Lord Bahwell signed the travel advisory for the northeast roads with a flourish of his pen, happily completing the cover up of the two dozen slain criminals that were in Captain Theen’s charge. It had taken some convincing of the priest in charge of the Rose Etching that Lord Bahwell’s proclamation of a Black Rose for every member of the criminal organization was merited. Happily, there were in fact cases where Nigeman’s underlings had killed someone, and Bahwell was able to push guilt by association and culpability after the fact. If Bahwell had not been able to get those men adorned with the Black Rose, then it would have been impossible to kill them in such a clean manner, without sacrificing Theen at least, since he was the one the convicts were temporarily contracted to.
And with the ledger destroyed, and Nigeman’s home swept for any lingering evidence, there was no longer any proof on Meaorh that Lord Bahwell had any hand in the dealings of Nigeman, or rather, the ambitious vassal that Lord Bahwell had take up the name of Nigeman. There was, of course, Colonel Braug. But it was of little importance since the conversation with his cat kin underling had made it clear the Colonel would not be pursuing any criminal investigation of the matters, even while making obvious that he knew of Lord Bahwell’s involvement in the criminal enterprise. Lord Bahwell was entirely convinced that Colonel Braug would only be interested in demanding a potential political favor in the future. And as long as it was the realm of politics, Lord Bahwell had no doubt that he’d turn matters to his advantage.
It may have taken a while due to his standings at birth, but as a member of the Civic Faction by blood, Lord Bahwell had to be the public face of the government from an early age, and dealing with construction groups while overseeing public works projects. He had an enormous amount of experience in looking further into the future than his opponents, and maneuvering them to bring about the chain of events he so desired. And with all his minor accomplishments piled up, Lord Bahwell had obtained his honorary title and the city he resided in.
Finding the inherent value in everything was in Bahwell’s nature. Even people. And his senses told him that the people of Rogert no longer held any value for him. Nigeman’s activities had been widespread and deeply felt in Rogert, which made them profitable. Now that Nigeman was dead, any attempt to replicate the previous business structure would be too recognizable. It would be dangerous to initiate a new extortion operation. No, the people of Rogert held no value. The city of Rogert on the other hand, did have a potential value, should it be used for a new smuggling route. There were always economic sanctions and high tariffs on luxury items that could be exploited for quick profit. All it would take were the right people, the right locations, and the right business structure. And Lord Bahwell was very skilled with all three matters.
Lord Bahwell mused lightly over his future business operation as he picked up the next matter that required his attention that morning. A file on the operations of the 78th platoon that Lord Bahwell had requested to be transmitted over beacon. Lord Bahwell now owed a person in the Military Faction a favor for the report, but it was a small price to pay to make sure that Colonel Braug’s orders required he not interfere with Lord Bahwell’s city. While it would have been easy to just write Colonel Braug off as unthreatening, a political animal like Bahwell liked to be certain of his position where others were concerned.
Besides, Bahwell would most likely be able to pay off the debt with some uncustomed alcohol from his future smuggling operations. Those in the military faction tended to enjoy drinking their vices.
As Lord Bahwell read the 78th platoon’s file, his eyebrows ended up lifting of their own accord and the information pushed all thoughts of his new business from his mind. Bahwell read the report twice again, and then triple checked the roster of personnel. No matter how he looked at it, there was no doubt the calico cat kin was listed there. The roster had to be accurate. But that accuracy conflicted with all the rest of the report. It was… interesting. And unusual. Enough so that Bahwell could not immediately discern the value of the information. And as such, the matter weighed on his mind for hours. Until a report of new arrivals to the city reached him while he was distractedly eating lunch with his wife and a well to do merchant couple.
It was then that Lord Bahwell decided on the value of the information he’d just received. A natural smile took the place of his diplomatic one and Bahwell ended the meal with a true appetite. Once the boorish merchant couple had departed, Lord Bahwell happily wrote out an invitation that should yield enormous benefit.
* * * * *
As the fourth child of a noble, Knight Lieutenant Vilos Clauden had few choices for his future. Luckily he’d been born with something of an aptitude for Physical Reinforcement, and hard training had honed his skill to be as sharp as the edge of his Noblesse Sword. A sword he continued using even after the rather pronounced transformation of the Seventh Knight Squadron after Knight Captain Mur had taken the role of leadership five years before. At the time, the appointment had seemed the most blatant act of shameless nepotism, placing a fifteen year old child in command of His Majesty’s Seventh Squadron. But the armed and armored child had proven that few were truly born equal.
