“My name is Richard Lam.”
Garth sat in a hastily constructed tent-office with rich red brocade walls across from a bruiser of an asian man wearing a simple leather breastplate that exposed his leg-thick arms.
“Do you know why you’re in here?” he asked, fingers laced.
Ah, the first question police ask to allow you to self-incriminate. It was nice to know that some things never really change.
“I don’t know if you knew, but I was living in the slum until I was twelve and then sequestered away for the next four years by the – my family. I don’t know much of anything.”
The huge man sighed and rubbed his temples. “That’s going to be a problem. Look.” He pulled out a map of the forest and spread it out over the table.
“The Bergstroms are responsible for anything that happens in this forest, and what happened was treason. By the faculties count, no less than one hundred and twenty peasants took up arms against the state, along with the ones still haunting the forest, the ones who started the blaze. Someone had to have supplied them with quite a bit of accelerant.”
“And? What do you need me for?”
Richard gave him a dead stare. “The Bergstrom family is responsible. If the architect of recent events isn’t found, It’ll land on your shoulders.”
“Pffff.” Garth blew air through his lips and waved dismissively. “I suppose since the entire empire is the emperor’s responsibility, he should be constantly hanging himself.”
Garth leaned forward to meet the man’s gaze. “I hear that’s a great way to get off.”
“Respect your superiors, or you might find out firsthand, boy.”
“Superior, what superior?” Garth asked. “As far as I’m aware, I’m a shoe-in for the City Council and you…your job has reduced you to pressuring teenagers like a creepy uncle.”
The man across from him clenched his fists tight. “Choose your words carefully, Bergstrom. Your family isn’t exactly in a position for you to be so cavalier.”
“Oh, there goes my lack of manners again,” Garth said, admonishing himself. “Raised on the street, you know.”
“So what did you actually want?” Garth asked. “Before you shot yourself in the foot with scare tactics?”
Richard watched him appraisingly for a moment before answering. “In light of recent events, we will be launching a full-scale investigation into who supplied and organized the rebels. The Bergstrom’s assistance in this matter would be…appreciated.”
“Was that so hard?” Garth asked, leaning back in his chair with his arms crossed, every inch the defiant teen.
The huge man pulled out a grease pen, his hand dwarfing the writing utensil as he set it on the map.
“Mark your families logging operations, where the wildling’s passages through the forest are, and if you aware of any places that Prima Regula might shelter, use as meeting grounds, or store supplies, mark them as well.”
Who the hell are the Wildlings and Prima Regula?
Garth stared down at the map for a minute before looking back up at the expectant man. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Have you asked my Aunt Brenda?”
“Damn it boy, this is not a game!” he roared, coming to his feet.
“Did you miss the part where I haven’t been outside the city until today? I must have missed the briefing on secret routes through the forest. As far as I know, we don’t really do anything illegal, and that’s why the Bergstrom’s are getting screwed recently. If you are really interested in finding rebels, I’m sure Brenda will help you, but if you’re just looking to sell our information to some other family, I’m afraid you can’t get a word of it out of me.”
The Asian bear relaxed in his seat, studying Garth with his finger on his jaw. “You’re telling me that you…the heir to the entire Bergstrom family, have no idea about its business affairs?”
Garth sucked in a breath through his teeth. All he knew about was the Adamantium mine, and never really paid attention to the forest.
“Why should I care what some puppet threatens?” the man murmured to himself.
I could give you a few reasons, Garth thought.
“Gah! You’re less than useless. Go join the others.” The bear of a man waved him away dismissively before returning his attention to the map.
“Say, what did you mean when you kept saying ‘recent’ events? You were talking about the fire, right? Why not say fire?” Garth asked.
Garth got out, surprised to find a long line of teens waiting outside the tent for a debrief from the officer. Many of them were pale, having heard the shouting. Alicia and Benedette were included in that line, although they looked somewhat bored.
Garth glanced around the military camp, where hundreds of men and women were busily making setting up camp and putting together a hastily assembled fence around it.
I need some modern history. So far Garth hadn’t been gathering enough information, as evidenced by his complete ignorance under questioning.
Garth had been hesitant to ask anyone about common knowledge, for fear it could give them a hint about his origins, but honestly, it was better to look like an idiot than be ignorant indefinitely.
“Hmmm…” His best bet was to get some of the general stuff in bits and pieces here and there, then get specifics from Alicia once he knew enough not to let slip that he was Garth Daniels, Dark Father of Sin. Whoever the fuck that is.
Why didn’t I just claim to have amnesia? Amnesia is the freaking catch-all! Garth sighed internally. He hadn’t claimed amnesia because he didn’t want to feel like he was a character on Days of our Lives.
Garth scanned the line of kids and saw a skinny blonde kid with a cheesy mustache, a jaw that seemed to want to hang open, and nasty sunburns on his forehead and shoulders. He seems approachable.
