Chapter 9 - Rising Tensions
When we arrived at the Merchant's Guild, Hyacinth approached one of the clerks and asked if her usual contact was in. After receiving confirmation, the two of us headed up to the second floor of the building. We passed by numerous open offices, where there were people studying complicated sheets, loudly arguing over things, and having nervous breakdowns. Huh, this place reminds me of my old office. It's nice to see that desk work looks the same no matter where you go.
Lucas was a thin man whose features reminded me of an elderly hawk. He was dressed simply for a merchant, with subdued colors and no jewelry except for a wedding ring on his left hand. If you saw him on the streets, you would think him to be a quiet scholar or librarian instead of someone working in trade. However, I could tell that the fabric of his clothing was fairly expensive. It looked as soft as velvet. Perhaps it's made of silk, or this world's equivalent of it?
"Hey Lucas." Hyacinth casually greeted him, plopping down onto the empty chair facing the merchant's table.
I remained standing near the doorway in shock. Good grief, her ability to make herself at home was amazing.
"Welcome back, Ms. Hyacinth." Lucas didn't seem to mind her lack of manners at all. He's probably used to it. "I have inspected the contents of your new shipment. Excellent work as always, though there were some that appear to have been made by someone else?"
"Yeah. Thomas, get over here." She gestured for me to approach. I walked over to the right side of her chair.
"Ah, is this the apprentice you were bragging about so much last time?" Lucas asked while looking at me curiously.
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Lucas. I am Thomas of Southcreek." I bowed.
"Such manners! Well met, young one. Have you been teaching him etiquette as well, Hyacinth?"
"As if I would be bored enough to do that." My teacher rolled her eyes.
"Indeed, what was I thinking... if you taught him how to behave, it would ruin the poor boy's future." Lucas responded in a dry voice.
Pfft. I stifled my laughter, causing Hyacinth to glare at me in pretend anger.
"This kid here is a natural. A genius at potion making." Hyacinth then said, placing a hand on my shoulder. "If I had the means to send him to the capital, he might even become a true alchemist one day."
Alchemy was the next step for master herbalists. When you start adding ingredients like Troll's Blood or Harpy Feathers to your formulae, it can dramatically boost the power of your potions. But the difficulty level was far higher; a single mistake can turn your brew into a lethal poison. Only two or three out of a hundred herbalists have the natural talent to learn this dangerous trade. The cost of education and monster ingredients made it even more restrictive.
"Oh? That's very high praise, coming from you." Lucas said with his eyebrows raised. "Though I see your point. The boy is so young, yet the potions he made can compare to the work of a fairly experienced apothecary."
That's because I have one hell of a cheat. I rarely ever mess up now that I have Novice Proficiency. How big of a difference would the next stage make?
"My talent isn't much. I owe it all to my teacher." I said humbly. This was also true. Hyacinth has spent countless hours training me without expecting anything in return.
"Hah! Hear that, Lucas?" Hyacinth said, grinning proudly. "I'm the best."
"Yes yes, you are truly amazing." Lucas said in a voice drier than the desert. "Now then, let's move on to more important matters..."
The negotiations were surprisingly short. Lucas and my teacher had long ago agreed on prices for her work, so that only took a few minutes to go over. It was my part of the shipment that needed to be discussed. Eventually, they agreed on a price that was much higher than I really expected. I ended up getting over fifty silvers from that one shipment. My teacher would later tell me that Lucas gave us a good deal because he hopes to keep my business too in the future.
"We look forward to gaining another associate of your caliber, Hyacinth." Lucas said while smiling.
"That day will come sooner than you think. Thomas is gaining on me every day." She smirked.
* * *
The discussion then turned to recent events, such as the rise of monster activity in Lumor.
"Do you not mind Thomas hearing about this? He seems a bit young..." Lucas said hesitantly.
"It's fine. This brat is more mature than most adults I've met." Hyacinth answered dismissively. "I sometimes worry that he's possessed."
"Well, fine. A troubling rumor has emerged over the past two weeks..." Lucas began, his brows furrowed. "They say that someone is manipulating the monsters."
"That's not much of a surprise. Only an idiot would think that this was a natural event." Hyacinth said.
"Yes, but there have been a few survivors of the attacks. They say that the one controlling them... is a knight of the Bulirin Kingdom."
"What!?" She instantly shot up in her seat. "That's preposterous! There's no way Bulirin would use monsters!"
This continent is split up into three equally large territories. Elswain rules the east, Lumor is in the west, and to the north was the Bulirin Kingdom. There have been many wars in the past between all three countries; borders regularly shift as each nation gains or loses, so diplomatic relationships were quite icy. Right now we had a fragile peace, which was maintained by the fear of one country growing much stronger than the others and becoming the dominant force.