Vilos had seen many things in his service, survived many expeditions, but seeing that fifteen year old child fight on the front lines made his blood run cold, and the accurate orders given during the expedition beyond the Four Brothers had earned his respect. After having earned his promotion under Captain Mur to the rank of Lieutenant, his loyalty to his Captain was beyond question. Even if the Captain could end up acting like a child sometimes.
“I’m not going,” said the Captain as he stomped up the stairs of the rather questionable inn the Captain and twenty of the knights were lodging in. The kitchen staff seemed to have fresh bruising Vilos recognized as being from fisticuffs, and the proprietor said something about not wanting them to steal his doors during the checking in process. It was at that time the invitation arrived from the town’s Lord, requesting the Captain’s presence.
Vilos chased Captain Mur up the stairs, already resigned to having to plead some sense into his commanding officer who was over ten years younger than himself. After escaping the intrusively loud reverberating thumps of the two fully armored knights climbing the stairs, Vilos began imploring.
“Captain, it won’t do to ignore the invitation of a Lord, no matter how removed from the capital he may be.”
“Still not going,” said Mur, whose voice reverberated inside the helmet.
Vilos had to speak up for his begging to overcome the rhythmic clunking of their combined armor on the floorboards and the slung halberd slapping against the backside of the Captain’s breastplate.
“It is part of your duty as the squadron’s Captain to accept invitations like these. It is military tradition, and even you can’t do anything about that.”
“I can ignore it,” said Mur tersely.
“Not without repercussions to the squadron.”
“You can go in my place.”
“I’m afraid not, since the invitation was directly addressed to you.”
“You can go pretending to be me.”
Vilos had to roll his eyes. While he was still a thin man in combat fitness, there was no way anyone could mistake him for Captain Mur, who held a singular physique. The Captain’s Physical Reinforcement magic was so powerful that the person himself looked like he didn’t have any real musculature on his thin and lithe frame. The armor encasing the knight captain was so slim around the captain’s thin tube of a body and elongated limbs that it was unlikely that anyone else would ever be able to wear it in combat. So the thought of Vilos masquerading as his captain would have been laughable if his ranking officer had not been completely serious.
“I highly doubt that I would be able to fool the Lord, Captain.”
“Then let’s just say you lost the invitation and I never got it,” said Mur, as he inserted the key into the door lock of his room and twisted it.
“Captain, the messenger saw you standing right next to me when I accepted the invitation from him, and then read it aloud.”
The door lock clicked open, but Mur held the pose for a long moment before saying, “Still not going.” The Captain then smoothly pulled out the key, opened the door, and then shut it behind him while entering the room. Vilos slammed the door open with a palm before his Captain could lock it from the inside.
Vilos’ complaint was cut short as Mur struck his breastplate with his armored finger. A spark flew and Vilos felt like he’d been struck by a mailed fist instead of a finger, bringing his advance to a halt.
“You know how much I hate the nobles games, Vilos. And this stinks like one of them.”
“…Even though we practically mobilized at your parent’s request?”
Mur removed the finger from Vilos’ chest, and pointed it threateningly like it would strike the man up the nose and into his brain. Which was something Captain Mur was strong enough to actually do.
“That’s different, and you know it. Heredity is everything.”
Vilos had been born into the Noble Faction and employed in the Military Faction. And he knew enough about both to be equally disgusted with all the factions in the governing of Fulchas. Tamping down on his emotions, Vilos said pointedly, “Spoken like a diehard of the Noble Faction, Captain.”
“Euugh,” said Mur, disgusted by the comparison while turning around to survey the room. Then said “Euuuugh,” again, disgusted by the room. This did not go unnoticed by Vilos who said, “Perhaps we would be able to convince the Lord to extend more amicable lodgings for us while we are in the city?”
Captain Mur stood as still as a statue with his armored hands on his hips for a while, obviously weighing the levels of disgust that each of his options held before finally saying, “Fine. I’ll go. But I’m not changing clothes.”
* * * * *
The lord’s estate was more impressive than it should have been, which caused Vilos to quietly comment about the situation to his Knight Captain after they had relinquished their weapons to some of Lord Bahwell’s guards. Mur merely grunted in reply, but the tone of which held the intention for the both of them to be wary. Because both knights understood that no country lord could have such a well decorated manor without some outside funding, and that meant the man might be backed by a greater power than himself. Even if he wasn’t, there was every reason to tread carefully where the politics of Fulchas were concerned.