Garth walked up to him and extended his hand.
Since I can’t really claim amnesia now, we’re just gonna roll with naivete.
“Hi, I’m Edward Bergstrom.”
The kid’s jaw closed, and he looked Garth up and down, motionless. “I know.”
“And you are…”
That’s a terrible name. Tad. Jesus, reminds me of high school bullies from the sixties, not slackjawed peach-fuzz teens.
“So Tad, what does your family do?”
“They’re on the council.”
“I mean what’s your business?”
“Why, so you can pretend like you’re interested?”
Tad looked Garth up and down a moment and chuckled. “You should know, you know?”
“Yeah, but I was a little too poor growing up to learn that, more worried about where my next meal was coming from. The last four years have been kind of a blur. My family just let me out of my cage, and they expect me to be a puppet. That’s what’s gonna happen if I don’t take the initiative, you know? So I thought I’d make some friends, figure out what’s going on around me.”
Tad pursed his lips and finally shook Garth’s hand.
“I saw what you did to Kyle. That was good for a laugh. Keep it up.” His eyes drifted away from Garth as he stepped forward in line, apparently forgetting about him.
“Wait, what does your family do?” Garth asked, stepping forward to keep pace.
“What? Oh, we’re specialty farmers. Yeah,” he glanced up as he muttered to himself. “That’s basically it.” He then ignored Garth’s follow-up questions until he left him alone.
Damn, this is harder than I thought.
Garth approached another boy, and then a girl, both from minor houses dealing with things like farming and infrastructure.
From what Garth could gather about the Bergstroms, they controlled the forest in name, but several nomadic tribes wandered through it from time to time, and they were more trouble to control than they were worth, so they just let them be.
Those people were called the Wildlings, and they hunted and sold strange monster ingredients to the Ravenleaf family of alchemists that he hadn’t met yet.
Sounds like they picked that name from a copy of Harry Potter. Could have just had a sensible name like Roberts, but nooo, they wanted to be special.
The wildlings were known for using fire and explosives, which is why Mr. Lam was pestering him about their routes.
Prima Regula were much harder to get information about. The first person he’d asked had turned pale and backed away from him, leaning into the canvas of the tent until it had given way falling into an occupied tent where a squad was eating.
Rather than get up and apologize, the frightened youth had jumped over their meal and ran out their door, prompting them to start a chase through the camp.
Garth had decided not to ask anyone else.
A few minutes later, Garth spotted Alicia tromping out of the interrogator’s tent, badonkadonk bobbling with every step she took, straining the fabric of her pants.
Damn. Whoever lent her their pants didn’t quite measure up.
When she turned the corner, Garth shook himself out of his stupor and hustled to catch up, having let her get a rather long lead while he stared.
Garth managed to catch up to her in just a few seconds, coming along stride her.
“Hey, Al,” Garth began.
Her eye twitched a bit, but she didn’t correct him.
“I was gonna ask you for some help, since you’re probably the closest person to me right now.”
She gave him a raised brow. “Physically? Distance-wise? If that’s the case, I could be somewhere else right now.”
“I mean the most invested in keeping secrets with me.” Garth said, forming a meaningless swirl of mana in the air and watching her gaze land on it for a second before returning to him.
“What do you want?”
“I need some no-questions asked modern history and social studies study groups. Me and you.”
“You’re getting those at school.”
“Nah, those are boring, he begot her, who begot that jackass, etc.” Garth said, waving them off disgustedly. “I’m more interested in the dynamics of the city at large. I need someone to teach me about the nine Council families and what they do, what their alliances are, who they like and dislike. Stuff like that, without asking me any questions about why I’m asking stupid, ignorant questions.”
She stopped in the middle of her stride, crossing her arms and looking at him with an appraising look.
“That’s valuable information.”
“No it isn’t. It’s common knowledge.”
“Not for you, apparently, and you need it to continue your charade as a Bergstrom. That makes it valuable.”
“Charade, what charade? I am one hundred percent related to the Bergstroms.”
Technically true, albeit probably even more distantly than Alicia herself.
The beautiful raven-haired girl in front of him rolled her eyes at his protestations. “Teach me magic in exchange.”
Garth glanced around and didn’t see anyone watching.
“I hardly see how that’s a fair trade,” he whispered. “I can get that information from anywhere.”
“Oh yeah, and what happens when they start asking questions, Edward Bergstrom?”
“I’ll tell them I was raised on the streets.”
“Really? What’s the name of the city?” She asked, her arms crossed.
“Outpost 3502?” Garth asked, wincing.
She stared at him with wide, unbelieving eyes. “Maybe six hundred years ago. It’s Santo Descanso. How do you not know that?”
“Retrograde amnesia?” Garth hazarded.
“Really?” she asked, cocking her hips to the side.
“Damnit, I said no questions, okay?”
