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Being on watch was not the most interesting of jobs around. A necessary one without a doubt. Even if this small section of the desert wasn’t called home by any monsters—something the map agreed on, though things could have changed since it was last updated a year ago—it could still be hunting grounds or just in the way of some small group of monsters walking around. Not to mention possible threats from other humans that might be in the area. It was vital that someone be awake and alert enough to warn the others of anything coming.

That wasn’t just true for little expeditions like theirs. Technically, the city guard were on watch at all hours of the day. It was the exact same thing, if on a much larger scale. They had it a little different in that the city was right next to them, ready to supply them with all the backup they could need. And they had fortifications rather than dirt and rock. And a variety of food rather than travel provisions. And… pretty much anything they could possibly need or want. But in basic principles, it was exactly the same as what Oz was doing.

Well, not exactly.

Oz leaned forward and blew a harsh breath of air over a little lump of wood. Shavings flew off, disappearing almost entirely as they merged with the dirt. Inspecting his work so far, he frowned. The face that stared back at him just wasn’t quite horrifying enough. The fangs were too short. The ears were too long. The snarl… actually, he liked the snarl so far. Unfortunately, he couldn’t fix the fangs. That was the problem with carving. If too much got mistakenly chopped off, it would never come back. The ears could be fixed, however. As Oz brought his knife around to start shaving off long strips of wood, he idly wondered how the city guard could stand being on watch for half the day at a time. While some of them surely found other ways of occupying themselves, they were supposed to remain alert at all times.

A sharp cracking noise in the air made him drop both knife and carving. Oz sprung to his feet, eyes searching as he drew his sword. It didn’t take long to spot the source of the noise. A desert jackalope. The bunny-like creature gnawed at the same withered tree that he had stolen the hunk of wood from. Stupid animal, he thought with a shake of his head. Bending to pick up his knife and carving, his relief turned to mild resentment.

The whole ear was off! He must have chopped it right off when the stupid jackalope startled him. It could have been worse. He could have chopped a whole finger off. But… He sighed. It had problems, but he was getting much better at carving as of late. Maybe he could claim that it was intentional? Some sort of battle wound. Or maybe not. Glancing up at the sky, he did a quick estimation of the time. It would be nightfall soon. Not enough time to do much more work on it before it would be time to pack up and head out. And his hands were still a little shaky from the sudden excitement.

Groaning, he picked up the carving and chucked it at the jackalope. It didn’t hit, but it landed close enough to give it a little scare. He watched a moment, picking up and sheathing his knife as the bunny hopped away.

Sword already out and nerves a little jittery, Oz decided to work out a bit of his frustrations through a quick training session.

He started slow, just swinging the sword in regular, practiced movements. Sometimes, jumping into training without a bit of warming up gave him a bit of muscle pain. Wanting to avoid that, he limbered up first.

Then he saw it. His imaginary enemy! Its claw was already coming for him, but he was too fast. Jump to the side! Slash!

It was reeling! Pressing his advantage, Oz stepped forward, thrusting to try to pierce its tough hide. But it caught his sword! Oh no! Back up! Wrench the sword free and twist!

Just in time to avoid that strike. Why am I so good? he thought with a tight grin, eying the imaginary monster. It was sizing him up as well, looking for weaknesses it would never find. For a moment, neither moved.

A tense moment passed.

As if by some unspoken agreement, both moved at once.

Thrust! Slash! Roll back to avoid its foot! Dash to the side and strike!

The claws came at him. Too fast! Oz stumbled back, avoiding the sharp points that would surely have punctured even his legendary armor in favor of being hit by the flat of the beast’s paws. Of the two options, one would have been certain death, the other, merely a setback.

A setback that provided an opening! He dashed to the side, feinting a wide slash only to twist his wrist into a quick thrust. His blade sank into the beast’s flank, perfectly positioned to skewer its heart.

The thing tried to strike at him, but it was already losing too much strength. He didn’t even need to try to dodge, merely watch as the light in its vicious eyes faded. Pulling out his sword, he sighed in contentment.

