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Jason left through the main doors of the temple of Fertility, his storage space freshly loaded with supplies. He was motivated, having discovered how critical the temple’s delivery was during the monster surge. Fortress towns were of paramount importance during a surge, sheltering the evacuated populace of the surrounding villages and towns. Most of those people were normal citizens who could not live on spirit coins the way an essence user could, making the food supply a significant logistical problem.

The temple of Fertility maintained a series of secure stations in the outlying areas where regular supplies runs weren’t viable during a surge. These stations were much like fortress towns except that instead of people they contained the infrastructure to rapidly grow large amounts of food in a short time and relatively small area.

These fortified farms were critical to preventing starvation in the more remote fortresses while being just as subject to monster attack. This meant that they not only required the resources to maintain their defences but also their ability to grow food. While the supplies could be at least somewhat intermittent, going too long without fresh magical provisions meant that whole crops would be lost. That, in turn, consigned people in the forts to a slow, hungry death.

Leaving the temple, Jason had a renewed sense of purpose. It was a job well worth doing and, for once, he was the appropriate person to do it. The Builder and his interdimensional circus was the job of the people with the power to actually do something about it, at least until Jason was inevitably dragged back into it all.

***

The royal palace was an opulent paradise the size of a large town, with marble buildings set amongst gardens landscaped to the level of art. The grounds were vast enough to have districts, from walking trails meandering through a rainforest to a sea of flowers. A painstakingly sculpted and maintained hedge maze formed a massive disorientation ritual. Ordinary mazes posed little challenge to those with potent magic senses.

It wasn’t just the look of the palace that made it feel like a slice of heaven. The invisible protective dome over the sky island also filtered the sunlight to fall on the palace exactly the way the designers intended, varying from district to district. Soft light fell on courtyards of people taking tea while bright rays lit up the gardens. Fresh aromas from the rainforest and the sweet scent of flowers wafted through the grounds on a meandering, magically cultivated breeze.

While the palace seemed open and inviting, it was the most heavily defended area of the most heavily defended sky island in Rimaros. Only a small handful of people knew the full scope of the defences it could call upon at need.

In Pallimustus, there was always tension in any powerful group between its members and the people who protected them. When power meant being a high-rank essence user, usually an adventurer, did such people truly need protection? If so, who would do the protecting? If the people protecting them were more powerful, then why were they not the ones in power? Historically, more than a few coups had been born from this very question.

In many places, the role of guard had become ceremonial, more akin to servants than being required to repel attacks. In Rimaros, the solution came in the form of a guild. The Sapphire Crown was one of the most powerful guilds in Rimaros due to the support it received from the royal family, many of whom were amongst its most capable members. In return for the excellent support they received, all non-royal guild members were required to periodically serve within the royal guard.

Membership in the Sapphire Crown was incredibly stringent, with most members coming from guild families. Loyalty was paramount and all members were put through rigorous examinations to shield against compromise. All members underwent examination quarterly but while serving in the guard, this increased to anywhere from monthly to weekly, depending on specific duties.

Trenchant Moore stood out in the guild for being a human. Rimaros was one of the few cities where celestines were in the majority and humans were an even smaller minority in the royal guard than in the population at large.

Amongst people that mixed darker skin tones with hair of metallic and gemstone colour, Trenchant stood out with his pale skin and dark hair. He was lean and angular, his features as sharp as the gaze of his icy blue eyes. If not for his gold rank, his white skin would have long ago tanned under the tropical sun.

Trenchant was not currently serving in the guard, so was curious as to why he’d been summoned to the palace. The guilds had huge activity quotas to fill during the monster surge and the royal family did not shield the Sapphire Crown from those requirements. As a gold-ranker, Trenchant was responsible for meeting a good portion of that quota.

Not being on duty, Trenchant had a rare chance to appreciate the beauty of the grounds instead of being on alert for potential threats. Even so, he couldn’t break the habit of sweeping his senses over the places where aesthetics had been chosen over security.

Moving along an open walkway, he was headed for a building that was only small by palatial standards. It was a place where royal family members and upper-tier officials conducted high-level but generally unimportant business, usually related to administration.

The choice of location, combining high security with low-key affairs, drew Trenchant’s attention. Having served a guard on and off for decades, he knew that while such places were mostly used for mundane affairs, they were also the ideal place to hold significant meetings without drawing significant attention.

He went in through the main doors to the security station where he was checked with several magical devices by the guards on duty. He knew them well but in their stoic professionalism, they treated him as a stranger.

“You’re not on duty,” one of the guards said. “You’ll need to leave your sword.”

Trenchant's hand instinctively moved to the hilt of the sword at his hip, the reaction of a sword specialist when told to relinquish his blade. The guards moved their hands to their own weapons.

“Sorry,” Trenchant said, unbuckling his sword belt.