“Then teach me magic.”
“One spell.” Garth whispered, “Not-“ he waved his hands in the air vaguely, “magic.”
“One spell per day.”
“One spell per spell you can get the hang of. It could be none, or a hundred, but trust me, you’re gonna have a hard time since you’re not specced for it.”
“Bonus spells if you learn how to twerk.” Garth blurted before his jaw snapped shut, punctuating the sentence with an audible ‘click’.
Damn you teen hormones!
“Questions again…but nevermind that last one. That was my lizard brain talking.”
Good to know Wilson is still alive in spirit. I should really get around to making the clothes-penetrating vision enchantment. In between stirring up a war and toppling an empire.
“Then I’ll see you after class is out, first day it’s back in session.” Alicia said before power-walking away again.
“Wait up,” Garth called, trotting after her. “Where are you going?”
“To take care of Susie. Your leaves helped but it didn’t last forever.”
Garth glanced around the military camp and shrugged. He could think of worse things to do than curry favor with the injured students. Make some more Aloe leaf, come across as a real nice guy.
“Let me get my backpack,” he said, turning to leave before he stopped in his tracks.
The backpack I left in the forest fire?
The backpack with three Mythic Cores in it!?
“Gotta go.” Garth said, turning and sprinting back toward the smoldering woods before stopping at the pre-burned swath, where a wave of heat washed over him from the other side. The forest was burning just as merrily as before, hissing at him from every direction as water escaped from the dying trees.
It would be days before the forest was safe enough to go looking for his treasure. In the meantime, the question was, was a forest fire hot enough to melt Mythic cores?
“Damnit.” Garth spat, glaring at the fire. “That was pretty backhanded, Hastia.”
Excellent. Alicia thought as she watched Edward – or whoever he was – sprint away. She’d gotten him to budge on teaching her magic, in exchange for information available to every noble child since birth.
Win for me, She thought, the young man’s desperate sprint bringing a smile to her face. Now the hard part: Facing Susie again.
Every fiber of her being wanted to avoid her sister, as if denying her pain and injuries would make them go away. But she needed Susie to be on her side.
Alicia screwed up her courage and opened the tent-flap to the infirmary, where dozens of students rested with bandages across burns all over their bodies.
Alicia narrowed in on Susie, half mummified and laying on the cot with her eyes closed.
“Hey Suz,” she said, taking a seat as Susie’s one exposed eye opened to look at her.
“I brought you a couple heartstones,” she said, pulling the clear pebbly stones out of her pockets. “It should help reduce the scarring, along with speeding up your recovery.”
While Susie swallowed the heartstones, Alicia replaced the bandages with new, clean ones, damped with cold water.
“Thanks, Al.” Susie said, her voice hoarse. That was something that might never recover, the damage making her sister sound like an old woman who’d smoked her entire life.
“I know you’d help me if I needed it.” Alicia said, angling to make sure Susie was ingratiated to her.
Susie chuckled for a moment before she coughed into her palm.
“I’m not so sure about that.” She said, patting Alicia’s hand. “But I do owe you one, and I don’t like owing you anything, so I’ll pay you back right here.”
“Benedette knows where you’re hiding Thomas. That dinky little inn on the west side of the city.”
Alicia shot to her feet, her heart hammering with alarm.
Susie smiled gently.
“Relax, Thomas is gonna be fine. Father was very clear about his affection for his younger sons. She’s going to be angling for you. Sometime when you go back there, there’s going to be someone waiting for you, maybe Kyle, maybe hired killers.” She shrugged weakly. “Who knows.”
Alicia sat back down, heart slowly calming.
“Thank you, Susie.”
“Pssh…we’re even. Now scratch my butt. It itches and I can’t get to it myself.”
“I’m afraid I can’t reach your butt without more information about Benedette’s operations.” Alicia said wryly as she gently turned Susie over and scratched her bottom.
“Am I interrupting something?” Edward asked, entering the infirmary with a wet burlap sack over his shoulder. The kid’s confident grin on his soot-covered face was almost charming.
“What do you want?” Alicia asked, setting Susie back down despite her whines for her to continue.
“Attention burn victims!” Edward said, ignoring her. Alicia noticed some strange orange mana spilling from his mouth as he spoke.
He’s casting a spell right now? How?
“I, Edward Bergstrom, having excellent familial knowledge of the local area, made a quick trip to the Green Hell and retrieved these lovely leaves that are excellent for burns, risking life and limb, for you.”
Edward then pulled out a clear, shiny gel…slab that looked something like a fillet, and tossed it at a teen across the tent, where it hit them on the chest with a slap.
The boy groaned in pain at first, then his eyes opened wide and he began to rub it over his wounds, cooling and soothing them.
“There’s plenty for everyone!” Edward shouted tossing the gross skinned leaves everywhere. “You get relief, and you get relief!”