That had been a fairly decent workout. It certainly had worked up quite the sweat. Feeling much better about himself, he sheathed his sword and headed over to the little waterhole to clean up a bit. Rolling around on the ground had gotten both him and his gear a bit dirty. He probably could have avoided that, but it wouldn’t have been as fun. Still, he was pleased with his imaginary duel.

A bit of noise from the tent just about had him reaching for his sword again, but it was only Lumen and Alyssa. Nothing to worry over. He felt a bit of tightening in his stomach at wondering how much they saw before deciding that it didn’t really matter. It had just been training. Nothing strange about that. Lumen stepped around Alyssa, headed toward him. The other girl stayed at the entrance for a moment before disappearing back inside the tent’s folds.

“Lumen, how are you this fine…” Oz glanced up at the sky before looking back to his lovely companion. “Evening? Have a nice sleep?”

“I hate being on middle watch. You get such precious little sleep, get woken up, then can’t get back to sleep.”

“We’ll rotate. I’ll take middle tonight. Catal can take tomorrow.” Though, if he were being honest, he would rather not take middle watch. As she had said, it was easily the worst shift.

“And what about the fairy woman and the princess? They going to pull their weight around here?”

That wasn’t a question Oz could answer. Maybe he had been a bit hasty in asking a complete unknown to travel with him on what was bound to be a dangerous mission—even if they only performed the reconnaissance aspects and not the commune destruction part. Of course, he had asked her long before he had known about that whole fairy business. Not the best judgment on Alyssa’s part, but at least she seemed remorseful. That was better than most people. In fact, the only reason she was here was likely to make amends for getting that guard captain mixed up in all this.

Still, that showed good character. If only Lumen could see that as well.

“I’ll talk to them,” he said after a moment of silence. Turning away from Lumen, he scooped up a pot of water and headed over to the campfire they had going. They wouldn’t always be able to have a fire. They were traveling light. That meant no wood aside from what they could scrounge up. That wasn’t to say that they would be without heat. Lumen was an accomplished arcanist and the princess was one of only three Rank Six arcanists in the city.

But there was just something soothing about having a real fire going. One that he could tend to himself, if necessary. Not to mention, it was rare that they have a fire at all. The light typically attracted everything in the vicinity. Enemies, monsters, and moths. He shuddered slightly at the thought. But, since they were making camp during the day and traveling at night, there was no need to hide the flames. That meant warm meals. Which, aside from middle watch, was one of the worst parts about traveling away from civilization.

While Lumen walked off to get some privacy, Oz started heating up some breakfast for himself, Catal, and Lumen. He wondered if he should also fix something up for Princess Irulon and Alyssa before deciding against it. The princess had said that they brought their own provisions with them. He wasn’t about to go near those draken to rummage through their packs.

Looking up, he double-checked that they were still sleeping right where they had been when he woke up for watch. They were, thankfully. He wasn’t sure what he would do if they started wandering about, but he definitely didn’t want to deal with them if at all possible. He had always tried to be somewhat neutral on the eccentricities of the second prince, but being this close to them? He could understand completely the outcries of the people.

“She was watching you, you know.”

Oz started at Lumen’s voice, nearly spilling boiling leaf juice all over himself. He glanced behind to find Lumen staring at… At Alyssa, who was currently sneaking around the sleeping draken, apparently just as worried about them as he was. The sight of her tiptoeing made him chuckle, feel bad for laughing, then chuckle again. “What do you mean, watching?”

“Your training.”

“You saw that, did you?”

“I saw enough,” Lumen said with an amused glint in her eye. “She saw more. And she was tense. Had a hand on one of those strange weapons of hers. I thought she was going to attack you.”

“That… is surely a misunderstanding. I don’t think she’s violent.” At the moment, Oz could hardly believe that she had encountered the Taker, let alone fought against him and survived. She was crouched near the packs, slowly and carefully opening them as she looked for whatever she was looking for. Her movements were cautious to the extreme. Her hands practically shook. She clearly did not want to wake the draken.

