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Hands clasped behind her back, Oxart gazed out the large window in her office.

The window looked to the north, over the fields and to the desert beyond. Wheat glistened a golden brown in the dying light of the day. Corn stalks were high. Harvest would be soon. Over the next few weeks, the farmhands would reap the tall fields. A few weeks after that and there would be nothing left at all but scraps of straw. Rats and vermin would move in, taking their own bounty from the land. Soon after, priests would head out, blessing the land, asking Tenebrael for an even larger harvest the next year. Arcanists would follow close behind, erecting magic to keep pests away from the soon-to-be planted crops. Once the land was consecrated and prepared, the farmers would return to sow their seeds.

And the cycle would begin again.

Partially. A third of what Oxart could see would produce no usable crops this year. The wheat had been torched, trampled, and destroyed. Fields surrounded the city of Lyria, but this was still a sizable portion. The city, Oxart knew, kept some stores under stasis. Would it be enough? Doubtful. She had already heard whispers from her elder brother that the noble families were going to be required to give up a portion of their crops to Lyria. Her own family’s land might even be tapped, though she had hardly seen them since joining the city guard. She had never found much point to meeting with her family.

Most of her peers in the city guard were the same. For children of nobles who were far enough down the line, there were several common avenues one might take. Oxart chose the path of the knight, a defender of the city of Lyria. It was one of the most common professions for younger noble children. Commoners made up the majority of the city guard, of course. But anyone of any import was likely a noble of some sort. Far more dedicated individuals might renounce their nobility entirely and join the palace’s elite guard. Oxart hadn’t been willing to go quite so far. She only had the one older brother. If some tragedy befell him, she would be required to take his place as heir to the House Xelitu.

Turning away from the sight of the fields as the sun hid itself behind the rings in the sky, Oxart scowled at her desk. Papers were piling up again. When she had first considered the path of the knight, she had imagined a bit more glamor to it. Fighting! Action! Heroism! Parades! Honor! As it was, she worked through more paperwork in a single night than a proper scrivener did in a week. Which, perhaps, shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Scribes were in high demand and were another common profession for nobles low on the totem pole of succession. While there were occasional commoners in knightly positions, scribes were almost solely nobles. Mostly due to the simple fact that commoners were not typically very well learned. An illiterate scribe had little worth.

Still, Oxart thought as she sank into her chair and picked up her pen, better a night of paperwork than one of action. It had taken time to learn, but Oxart found she rather liked the doldrums and monotony. Playing the part of a scrivener meant that her men weren’t fighting. Weren’t dying. Nights like tonight, where there was nothing going on, no glory to be had, meant that everyone got to relax without fear or pain or death.

Oxart was not her men, however. She still had to concern herself with such things. Three of her men had perished today. All had been injured by the goblin weapons on the night the fields burned. Two were commoners. The third had been a noble. In their death, Oxart could hardly see a difference. All three had sacrificed their lives defending the city. None were less noble than any other in her eyes.

But her eyes didn’t matter so much in the grand scheme of things. The sad fact was that the two commoners would be handed over to Tenebrael’s priests where their bodies would be dumped into some hole in the ground while the noble needed to be returned to his family. House Knole. A minor noble House, but one nonetheless. His body would likely be interred within the family mausoleum, honored in some way.

Staring at the missive to House Knole that she had started earlier, Oxart wasn’t certain where she should go from here. This wasn’t the first such missive she had written. In the past week alone, a half-dozen had needed penning. But this one… it was more difficult for some reason. Krime of House Knole hadn’t died in combat. Those were the easiest missives to write. It was easy for a family to see the honor in a death in service of others. But he had died sick and in pain, trapped within a bed for nearly a week as poisons wracked his body. Though he fought just as hard as many others, his death would be seen as a sign of weakness.

Even that hadn’t stalled her hand.

It was the girl. Alyssa, she had named herself. A girl who claimed that she could have saved Krime’s life. A girl who had claimed that Krime’s menders had been worthy of treason from their care of the sick and injured. Under other circumstances, Oxart might have dismissed her claims, assuming her to be someone distraught at seeing death in front of her. But something about her demeanor made Oxart reconsider. Alyssa had been confident and spoke with clarity. The way she looked at the body, she was no stranger to death.