Though Vilos, was distracted when he returned a smile given by one of the maids as she passed them by in the hallway. The five foot, ten inch man looked taller in his armor and his travel tossed blond hair painted him as something close to a wild man who was equal parts playboy, an idea that resonated with many women. It was not too far from the truth, as his own upbringing had led him to believe that domestic life was for suckers. Vilos’ brown eyes followed the skirt of the departing maid for a moment before turning his eyes back to the front, a smile of self satisfaction hanging on his lips.
Soon, the two escorted knights reached a set of double doors that a guard knocked lightly on with his gauntleted knuckles. The word “Enter” was heard from the other side and two guards opened a door each, leading the way into the office, slash, audience chamber of the city’s lord. The refreshingly handsome middle aged man sitting behind the desk rose to his feet, proclaiming welcomes as he came around to shake the hands of his guests, implying that he had no need to be frightened of approaching the two knights. Or rather, Captain Mur, as it was obvious the lord only considered Vilos as an honor guard as he granted the Knight Lieutenant a single politician’s smile before gushing friendliness and sunshine all over the Captain. Captain Mur, on the other hand, merely grunted and ignored the outstretched handshake.
The lord did a good job of pretending that he did not care about the lack of reciprocation from his guest, and gestured for the captain to be seated in a luxurious chair in front of his heavy wooden work desk. Mur sat down as though the padded silk chair was an unwelcome inconvenience. Fearing for his guest’s comfort, the lord asked if his guests would like to remove some of their armor. Even if it was just the helmut. The proposal was flatly refused with the single word of, “No.”
Lord Bahwell moved back to his side of the desk and then started on an accolade of his domain being so blessed for one such as Captain Mur to visit, blah, blah, blah…
“Lord Bahwell, correct? Get to the point. I have a squadron to rest and supply, and frankly, you’re wasting the military’s time right now.”
Mur spoke with a directness that was all but absent in the polite circles of Fulchas’ government, and even the less polite circles. Lord Bahwell accepted the thinly veiled impatience of Captain Mur, as he had merely been sounding out the Knight Captain, this being their first meeting. And cut to the matter at hand.
“I have recently come into possession of information that may be of great benefit to either the Royal Faction, or the Military Faction of Fulchas, and I am somewhat confused about who to report it to. You being directly connected to both Factions, Captain Mur, would undoubtedly have a better idea of who the information would be more appreciated by.”
Mur’s eyes narrowed. Then turned to look over his shoulder at the two lord’s guards that were flanking his own Knight Lieutenant near the sealed double doors. Catching this movement, Lord Bahwell said convivially, “If you wish for your escort to wait outside, I would be most understanding.”
“…I’m more worried about your own men,” said Mur bluntly.
“There is no reason to fear loose tongues from these men. They are amongst my more trusted retainers.”
Mur waited silently for Bahwell to get on with matters, then feeling like he was waiting for something, Mur finally said, “Get on with it.” The captain had a squadron to see to after all, and time was an expensive resource.
“Recently, Colonel Braug-” Mur’s focus was entirely placed on Lord Bahwell like a snake eyeing a meal- “had entered my territory along with a unit under his command.”
“His stay was short and without incident. However, his presence was unexplained and unusual enough for me to make a discreet inquiry.”
“Why, whatever orders had brought the Colonel to my domain of course,” said Bahwell with a small theatrical flourish. He had the attention of his guest now and wished to gauge their reaction to the information in his possession.
“And what did you find,” came the toneless inquiry from Mur. Even and lifeless, as though on the edge of boredom or impatience.
“Nothing,” said Bahwell. Mur seemed to settle back into the chair slightly with the loss of energy that disappointment brought. “Because the 78th platoon was completely wiped out during an expedition three seasons ago.”
“…Are you saying that some criminals are impersonating the lost 78th?”
“Unfortunately, the answer is not so simple,” said Bahwell as he pulled the file on the 78th platoon from under a few sheets of paper, and opened it to the roster of soldiers that were confirmed slain in action. “For I had the occasion to speak face to face with a soldier of the ‘false’ 78th platoon who had been confirmed, and certified, dead.”
“That is easily explained away as a conman, or mistaken identity, Lord Bahwell.”
“Not with a catkin of this description. Being a military officer, you know how detailed the descriptions of our serving men and women are for record keeping. And the description of this woman was an exact match, even down to the pattern of colors in her hair. There is no doubt this is the same woman.”
“Then you suspect desertion? If so, then it is a simple military-”
“Captain Mur, once again, I must use the words, ‘certified dead.’ The military itself had guaranteed the demise of this woman and her unit. The Holy Fulchas Army could not make such a mistake if this were a simple desertion.”
