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Jason felt the emotions play out in the auras around him. At the centre was the man on the other side of the tailor shop’s glass, Kasper Irios. A peak-level bronze-ranker, he was standing frozen, gripping the handle of the almost-closed door. His shock was as plainly written on his face as his aura after hearing Jason's name.

The man who had spoken his name, Alejandro Albericci, was also a silver-ranker. The moment he sensed the reaction of Kasper, his welcoming aura filled with surprise and then suspicion with an underlying strain of anger. Jason realised that he wasn’t party to the play being acted out, with whoever wrote the script remaining hidden in the wings.

Rufus was confused, having picked up on the tension in Jason’s body language and the obvious link to the man on the other side of the glass. He was smart enough to know that if he didn’t have the information to act, he should keep his mouth shut and listen, looking to Jason for direction.

Jason’s aura was unreadable to the other silver-rankers, but the anger over being played yet again flashed on his face before he schooled his expression.

"Mr Albericci," Jason said. "This is Rufus Remore, out of Vitesse. I would appreciate you seeing to his needs while I take Mr Irios for a little walk. Let's not make a scene in your place of business."

Alejandro looked Jason in the eyes. Jason’s aura revealed only its normal, polite façade, leaving him to assess Jason by what he could see. Jason was wearing his usual tourist-in-the-tropics outfit but the tailor knew better than most that it was not clothes that made the man.

“Thank you, Mr Asano. I appreciate the courtesy.”

Kasper Irios was still gripping the handle of the almost-closed door, letting go and stepping back as Jason pulled it open. The bronze-ranker’s movements were oddly stumbling for an adventurer, his physical unbalance revealing the depth of his mental equivalent.

“Kasper Irios, I take it?” Jason asked. “I’m Jason Asano. Just to get it out of the way: yes, the dead one. You and I are going to take a little walk.”

Kasper’s initial shock was giving way to wariness.

"How am I meant to know you are who you say?"

"It's a fair question," Jason said. “It's not every day your former fiancé's dead fake lover comes back to life. Not sure what to tell you, though. I don't think they make a greeting card for 'sorry I used your death to avoid a political marriage and got you caught up in a huge mess although in fairness you were dead and that's not something I had a reasonable expectation of you coming back from.' It'd be hard to fit on the cover, if nothing else."

“What are you talking about? What’s a greeting card?”

“Right, other world. Do you have gift baskets here?”

"Uh, yes. I'm not sure what-"

“A greeting card is like that, except instead of being full of nice things it’s a piece of card stock. It’s like a social puzzle where you have to figure out how long you need to leave it sitting around before you can throw it away without being rude.”

Jason tapped the pin on his chest and an invisible privacy screen shielded them from eavesdropping. It wasn't impenetrable, but anyone who could do so without Jason noticing was out of his league anyway. It would be enough the stop the hidden observers Jason could sense already paying them attention.

“Let’s walk, Mr Irios.”

Jason felt fear from the bronze-ranker.

“I’m not sure I should be going places with you.”

"We're not going anywhere," Jason said. "We're just going to wander around on the street a little, in front of plenty of people and have a nice chat. Well, a chat, anyway."

They started walking along the street, side by side. The streets were wide shopping boulevards with plenty of other traffic, both on foot and using various means of transport. They were far from the only people using privacy screens, unseen to the eye but visible to magical senses.

Alejandro’s shopfront was part of a shopping district located between the more open market district and the more industrious craftsman’s quarter. It was comprised of boutique stores catering to adventurers, nobility and the wealthy. Many of the people walking the street were all three, making anyone that caused trouble very stupid indeed.

Jason and Kasper wandered along the street, in awkward silence, at first. Jason noted that many glances were cast at Kasper; he guessed as locals recognised either the house Irios crest on the arm of his clothes or Kasper himself, although no one greeted him as they passed.

“Mr Irios, someone told you to come here, and they didn’t tell you the real reason why. We’re both dancing on someone’s palm and I don’t know about you, but I don’t like that. That being said, we need to step carefully. I’ve had my share of lessons in getting out of one mess by making a bigger one, and we both know that you have as well.”

“I’m still not taking your word for who you claim to be.”

“Nor should you,” Jason agreed. “The whole point of having us meet like this is so that you will go out and investigate. Or, more precisely, so your family will. That’s one of several reasons someone arranged for us to meet like this. Someone wants to stir up murky waters.”

“Who?”

“House Irios and the royal family are both looking to settle things down after the mess that you and Zara made. The exact who doesn’t matter right now. First, you need to make sure that I am who I say I am. My return brings certain things to a head, which your family will need to handle carefully. You, yourself, will need some time to process. I certainly did. I came back from the dead and find that instead of the nice quiet stay in the tropics, I’m suddenly the dead paramour of some princess I met a couple of times three years ago. Plus the Builder’s trying to assassinate me again, but that bit’s not on you.”

“What?”

“Look, mate. You just found out that, one: I'm alive, and two: I'm here. There are ramifications that need to be thought through. Someone – who is going to get a good talking to – decided that having you and I bump into one another oh-so coincidentally would be a good way to do that murky water stirring.”

“Why?”

“Probably to see if we make a scene. They’re still trying to figure out how I handle myself and need to know if I’m reliable when put on the spot. I need to be a little bit of a controversial figure for what comes next, so a public confrontation between you and I wouldn’t hurt that goal. As for you, you’ve made trouble before. They want to know if you’ll do something stupid like run off to Zara and cook up another terrible plan.”

“I don’t think I should be talking to you.”