The short encounter with Alyssa played over and over again in Oxart’s mind. Could she have done something to save her men? Technically, yes. There were potions out there capable of healing most any wound. Spells as well, though spells were notoriously unreliable. Despite what Alyssa had claimed of the menders’ skill, Oxart trusted them to have tried proper healing spells. But potions… they were far too expensive. The city could not afford curing everyone. Not even a few. For that matter, neither could Oxart. She had sent a missive stating Krime’s delicate health the day after the attack, but she had received no response. In the five years she had been a captain of the city guard, only once had a noble family delivered a potion to an injured guardsman.

Krime, whatever burial he received, had been tossed away just as surely as the two commoners.

Perhaps that was a callous way of thinking. House Knole’s lack of response could have as many reasons as there were stars. Perhaps they had wanted to help, but lacked the funds. Or lacked the time to accrue materials. Or the missive had never reached them. Or maybe a vial of healing potion would arrive in the morning, just a day too late.

Regardless of whether they cared, the city certainly did not. Turning slightly to the other half of her desk, Oxart picked up a piece of parchment. Names. New recruits. Fourteen of her men had died in the battle. Another twenty had passed away in the care of the menders. Eighteen were still with the menders. And this list of new recruits was enough to replace every single one of them. Mostly commoners. Only seven were nobles.

Oxart could not honestly say that she was any better. She couldn’t remember every soldier who had perished under her command. She tried. But she didn’t succeed. Of the thirty-four who had died so far, she would be hard pressed to name every single one of them and they had only died in this past week. A month from now and she might not remember Krime at all. Not out of maliciousness, but simply because new events would steal the focus of her mind and memory.

In a year, it was doubtful that any but Krime’s family and close friends would remember him. In ten years? Probably less than that. A hundred years? Krime might as well have not existed. Oxart could only hope that he found peace and joy in Tenebrael’s embrace.

Shaking the morbid thoughts from her mind, Oxart turned her attentions to another matter that had been bothering her for a while. From its place chained at her hip, Oxart pulled a card from her tome of spells. “Message. Ipo. My office as soon as it is convenient.”

Message sent, Oxart turned her attention to the list of recruits. They would be coming to her in batches of about ten, the first of which would be arriving in the morning. Their backgrounds varied. Half of tomorrow’s batch were green, fresh out of the Central Garrison’s training camps. She would have to see for herself where their skill lay and possibly sequester them for further training, though that likely wouldn’t begin until the other batches had arrived so as to avoid repeating herself. Three had prior experience working as outpost guardsmen along the roads between Lyria and Pandora. She expected no problems from any of them. Outpost guards were well trained and frequently saw real combat with a variety of monsters, the exact types depended on where the outposts were stationed.

The last two had her frowning. One was a noble from House Davenport, a family owning a large swath of land with a city of the same name. A port city along the western coast with a cushy locale segregated from the majority of monster activity throughout the land. In other words, despite her list claiming that he had seven years of knightly experience, this noble likely hadn’t ever used his sword for anything productive. Something gave her the feeling that he would be trouble. And that was likely the final name on the list. A knight from Davenport. Not a noble, but likely a retainer to the House. Possibly even a retainer to the noble, which was what Oxart feared the most. From the list alone, it smelled like this noble wanted to get away from his corner of the world to see Lyria, the Grand City and was bringing his servant along. As if it were a vacation.

Oxart tried not to have preconceived notions, but she had a feeling that this individual would need some hammering down to set him in his place. She would not allow a rich princely-wannabe to endanger the rest of her men with cowardice and arrogance.

A welcome distraction barged into her office, breathing heavily and sweating enough for his short hair to be matted down around his head. He was still wearing his armor, though his helmet was off and held under one arm. Poor guy looked like he needed a rest. So Oxart waved a hand to the chair on the opposite side of her desk. He was a commoner, but Oxart didn’t disparage him for that. Rather, if only the entirety of her guardsmen could have been made up of commoners like Ipo. A hard worker. A good fighter. He had a level head on his shoulders.

It made her smile, though only just. Having memorized the schedules of all her men, Oxart knew that her Message had reached Ipo right as he was ending his shift at the gate. Despite her saying to come when convenient, he had clearly run all the way here. Though her smile slipped slightly as a wave of déjà vu hit her. Leaning slightly to the side, she checked to see if there were any harbingers of doom following him around. Thankfully, he was alone. Though she still had to ask, “Guardsman Ipo, anything to report?”