“So, I’m sure you see my point. I have a living corpse that has passed through my lands, and I have no idea who to inform about it. Since the military was the one who accidentally proclaimed the living to be dead, they may wish to be informed of their mistake. But then again, I’m sure Captain Mur’s parents would be equally, or perhaps even more interested, in information about just such an ‘error.’ Therefore, I was hoping you, Captain Mur, would be willing to offer your opinion on the matter.”
Captain Mur tilted his head forward, as though lost in thought. Mur’s eyes then lifted up without moving the head to look at Bahwell as he asked, “Who else knows all this? If you want a good price, I will need to have accurate numbers for the bribes that need to be paid.”
Lord Bahwell smiled heartily as he closed the cover on the report. Not only at the prospect of a payout, but at the opportunity for blackmail in the future. For no matter which of the two factions Captain Mur delivered the information about the military’s actions to, it would mean the captain’s betrayal of the other. Such a bit of information, used carefully, could open enormous opportunities down the line. Especially when one considered who Captain Mur’s parents were.
“Only I myself possess this knowledge, Captain; and the other people in this room, of course.”
“Good. I believe you, Lord Bahwell.”
“Excellent. Then who were-”
Lord Bahwell’s delight over his negotiations were shattered in the same way his spine was when Captain Mur lunged forward and rammed Bahwell’s work desk into the wall behind it with Bahwell trapped in between. As Bahwell’s midsection was destroyed, he flopped forward onto his desk, breathless from the impact and from shock. He had no time to suffer his demise though as Mur’s gauntleted fist came down and shattered his skull, using the desktop like the surface of a struck anvil. Mur picked up the file that only had a few stray drops of blood spray on it and took a closer look as he turned around and leaned his rear end on the edge of the desk to take a better look at the contents.
Mur wasn’t worried about the two guards in the room, as from the sound of things, Vilos had already finished cleaning them up. Vilos’ dispatch of the two guards had been as fast as Captain Mur’s execution of Bahwell. With the speed of his Physical Reinforcement, it had been easy for Vilos to snatch the hilt of one of the guards’ swords while they were at ease, and cut through the throat of the guard on his opposite side. With a quick shuffle step, Vilos was able to face the surprised guard who’d been deprived of his weapon and impale him through the heart. A quick twist of the blade, and the sound of the guard’s breastplate being rent, and both the guards were dead.
Vilos left the impaling sword where it was to draw the sword of the guard whose throat had been cut and stated, “We’re going to need a charge to validate these deaths, Captain.”
Mur disinterestedly said, “Then make one up.”
Vilos took a deep breath as he looked around the room and said, “Corruption should be easy enough. Bribing an officer. Sedition. I could probably go on…”
“It’s fine,” said Mur as he leaned forward and stood up from the desk’s edge. “From here we will confine the guards and household, and question them. If they know any details about Braug and the 78th, they will be dealt with. Have a number of the squadron bunk in this manor as well for security. And find a spare bedroom for me.”
“Yes, Captain. But may I ask,” said Vilos with a hint of amusement in his voice, “Didn’t you say you believed Bahwell about his secrecy measures?”
“I did. I do. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t mistaken.”
“True,” replied Vilos who’s hint of amusement had flared into an honest smile. “Now, shall we see if the guards outside these doors will accept your judgement?”
Captain Mur wordlessly flexed his armored shoulder, and put the hand that was not holding the military report on the double door’s handle. If one were to look into Mur’s ice blue eyes, they might see anticipation within them.
* * * * *
Well, I can’t say they were looking at me with eyes of anticipation, but the former soldiers I’d had gathered around the food supply wagon I was standing on were at least curious. And that’s the best an actor could really hope for, I suppose, an audience that was paying attention. So, with that, I cleared my throat and started my speech that I’d put little effort into planning.
“So, first, I haven’t said this yet, but I wanted to thank everyone for their excellent performance in Rogert a few days ago. I already singled out a few people, but really, everyone did a good job, except Mercy, and I wanted to let you know I appreciated it. We never would have gotten as far as we have if everyone hadn’t pitched together and… I’m starting to sound like that guy from The Office now. So, on to the important point. Janette and I have finished taking an inventory of funds and we have enough leeway to give a preliminary sharing out of wages before we hit Arsktun and can turn our gold coins and gems into Sul.”
This news was well received by the crowd. In fact, there seemed to be a lot of… surprise? Wait, did these guys think I wasn’t going to be paying them wages?
“Hey, did you guys think I wasn’t going to be paying, or something?”