Which, she was not succeeding at. Behind her back, the draken that Alyssa had been riding had its eye open, watching her. Since it didn’t seem to be doing anything more than watch her, Oz didn’t say anything. If he startled her and she made a loud noise, it or its counterpart might just attack on reflex.

“I still don’t believe she’s human.”

“The princess trusts her well enough.”

“Irulon should know better,” Lumen said, taking a seat on the ground next to him. Her voice came out in whispers, probably not wanting to be overheard by the princess or Alyssa. “You don’t know. You’ve never been through the Observatorium. That woman cast three separate Spectral Chains at the same time without speaking a word. That’s impossible. Irulon knows that.” Leaning back slightly with a scowl on her face, Lumen shot a glare at the sleeping draken. “Bringing monsters along with her. The princess probably knows about that woman being a monster and just hasn’t said anything. And that thing. What does it think it’s doing?”

Oz turned to find out what Lumen was complaining about now. Alyssa sat at a flat rock, holding some small brick in her hands. Except it wasn’t Alyssa. The real one was still getting food from the pack near the draken. That was the mimic. Why it looked so much like Alyssa these days wasn’t a question Oz could answer. It was more than a little creepy, but he hadn’t said anything about it. Except for the occasional warnings to the real Alyssa, but he hadn’t pushed too hard. It was only a mimic, after all.

“Apparently, that mimic has saved Alyssa’s life a few times, Tzheitza’s life, and even Princess Irulon’s life. And the princess saved it as well. I don’t like it, but…” Oz trailed off, glancing around to ensure that nothing was close enough to hear him whispering. “I’d rather have a mimic hanging around than those draken.”

“I’d rather have neither. To be honest? I don’t even want the princess here. She was insufferable when I still regularly attended Observatorium lectures. No one likes her, not student nor administrator. But she’s the princess. So we have to be polite to her or we might wind up with our heads on a pike.”

“She’s also a Rank Six arcanist. So please, try not to offend her. At least not until we’ve destroyed the fairy commune. The bonus for that is half again as much as merely scouting it out. Which is already considerable.”

“Are we splitting it with them? If the princess single handedly destroys the commune, will we be entitled to any of that bonus?”

“Of course we will. Besides, it might be a lot of money to us, but I doubt the royal family is in desperate need for what is likely a paltry amount to them. Did you see that sack of gold Princess Irulon left at Tzheitza’s shop? Sure, it was to pay for the healing potion, but it would probably cover three such potions and the damage you did to the shop. It would pay for this expedition ten times over.”

Lumen didn’t respond. Was she thinking about it? Glancing up from his cooking, he found Lumen scowling again, looking off toward the mimic and Alyssa.

“What is she doing now?” Lumen grumbled under her breath. “Teaching the mimic how to create spells? That is highly illegal. I should have burned her legs off when I had the excuse of a fairy in her satchel. The only reason she got the drop on us is because I was trying to be careful to only injure her a little. You know that, right?”

“So you keep saying,” Oz mumbled as he returned to cooking. “This is almost done. Go wake Catal. You can wake the princess while you’re at it and ask if Alyssa should be dragged back to the city in chains.” He doubted it. From the few interactions he had had with the princess, something gave him the impression that she wouldn’t care or would actively encourage it. Maybe not the latter, at least not publicly. If it got out that the royal family was actively aiding monsters, there would be a great deal of trouble. Likely from the noble houses wanting more power.

Then again… Oz glanced over at the draken. If rumors were correct, the Black Prince had saved them from whatever threat they faced and brought them back to Lyria. He had faced no public repercussions. So maybe Irulon could get away with a mimic. At least the mimic wasn’t going to eat them all in their sleep.

Judging by her scoff, Lumen’s thoughts ran along a similar path. “Catal will wake when he smells this,” she said, completely ignoring the subject of the princess. “And speaking of, thank you, Oz. Your culinary talents are a far cry from the servants back home, but they are adequate enough given our situation and resources.”

That sounded a bit snide, but it was also about as close to a compliment as Lumen was going to give. So he smiled and nodded his head. “You’re welcome.”