But why did Hyacinth look so agitated at the claim that Bulirin is behind these atrocities? Our relationship with them was worse than with Lumor in recent years.
Lucas shook his head. "I don't believe it either. However, the survivors swear that the knight was wearing Bulirin's colors and was controlling the creatures through a strange magic orb. Lumor is on edge right now, looking for something to blame for the attacks, so most people there have jumped on these claims."
"And how has Bulirin responded?" I asked curiously.
"They denied it, of course." Lucas answered. "Quite furiously. They are now lashing back, accusing Lumor of using their own incompetence at monster subjugation as a pretext for war."
Hyacinth just shook her head, sinking back into her seat. "I suppose that the warmongers on both sides are making noise?"
"Of course. It doesn't help that many of Lumor's border villages were attacked, yet not a single Bulirin property has been targeted yet. Tensions are rising between the two every day."
"Wait, do you think that there are any Lumor refugees in Bulirin lands right now?" I asked, a terrible idea coming to my head.
"Most likely, given that it is nearer than... ah. Oh dear." Lucas seems to have realized what I was implying.
"If Bulirin citizens grow angry enough at the accusations, it might not be long before some of those people get hurt." Hyacinth said darkly.
"That could be enough to spark the war, huh?" I sighed.
* * *
The mood within the office was noticeably gloomy from that point onwards. Thus, it wasn't long before Hyacinth decided that we should return to the inn.
But just as we were getting ready to leave, there was a short knock on the door. Two people entered; one was a heavily armored knight with a giant broadsword, and one was a short, fat man with a frog-like face. The man was dressed in gaudy silk clothing of many different colors. Is he a noble or a jester? The massive gold signet ring on his left held a coat of arms, however, so I can only assume it's the former.
"Hello, Lucas." The short nobleman said, smiling. "Pardon if we are interrupting something."
Lucas immediately rose to his feet. "Not at all, Lord Humfort, Guard Captain Alvaros. Please come in."
What!? What was the baron doing here-
Oh. This is probably related to that stunt I pulled earlier, isn't it? I looked at Hyacinth, and saw that she was looking at the baron with interest. But she didn't get up from her seat to greet him. This woman... she's probably shameless enough to not hold the Elswain King in any regard.
The guard captain looked somewhat pissed at Hyacinth's insolence, but he didn't speak. Baron Humfort also just kept smiling as he sat down on one of the chairs Lucas had prepared. Crap, this isn't going to be one of those events where a corrupt noble tries to imprison or execute us for treason, right? He looks like exactly the kind of person to do that. Will we have to flee for our lives? I immediately began looking for escape routes.
"Hey there Humfort. It's been a while." Hyacinth said casually.
...No title. Not even a "sir". I don't know whether to laugh or cry at my teacher's antics. At least she didn't use his first name. A vein popped on Captain Alvaros' forehead. But before he could say anything, Humfort himself spoke.
"Hello, Hyacinth. I am glad to see you doing well." Baron Humfort answered, chuckling. "My wife and daughter have been asking about you. Will you not visit the mansion one of these days?"
"Sure, but I have to look after my apprentice right now. Maybe on the next trip." My teacher answered with a smile. "Is little Sophia doing well these days?"
"Yes, she has made a miraculous recovery. Thank you again for your help back then."
"It was no big deal. Besides, Sophia's a sweet girl."
Alvaros and I were dumbfounded by this exchange. Lucas didn't look surprised at all, though, so it seems like he was aware of this unlikely relationship. Once my breathing calmed down a bit, I pieced things together from their conversation. Looks like the baron's daughter was very sick in the past, and Hyacinth helped save her. No wonder she dares to act this lax towards him.
Lucas politely excused himself from the room, saying something about getting tea. It seems like he sensed this won't be an ordinary conversation.
"Hello, Thomas. That is your name, correct?" Humfort then said, looking at me. "When I last met Hyacinth, she mentioned that she had taken in a talented apprentice."
Has this woman been bragging about me to everyone? I'm touched.
"Yes. I am Thomas of Southcreek, Lord Humfort. It is a pleasure to meet you." I bowed to him politely.
He laughed. "Odd, this fruit seems to fall far from the tree. Being Hyacinth's student, I half-expected you to be even wilder than her."
"He's a good kid." Hyacinth said proudly, as if it were her achievement.
"At any rate, Thomas, I believe you know why we are here." Humfort said. "May I take a look at your royal symbol?"
Ah, there it is.
Without a word, I pulled out the sword and handed it over to him - point facing towards me, of course. No need to make the captain antsy.
Baron Humfort carefully took the shining weapon and inspected it. He paid close attention to the bluish steel, the royal crest on the hilt, and most especially the name "WHITELAW" engraved on the edge. After a few minutes of silence, he nodded and handed it back to me.