“No ma’am,” he said with a salute before following her gesture and taking his seat. “Horizon’s quiet tonight.”

“Good. I like quiet nights.” Someone else might have made small talk. Oxart skipped past pleasantries entirely. She had questions and she wanted answers. “The girl… The woman, Alyssa, the one you brought to me the night of the attack. She stopped by the menders’ tent earlier today looking for you.”

Ipo blinked twice, likely confused at the conversation topic. “Did she?” he eventually asked.

“No. That’s what she said. I haven’t discovered why she was there, though Mender Banfry was rather upset with how much she was harassing the menders. Claimed to know better ways of healing patients, though didn’t demonstrate an ability to do so because, in her words, she is just a lumber hauler.”

“A lumber hauler?”

“Is what she said.”

“That’s odd.”

Oxart leaned forward, resting her elbows on the few clear spaces of her desk. “Odd how? What do you know about her?”

“Not much,” he said, rubbing a hand through his hair. Frowning at the sweat on his hand, he wiped it off on his surcoat. “That night was the first night I ever encountered her and I haven’t seen her since. But she claimed to be a slaver that night. Had a number of monsters all in chains and was leading them out of the city. I almost—uh… never mind.”

“What is it, guardsman?”

Ipo pinched his eyes shut, regret lining his face. After a brief mental war with himself, he took a deep breath. “The elf she had with her caught my eye. I uh… offered to buy, but she wouldn’t sell. Said she already had a buyer that she couldn’t disappoint.”

“An elf,” Oxart said, voice flat.

“Yeah. Looked pretty badly beat up. Lots of bruises. But was smiling, is all. It caught my eye. Thought she was…” He rubbed his hair again, mumbling something that sounded an awful lot like “pretty.”

“Uh huh. A smiling elf.”

“Don’t see a lot of them smiling all that often.”

“No,” Oxart said, tapping a finger on her desk. “You don’t.” A smiling elf with an abusive slaver. Abusive wasn’t the impression she had of the woman. Compassionate fit her far better given her ranting at the menders. Though it was true that people tended to act differently around monsters. She could possess a hidden sadistic streak toward inhuman beings. Or… “The elf you wanted to buy was just one of the monsters? How many and what were they, more elves?”

“Ah, no. She had a honey bee, a sheep, and a salamander with her. First time I ever seen one of them.”

Oxart lifted an eyebrow. “A salamander? That’s rare. I wasn’t aware one was in the city.” Ipo didn’t say anything in response, though she hadn’t expected him to. He just shrugged. “And she led them out of the city to sell?”

“I didn’t see the buyer, but she came rushing back a short time after. I thought the monsters had escaped at first. Started wishing the monsters had escaped once I saw the actual problem. Brought her back to you, you know what happened there, then she followed me to the guild. Asked a bunch of questions about the guild on the way. Apparently hadn’t heard of them because she wasn’t from Lyria. When I left the guild, she didn’t follow me out. Haven’t seen her since.”

Clasping her hands together, Oxart scowled in thought. The Knights Solaris were not unique to Lyria. They had branches all over the land. Every major village had a tavern full of drunks who called themselves mercenaries. To have not heard of them meant that she was from even further away.

A Juno Federation spy? Given that the troll attack had been orchestrated by the Juno Federation, it was hard to imagine that one of their own would sabotage an attack by drawing attention to it early. From across the seas then? Visitors from over the oceans were rare, but they did crop up occasionally. Alyssa didn’t quite fit with that either, both in appearance and in her actions. They tended to have uniformly black hair and uncomfortably fair skin. Alyssa’s hair was a dark brown but distinctly different from black and her skin didn’t fit right either. As far as Oxart knew, no visitor from over the seas had significantly interacted with anyone. Traders and innkeepers got the most conversation, but those conversations never strayed from their current business. They kept to themselves to an unreasonable extent.

“A sister.” Oxart looked up. “Did she have a sister with her when you saw her? They looked almost identical. Twins, perhaps.”

Ipo shook his head almost immediately. “No she didn’t. Didn’t mention one either.”

That didn’t necessarily mean anything. It wasn’t like Oxart had mentioned her brother during their short conversation. But… she would be lying if she had said that this wasn’t more frustrating now than it had been before. Ipo really didn’t know anything. Not enough to answer any questions. In fact, what he said only raised more questions.

