. We recognize their use and acknowledge their purpose.”
The chieftain talked over Raea. His cheeks turned red as his chest expanded, making him nearly double in size. “At least we give them a chance to incorporate into our tribe. You angels act like we’re disposable and throw us away when we become weak. You think that we need you in order to survive when it’s the other way around. Without us, you’d be nothing. Improving the quality of our lives? Don’t feed me that crap.”
“I,” Raea said and frowned. Her eyes glistened as she broke eye contact and gazed at the chieftain’s feet. “That—”
“That is enough,” Owen said and placed his hand on Raea’s shoulder, shaking his head at her. “There is nothing left for either party to gain by continuing this conversation.” He faced the chieftain. “We came here to discuss terms, not to engage in a verbal conflict.”
The chieftain’s face faded back to green as his chest deflated. “For my people, I am willing to talk,” he said and nodded. “But I refuse to be treated as an inferior.” He whirled around, the tip of his tail narrowly missing Raea’s face, and marched towards his residence. Owen released Raea’s shoulder as she bit her lip. She clenched her hands before following after the lizardman.
“Lady Raea is too kind,” Gerome whispered to Carmella and shook his head. Cleo tilted her head upwards to look at him, her beady eyes unblinking. “Doesn’t she realize that halflings aren’t people? There’s no need to treat them as you would treat an angel. Why was she sent to the borderland?”
Carmella shrugged. “I, for one, am thankful that she was sent here. Any other lieutenant would have been wiped out by the greater demon,” she said and shot a glance at Palan. “You can hardly blame her for being naïve; she was raised in the capital after all. It makes sense that she is oblivious to common sense at times. I do not think she is of marriageable age either.” Carmella shook her head. She asked Palan, “What do you think?”
“I think only fools keep slaves. You’re just asking to be killed in your sleep,” he said and snorted. “To create the strongest city, you just have to make it the only city in existence.”
“I think Carmella was asking about Raea,” Gerome said. Cleo turned her head to stare at Palan while holding onto Emergency Victuals’ ears. The dire wolf looked slightly annoyed, but didn’t say anything as it licked its own nose with its tongue.
“I’m surprised she’s managed to live as long as she has,” Palan said and frowned. He hesitated as an image of Raea’s back standing over him appeared in his head. “But I suppose that’s a good thing.”
“What do you mean?” Gerome asked. The chieftain entered a house and Raea followed after him, frowning at the blood cross on the door.
Palan didn’t respond as he brushed past the three other angels and entered the residence. Gerome and Carmella glanced at each other before shrugging.