“He can keep it,” a female voice said through the door. Trenchant recognised it as that of Vesper Rimaros.

“With respect, your highness,” Trenchant called back, “the protocol is the protocol. I shall hand over my weapon.”

“Keep it and come in,” a male voice said, seemingly from all around him. He didn’t recognise the voice but it carried an overpowering authority that left his instincts screaming to obey. He looked at the guards, themselves looking shaken. They shared a nod and Trenchant rebuckled his belt as a guard opened the door for him to move deeper into the building.

Inside was a conference room containing two members of the royal family and several guards. The royals were Vesper and Liara Rimaros; there was no sign of the man whose voice had ushered him in.

“The rest of you can leave,” Vesper said, to the displeasure of the guards.

“Your highness, security protocols–”

“Out,” Liara barked.

The guard looked unhappy but nodded his head as he waved his people out.

“My lady.”

In the royal hierarchy, Vesper was the higher of the two princesses, but birthright was only part of the equation. Vesper was only silver-rank to Liara’s gold, and while Vesper was a capable adventurer, Liara was a figure of accomplishment and respect in the Sapphire Crown, the Adventure Society and amongst adventurers in general. Power, not legacy, was ever the ultimate authority.

“Seal the room please, Trench,” Liara said. “Then take a seat.”

Trenchant activated the privacy enchantments on the room and then sat opposite the princesses at the conference table.

“You are no doubt wondering why you’ve been called in here,” Liara told him.

“Yes, my lady.”

“There are sky pirates who have been spotted moving around in the outskirts of the kingdom,” Vesper said. “It’s a known group. We believe that they intend to prey on airships and lone adventurers doing supply runs to the fortress towns.”

“Scum,” Trenchant said. “Taking from those who are in most desperate need.”

“Yes,” Liara said. “Normally, those supply runs have only silvers, maybe a low-value gold-ranker on board. These pirates, however, while a bunch of core-using trash, have two gold-rankers. With the demands on the time of gold-rank adventurers during the surge, the outer reaches of our territory aren’t as defended as they normally would be. Add in a regular schedule of heavily supplied airships and the pirates have grown bold.”

“You’re dedicating some adventurers to the supply ships to catch them out? Bait ships?”

“The Adventure Society is, yes,” Liara said.

“But that isn’t why I’m here,” Trenchant said. “Not all of it, anyway. You don’t have secret meetings just over trapping some pirates.”

“We're going to place you on a ship,” Vesper said. “Unlike the other vessels, where the gold-ranker will be supported by silvers, yours will be a normal crew complement.”

“If I end up fighting pirates… I can handle a couple of core-using bottom feeders, even if they are gold, but not while protecting the rest of the crew from whatever silver-rankers the pirates have. You know they don’t exactly send the best adventurers on those runs. It’s all utility powers and second-raters. A lot of them won’t be adventurers at all.”

“Use your discretion,” Liara said. “Don’t risk the airship and the people aboard if you feel they aren’t up to the task. Run, if that is the best course. We will stand by whatever judgement you make.”

“Then what is any of this in aid of?” Trenchant asked.

“There will be an adventurer on that ship. Silver-rank. We want your assessment of how he conducts himself. You are not to mention this aspect of your assignment, how it was assigned or by whom to anyone outside of this room. You are not to discuss it, even with us, outside of a secure environment.”

“On the understanding that I can only agree so long as no one with more authority asks me to break those terms,” Trenchant said.

“They won’t,” Vesper said. Liara nodded.

“By what criteria do you want me to assess this man?” Trenchant asked.

“Any and all you feel warrant mention,” Liara said.

“Should I protect him?”

“Yes,” Liara said.

“No,” the male voice countermanded her. Trenchant still could not place where it was coming from. His gold-rank senses detected no one else in the room and no one should be able to listen in or communicate from outside it. The implications of that were not lost on him.

Vesper and Liara shared a look.

“However foolish the man and his choices may seem,” the voice continued, “let them play out to their conclusion.”

“Don’t let him know that you’re anything but an ordinary gold-ranker protecting the airship,” Vesper told Trenchant.

“He will know,” the voice said. “Guard, your aura has the sharpness of a blade. You cannot hide it from him, even in a scabbard. If you do run into trouble and he wishes to work with you, accept it.”

Trenchant looked to the two princesses. They nodded confirmation with troubled expressions.

“Who is this man you want me to look at?” he asked.

“Jason Asano,” Vesper said. “Outworlder. Go to the jobs hall and you’ll be given the assignment.”

“If there are no more questions,” Liara said, her tone certain that there were not, “then you may go.”

Trenchant stood up, giving Vesper a short bow and Liara a slightly shallower one.

“Your highness. My lady.”

Trenchant deactivated the privacy magic and left, after which Liara got up and turned it back on as Vesper stood up and paced. Soramir was suddenly in the room and took a seat, both women bowing to him.