It was… decent, he decided after pouring some into a smaller bowl and taking a few sips. Far from the worst food he had ever needed to eat, but still quite a distance from the best. He stared at Alyssa with just a little envy. She was eating some jerky she had pulled from one of her pack’s pockets. She hadn’t cooked it or anything, but meat prepared by the princess was surely loaded with all manner of spices. Not to mention the meat itself, it was surely of an extraordinarily high quality compared to what he had requisitioned from the guild’s storerooms.

Ah well, no sense worrying about it now. Maybe if he played his cards right, he could get himself invited to a meal at the palace! Maybe. The princess didn’t seem to like him all that much. Or rather, she hadn’t liked him while she had been fixing up the mimic. Since starting their expedition, he hadn’t heard a word of complaint levied in his direction. That’s right. She didn’t hate him! She had just been trying to concentrate on the mimic problem and he had foolishly been talking.

He just had to take care not to annoy her while on this expedition. That seemed easy enough. All he had to do was not distract her when she needed to think about something.

“You’ve got an awkward smile on your face again, friend.”

Oz glanced up to find one of the few people he trusted to have his back no matter the situation. “Thought you would never wake up.”

“And miss out on your soup? I hope you remembered to remove the stones this time.”

“That was one time. And I only use that trick in uncooperative villages.”

“Once was more than enough for my poor teeth,” Catal said. The larger man took a seat on the ground, accepting a bowl of the soup when offered. After taking a few sips while nodding and humming like he was enjoying it, he looked over to Oz. “Leaving soon?”

“As soon as we pull down the tent. So eat quick. I bet they’ll want to leave before nightfall. If we want to save Oxart, probably for the best that we get moving sooner rather than later. Looks like Alyssa just went in. To wake Princess Irulon?”

“Mhm.” Catal threw a glance over his shoulder just in time to see the tent’s entrance close behind the woman. He took another sip of his soup before chuckling softly to himself. “Never thought I’d get to say that I slept next to a princess.”

“Please,” Lumen said with a scoff. “You were on the opposite side of the tent.”

“Never thought I’d get to say that I slept in the same room as a princess either,” Catal said with an easygoing shrug. Lumen just scoffed.

For several minutes, none of the three said anything, choosing to enjoy their meal in a peaceful silence. Partially, anyway. It wasn’t completely peaceful nor was it entirely silent. Not long after Alyssa entered the tent, she started shouting. At first, Oz nearly jumped to his feet, ready to dash off and save the princess. But it quickly became apparent just what the shouting was about. He couldn’t help his light snickering.

Alyssa threw open the tent shortly thereafter, looking mixed between amused and upset. She marched away from the tent.

“Having troubles?” Lumen said, unable to keep a snide tone from entering the fringes of her voice.

“Just a princess who is missing her cushy life in the palace, I think.” Alyssa didn’t even look at them as she passed by to the waterhole. She had one of those clear containers that she had been drinking water from in hand, this one empty. It didn’t stay empty for long, however, as she dipped it right into the pool to fill it up. “If this doesn’t wake her, I’ll tie her ankles to Musca.”

“What are you going to do with that?” Oz asked after sharing a quick uncertain glance with his companions.

“Upend it over her head.” Alyssa marched right back to the tent, not even stopping for a chat.

Once again, Oz, Lumen, and Catal all shared a look.

“She’s dead, isn’t she?”

“Completely dead.”

“That solves one of our three problems,” Lumen said with a glare toward the mimic. “Now if only we could convince Irulon to return to the palace.”

“Hold on now. I still want the bonus. Unless your little magic lights can wipe out an entire commune, let’s not tell the princess to go home.”

Her eyes flashed with danger. Oz clamped his mouth shut as her hand drifted toward the pocket she kept her spells in. “Oh, I’ll show you just what I’ve been working on—”

Thankfully, a ruckus from the tent stole her attention. Lots of coughing, lots of sputtering, lots of shouting. This time, the shouts came in two voices. It was a bit difficult to hear what was being said, but the tent hadn’t caught fire so far, so it couldn’t be that bad.

Catal just chuckled, still sipping his soup with a content smile on his face. “If only all our mornings were this peaceful.”

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