“Correct,” Jason said. “I’m going to tell you what you should be doing. You need to go home. You need to tell your family that you met me. Then you need to have a nice long think and a nice long talk with them. After that, you do what they tell you.”

Kasper went to respond but Jason silenced him with a gesture.

“Now, I’m going to tell you what you shouldn’t do. You should not go find your friend Zara and have her devise some plan to get some control over the situation that sets in motion a cascade of events that ruins everything for you, me, her, your family, the royal family and thousands of people who are relying on all of the above to keep them safe.”

“Oh, hey Kasper!”

A trio of young men in fine clothes was approaching them with waved greetings. They were all bronze-rank but close to silver, like Kasper himself. One was wearing a loose robe of light, breathable fabric, with the colours and emblem of the Magic Society. Not all Magic Society members were also adventurers, and the monster cores in the young man's aura suggested he was not. His aura control was solid, though, so he was not untrained.

The other two were more likely adventurers, from their clean auras. One wore a long jacket covered in pockets and potion-vial loops, marking him as an alchemist. The third bore no identifying equipment but Jason noted the precision of his movement and his attentiveness to the surroundings. Of the three Jason pegged him as the most capable.

Jason tapped his pin to drop the privacy screen.

“Hey, Kas,” the Magic Society member said. “I thought the family had you bundled up indoors when you weren’t out on a contract.”

“I, uh, I came out to order some clothes.”

The three picked up on Kasper’s nervousness and moved their attention to its obvious source.

“Who’s your friend, Kas?” the alchemist asked.

“Kasper’s a little busy,” Jason said. “You can catch up with him later.”

Alongside his words, he sent a little stream of aura to the third member of the group, giving him a glimpse of what lay behind Jason’s polite aura facade. The young man put a hand on each of his two friends’ shoulders.

“We’ll catch up with him later,” he said, echoing Jason’s words.

The other two looked from Jason to their friend and back to Jason, their communication through glances showing Jason how close they were.

“Alright, Kas,” the alchemist said. "We'll come and find you at home."

"Thank you, Hils," Kasper said. "I'll see you all later, then."

The trio moved on, throwing curious looks back at Jason.

“You know those three are going to talk,” Kasper said.

Jason reinstated the privacy screen.

“My return is going to bring issues around you and Zara to the fore,” Jason said. “Events are being set in motion. Your family, and now those three, are going to ask questions. When they do, undercurrents will start to flow.”

“I think I do need to go home.”

“Yes, you do,” Jason said. “Look, I know what you’re going through. You just found out a bunch of crazy stuff, you haven’t had time to sort through it and there’s some guy who won’t stop talking and you understand maybe a third of what he’s saying at best. You need to stop, take stock and sort through everything. Talk to your family.”

Kasper nodded.

“Good. Now, someone from your family will want to talk to me. You probably will too, once you’ve had time to sit with this for a while. When you’re ready, come find me on Arnote. I’m staying in a little town called Palisaros. Just ask around and someone will point you my way.”

Kasper took a personal floater disc out from the dimensional bag on his hip. Before he stepped onto it, he turned to look at Jason.

“If you are who you say, I want you to know I'm sorry,” he said. “It never felt right, using your name the way we did. It’s just…”

“Better to invoke the dead than hurt the living.”

Kasper nodded.

“I won’t say I wasn’t angry,” Jason said. “I was. Still am, to be honest, but that doesn’t help us right now. I can yell at you in private, once you come find me.”

“Does Zara know?”

“You didn’t talk to her?”

“Her family keeps her on a narrow line since everything happened. We don’t see each other much anymore. She said it wouldn’t look good, anyway.”

Kasper gave Jason a sad smile, stepped onto his float disc and drifted off. Jason watched him go, then tapped his pin to drop the privacy screen and started walking back toward the tailor shop.

"Tell your boss," he muttered, "the next time she wants me to dance, she needs to let me know before the music starts or she'll find me stepping on her feet."

He sensed the observers start moving away.

***

Adventure Society Director was a prominent position in any community. In a major adventuring hub like Rimaros, that was even more true. It was a demanding and high-pressure job, although the prestige and social standing that came with it were not inconsiderable. The director mixed with kings and queens, famous adventurers and foreign dignitaries. A director who did their job well found that once they moved on from the position, many doors would open to them. Those that fell short dropped into a pit of obscurity from which there was no escape.

Gil Vinatos was the current occupant of the position, and fully aware that his performance in the coming weeks would define the rest of his life. An unprecedented monster surge and the Builder invasion were more than enough, even without the reports that were starting to come in from around the world. For someone like him, who worked their way up from the bottom through solid administrative skills, it was a critical time.

He was taking a much-needed break, although he didn’t have time for a long one. Laying out on his office couch, eyes closed as he ate sliced fruit from a bowl sitting on his chest was the most he could afford before he had to get back to work.

“A well-earned break, Mr Vinatos.”

Gil sat bolt upright, the bowl tumbling to the floor. He couldn’t sense the person who had just spoken at all, despite his gold-rank senses. Admittedly, his rank came from monster cores, but he had been diligent in his training. He was also the director of the Adventure Society, so his office was both very difficult and very foolish to break into. He saw a man sitting on the edge of his desk, emitting no discernable aura at all. Gil was about to ask who he was when he recognised the face.

In heart of the royal palace, which Gil had visited many times, was a hallway full of portraits that lead to the throne room. He had spent a certain amount of time waiting outside to be admitted and had looked over the closest portraits more than a few times. Gil recognised the man in front of him from one of those portraits. The one at the very end, right next to the throne room doors.

“I'm sorry, Mr Vinatos. I've made you drop your fruit.”

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Shirtaloon (Travis Deverell)

  • Australia

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