“Ancestral majesty,” they greeted in unison.

“Do sit down, girls,” he said, waving them into chairs.

“Ancestral majesty,” Vesper said. “May I ask why we’re putting Asano into danger?”

“We’re not,” Soramir said. “We’re giving him the chance to put himself into danger. I’m curious what he’ll do.”

“And if what he does is die?” Vesper asked.

“Then problem solved,” Soramir said. “Little Zara mourned a dead man and a dead man he will be.”

“Then why not kill him ourselves?” Vesper asked.

“This again?” Liara asked. “Vesper, we don’t kill innocent people when what makes them inconvenient is something we did.”

“Actually, we do,” Soramir said, “but other outcomes are generally preferable.”

“Why are we playing games?” Liara asked. “Why are you testing him?”

“Liara, you have at least some sense of the boy’s secrets,” Soramir said. “It’s why you sent Vesper here to go find little Zila, is it not? To dig them out?”

Both vesper and Liara paled at their revered diamond-rank ancestor being called ‘little Zila.’ Soramir laughed as the princesses shared a look.

“You have dug out his secrets, then?” Liara asked.

“I’ve seen the touch of allies and enemies on him that are not to be taken lightly. Enough to know that killing him ourselves would be unwise without learning more.”

“There are things about him that would be very useful to–”

Liara was cut off by Soramir shifting his eyes onto her, the words dying in her throat.

“It is uncouth to share the secrets of others,” he told her. “If it must be done then it must be done, but I’ve already done more than enough. Poking through the soul of a junior was already crass, especially when I was careless enough to let him notice. If you can’t tease out his secrets yourself, Liara then they aren’t yours to know.”

“Majestic ancestor,” Vesper yet. “You are so far above him that there is no etiquette you owe him.”

“This, Vesper, is your flaw. You assume knowledge before seeking it out. Jason Asano is already half a step into my world, to his suffering and regret.”

“What does that mean?” Liara asked. “Half a step into your world?”

“It means he has faced enemies even I would fear.”

“If he had enemies like that,” Liara said, “there’s no way he could survive.”

“He didn’t,” Soramir said. “That’s how little Zara got us into this mess.”

“Ancestor, if I may ask,” Liara said. “Why are you involving yourself? Family politics are below you and I was surprised that Ancestor Zila intervened, let alone, you. Is it because of Asano?”

“Yes. I suspect him to be a remarkable young man, which is why I want to put him to the test. I believe him to be the kind who finds himself in the centre of things over and over. A pawn of fate. A common destiny for outworlders, although the boy does seem to especially excel in this regard.”

“What are your intentions for him?” Liara asked.

“Marrying him into the family could potentially prove a very good idea. Or a very bad one. I think it best we find out.”

“You intend to bless the match with Zara?” Liara asked.

“Even if the family was willing to go for that,” Vesper said, “he wouldn't be. She pulled him into a mess with people more powerful than him, which sounds like a pattern he’s been in before, if what the ancestor says is true. He will not be grateful for Zara adding to his troubles.”

Soramir gave Vesper an approving smile.

“You’re thinking of marrying him off to someone else in the family,” Vesper guessed.

“If he’s worth it,” Soramir said. “We’ll watch him and see how he does. How he thinks. He could be a powerful asset or a dangerous threat, simply by his presence.”

“I still don’t see how he could be either,” Vesper said. “He’s just some silver-ranker. Zara pulled his name out of a hat because he conveniently died on the other side of the world with just enough accomplishments to be plausible.”

“And in ten years?” Soramir asked. “A hundred? A thousand? That boy is going to go all the way or die trying. In fact, he’s done so already and it hasn’t stopped him yet.”

“It won’t be easy,” Vesper said. “It sounds like he’s going to be hostile after what we’ve done.”

“Perhaps he will blame Zara,” Liara said.

“Zara didn’t set a pair of diamond rankers on his path to pry out his secrets,” Vesper said. “That was you and I.”

“He doesn’t know that.”

“If he can’t figure out that more than Zara is moving, we definitely don’t want him marrying in,” Vesper said. “I only briefly met him but he struck me as a fool, not an idiot.”

“He is angry at us,” Soramir conformed. “He's trying to put it aside because he knows that acting on it is not in his best interest but we took something from him. Something he's been looking forward to for a long time, only for us to snatch it away the moment he found it.”

“If you’re serious about potentially tying him to the family, ancestor,” Liara said, “we cannot treat him as a tool.”

“We're all tools, Liara,” Vesper said. “This is why you make a better adventurer than politician.”

“Vesper is correct in this,” Soramir said. “My attention must be on the greater threats we face, so I shall leave this affair in your hands and check-in as I feel the need. The two of you make a good pair. Vesper has a grasp of the political realities while you, Liara, have thoroughness and caution. And ethics.”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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