When Alyssa had first shown up with Ipo, she hadn’t thought anything of it. She was just another citizen doing her duty by reporting monster activity. Later, when she had been delivering potions, Oxart hadn’t thought much then either. At the time, she hadn’t even remembered that Ipo introduced her as a slaver. It hadn’t been until earlier today that Oxart really started wondering. The woman was showing up with alarming regularity. Normal citizens did not do that. Not in so many different capacities. If she had been selling potions outside the city or bringing potions to the menders, that would have been another thing entirely.

Perhaps Oxart was worrying too much. The woman didn’t seem like a spy. She didn’t seem harmful either. If anything, she had been helpful. It was just… the words. Alyssa’s people could have saved the men that the menders couldn’t. That rattled around inside Oxart’s head and wouldn’t leave her alone. Regardless of the woman’s oddities, Oxart would be speaking with her. Soon. Perhaps even in the morning, after dealing with the new recruits. If she could keep her men from dying before they had a chance to make a name for themselves, it would be worth a short conversation.

Flicking her eyes over to Ipo, she smiled. “Thank you, guardsman. You’ve been very helpful. You are welcome to—”

Oxart jerked as a pressure weighed on her mind. Her back stiffened as she listened to the Message.

~Hi, this is Alyssa, we met earlier today at the hospital. Thought you ought to know that I just killed a shadow assassin outside the palace and several guards are missing. Raise the alarm and maybe get here to back me up if at all possible. I need to get inside to find Irulon, so if I’m not here, I made it inside.~

“So much for a quiet night,” Oxart said through grit teeth.

“Captain?”

Oxart lurched to her feet, knocking several papers to the floor, none of which she paid any mind. Her plans had just changed. The second she was able, she would be dragging Alyssa into an interrogation room and grilling her on just how she wound up in the middle of everything notable that had happened over the past week. Unfortunately, that would have to wait. “Ipo,” she barked. “You have riding training?”

“Yes? I—”

“Horse. Central Garrison. Now. Warn them that the guards around the palace are missing and at least one shadow assassin has been spotted and killed in the vicinity.” If the report was true. Alyssa had been helpful on the few occasions where Oxart crossed her path, but if that had all been a ruse, then this could be a distraction. A way of drawing the city guard away from the walls.

As Ipo rushed from the room with a hastily said, “Yes, ma’am!” Oxart turned to her office’s window. She stared out at the burned and whole fields, searching for any sign of another approaching army. Anything that might hint that this warning was less than genuine. Unfortunately, night had fallen. Darkness and human eyes did not get along all that well. There were no great plumes of smoke lit from the underside as there had been the week before, but that meant little in the long run. Several trolls had breached the city walls with no warning. The same could be true here.

Fists clenched, Oxart shouted over her shoulder. “Adjutant!”

It took only a moment for the door to swing back open. Instead of Ipo, a younger woman stood in the doorway. Oxart’s administrative assistant, Tenno.

“Rouse all the men. Set the barracks on full alert. In two minutes, I want half the ready guard to meet me in front of the building. Have the rest sortied, patrolling the walls.”

“Ma’am,” Tenno said, ducking out of the doorway without asking a single question.

Satisfied that she had a moment, Oxart donned her heavy coat. It had spells woven into the fabric. Highly ranked defensive magic. As a Rank Five arcanist, Oxart considered herself well ahead of most of her peers, but some of the spells that had gone into her uniform were Rank Six. Administrator Devo of the Observatorium had cast them himself. However, if a shadow assassin got close to her, the enchantments likely wouldn’t matter. She would find her head twisted off before she knew what was happening.

For that reason, it was important that she be able to see anything coming well in advance of it touching her.

Opening her tome, Oxart tore out one of the first spells. A relatively complex spell, unfortunately. There were only a handful of Rank Five arcanists in the city guard. Not everyone would be able to use it. It was an added protection for her men, but only while she was around to direct them. “Unseen Sight.”

Nothing appeared to have changed aside from the card vanishing. No red hazes hanging around any vacant spots in the room. Which was good. It meant that there was nothing to be alarmed about within her office. No invisible assassins lurking to take her head off should she stray too close. Hopefully the same could be said of the rest of the city. Clasping her hands behind her back, Oxart stalked out of her office to meet with those men she was going to bring with her to the palace.

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