I suppose I couldn’t keep my indignation out of my voice, as the chattering kind of ended pretty quickly. One of the soldiers, um, a guy with sandy red hair and freckles on his nose lifted his arm and said, “What with us being enslaved now, I don’t think any of us were expecting to get paid a Sul, Boss. I mean, we’re technically your slaves, now.”
What was his name? Raymond Something?
“Well, Raymond. Can I call you Ray?” I didn’t wait for an answer. “Well, Ray, whatever you guys think your social status is, you guys are all in my employ. And while I’m not able to pay you appropriately given our being on the run for our lives at the moment, I sure as hell would not be asking you guys to work for free. That would just be exploitation.”
That, and I wanted these guys happy. Loyalty can’t be bought, but it can be rented.
“So, everybody line up in front of the crate and Janette will share out fifteen Sul each. Make the money last, because it’s all you’ll be getting until we reach the trade city. Including you, Ray… See? Sim? Soh?”
“Sedonen,” the man said, a little weirded out by my trying to remember his name aloud.
“Ray Sedonen. Got it. So, line up everyone, and put some clinkity-clink in your pockets.”
There was a buzz of happy excitement as everyone formed a single file line and some rather loud contentment as they walked away from the crate with heavier pockets. I was glad to have this out of the way since it had been on my to-do list since we were still traveling beyond the Four Brothers, and it felt good to have it off my back. And speaking of things on my to do list, I walked up to a happy Callic who was doing some low key flirting with Iyleen and said, “Hey, Callic. I need some sparring practice. You wanna partner up with me?”
“What,” he asked back, his good mood instantly gone.
“I need live combat practice, and I figure fighting you would be a good place to start.”
Callic was unlikely to hold back in sparring, even with the Enslavement. He was a good candidate for getting a feeling for life and death battle.
“That’s not gonna happen,” said Callic flatly.
“Uh, Callic, you’re enslaved to me, and I’m telling you what I want from you. I’m pretty sure you’re suppose to do what I tell you to.”
“Not when you’re an idiot who’s trying to skip a bunch of steps.”
Okay, that’s weird. It’s like Callic was almost, kinda, sorta trying to give some advice there.
“What are you talking about, Callic? And without the insults for now.”
Callic rolled his eyes and asked Iyleen to make herself scarce.
“Look, buddy,” said Callic, keeping the insults out of things but not the attitude. “Have you ever once used Physical Reinforcement on purpose?”
“Maybe?” Callic stared at me like he was waiting for me to stop being a dick. He’d have to wait for a long time, though. Instead I just asked, “What makes you think I don’t use it on purpose?”
“The dent in Nigeman’s armor,” Callic said instantly. “It was the perfect shape of a boot print. I wasn’t there for the fight, but I hear you and he had something of a close match for a while.”
“And if you were capable of denting a guy’s armor like that whenever you wanted, the fight shouldn’t have been anything like a close match. You’d have walked all over the guy. It was the same thing when you fought those three yokels who stomped you into the dirt in that basement in the inn. A few of your movements were faster and stronger, were enhanced, but for the most part, you only had physical power backing your movements.”
My eyeballs wandered a little as I said, “I… actually wasn’t trying to use any Physical Reinforcement in the basement.”
“Exactly,” said Callic, as a statement and not an exclamation. “You don’t have any control over your own magic.”
“Hey, I can fire, like, three of those air daggers at the same time now.”
“I meant your internal magic, nitwit.”
“Just so we’re clear,” I nodded in assent.
Callic rolled his eyes and said, “Anyway, that’s why you’re not gonna be sparring with anyone until you learn to control your damn magic. You’d just hurt yourself or someone else.”
“Alright, then train me in that,” I said without any shame. I just wanted to get stronger and learning always went faster with a teacher.
“Really? You think it’s that simple? We spend the first month in basic training on learning Physical Reinforcement. It’s hard work that requires a lot of concentration, and something tells me you don’t have the stones for it.”
Callic was posturing now as though he had a pair of six shooters on his belt. I wasn’t going to be daunted though.
“I’ve played Monopoly with my grandparents and put together ten thousand piece puzzles before, Callic. I can do concentration.”
“I have no idea what any of that means. But if you’re sure you wanna train your Physical Reinforcement, I suppose I could be bothered to help you along a little. If you’re sure, that is.”
“As sure as the fact that your face makes children cry.”
“Great! I’ll wake you up bright and early for training,” said Callic, completely ignoring my dig and walking away with a bright smile on his face.
Wait. What? Bright and early? But… I like sleeping. Did Callic just play me?
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