"This is most definitely a genuine symbol, granted by one of the princes." Baron Humfort finally said. "Was this given to you by someone in your village?"
"Yeah. It's from his uncle, Southcreek's smith." Hyacinth answered in my place, right as I was wondering if I should tell the truth.
"Oh. Do you know the identity of the owner, Hyacinth?" Humfort then said in surprise. I took note of his use of the word 'identity'.
"Yes. It's not much of a secret, really. I would have told you if you asked before." She shrugged.
"I see." The baron looked troubled for a bit. Then he sighed, and turned towards me again. "I haven't heard the details, so I'd like to ask what happened earlier that you felt the need to display this to two of our guards."
"The two idiots were suspiciously vague on that part of the report." Captain Alvaros then chimed in, speaking for the first time.
After a short moment of hesitation, I began telling them the story of how I had seen the two guards arresting a child for stealing. Both Alvaros and Humfort had a look of concern, which changed to confusion, then anger. The baron seemed like he couldn't believe it when I told him about the pitiful state of the grandfather and child.
"I had specifically given my minister a budget of five gold coins - taken from my personal treasury - to use in housing and feeding any Lumor refugees that come to Bask." Humfort said, his voice dangerously low. "This is a diplomatic matter. Why am I only just now hearing about this?"
"Those two didn't mention it was a child from Lumor." Alvaros said, sounding just as angry.
Oh damn. It looks like this is more complicated than I thought. My initial belief was that the baron just didn't care about the Lumor citizens that had fled to his territory, but to think that it was something like this. Had the minister pocketed that small fortune, then used his power to cover it up? I may have stirred up something big. Hyacinth had a huge grin on her face, like she was watching the most fascinating show in the world.
"Looks like your minister has some explaining to do." My teacher remarked.
"Indeed he does. Thank you for bringing this to our attention, boy." Baron Humfort said. "You can rest assured that the two you met earlier - along with any other Lumor citizens in our territory - will be treated with appropriate care."
"I'll start the investigation once we get back." Captain Alvaros said.
With that, the unexpected meeting came to an end. Baron Humfort and Alvaros headed out first, then I and Hyacinth said goodbye to Lucas. It won't be long before we have to get back to Southcreek, so the two of us decided to return to the Three Legged Pony to rest for a while. There's been a bit too much excitement for a supposed-to-be routine visit to the Merchant's Guild.
"Hahaha! Great job kiddo, you may have just accidentally toppled one of the most powerful men in this town." Hyacinth laughed heartily.
"It's his fault for being so sloppy." I simply said. "If you're going to pocket public funds, don't leave any traces."
"That's much more cynical than I expected from you." She said, surprised.
I shrugged. "Do you think that the baron really didn't know anything about this, though?"
"Don't judge Humfort by his appearance. The guy loves luxury and has terrible fashion sense, but he's a better person than the vast majority of nobles." Hyacinth said as we walked. "He's a doting father who thinks of all citizens in this province as his children."
I nodded seriously. If that's the case, then perhaps he really did just trust the minister too much.
We would receive a letter from the Baron two weeks later. The investigation confirmed that his minister was embezzling funds from several projects - the relief fund for Lumor refugees was only a small one in comparison. It seems like he had tasked several corrupt guards with harrassing Lumor citizens to drive them out of town, and planned to just tell the Baron that he had relocated them to one of the outlying villages in the territory. But he didn't work fast enough. Funnily, the two guards we met had not been part of this scheme; it was pure coincidence that they caught the child thief, which is why they reported our encounter to the baron and captain without even realizing the implications.
After a failed escape attempt, the minister was imprisoned and all of his wealth was confiscated. His private residence, in particular, was used to temporarily house the twenty seven Lumor refugees that were currently staying in Bask. This news would eventually find its way back to the Lumor Kingdom, greatly improving the populace's opinion of Elswain. Though as a result, a larger number of people began escaping towards our kingdom instead of Bulirin.
This then put Bulirin on guard against us. They feared a potential alliance between Elswain and Lumor, making the volatile political situation even worse. The threat of war had somewhat engulfed our kingdom as well. And to think that all this happened because of one young thief and a meddlesome herbalist.
* * *
Baron Humfort sat in his study, rubbing his head in exhaustion. The mountain of reports in front of him seemed to have no end.
"Dear, don't overwork yourself." A stunningly gorgeous brunette massaged the weary baron's shoulders.
"I can't afford to slack off. Until I train a suitable replacement, I'll have to take on the minister's former duties as well." Humfort sighed.
"Our province won't fall overnight, you know. If you get sick, the people will only become more worried." His wife insisted.
"...You're right. I'll head to bed soon." The baron nodded. "There's just one more letter I have to send."
"Oh? To who?"
"The palace. High Templar Whitelaw has decided to reveal himself and is in good health. The third prince can finally stop worrying."