"I see," I say, then weave together metal shackles with my magic and bind up the would-be thief. "That seems both problematic and illegal."
I lift up the thief and sling him over my shoulder, then look at Niko.
"Come on," I say. "Let's drop him off at the guardhouse before we move on."
As we were walking towards Niko's mansion from the restaurant, a thief attempted to steal from us. We were taking a shortcut through an alley, but considering that most street kids I have seen are not any higher than middle red, I doubted any of them could actually steal from us. Even the adults on the streets aren't much stronger.
So naturally, his theft attempt failed. I noticed he had the same sort of accent Alex gets when he's upset, so decided to ask a few questions and found out about what happened after my friend left Varilar.
Niko and I reach the nearest guardhouse, and I drop off the street thief and inform them of what happened here, then Niko and I walk to his mansion. It's pretty grand, and I can see why he might feel lonely, especially after finally having people in his life who actually have some level of familiarity with him.
"I'm going to," I pull a map out of my spatial storage after he leads me into one of the mansion's studies. "Perform a blind long-distance teleport. I want to see if there are any of Alex's friends left. From what he said, Alex's gang seemed more like a family than just a group of thieves. When I return, I'm going to send a message to Uncle Zach and let him know about the illegal crusade. Their actions went beyond what even a Duke can authorize."
Some part of me is telling me to do this, because if Alex knows, then it would hurt him, and I would rather not see him hurt. Those five friends of his… they were from his gang in Varilar, weren't they? That might explain the kiss, then.
My stomach knots up when I think about that, and I do my best to push the image of that out of my mind as I swiftly change outfits, then I study the map.
"You can perform a blind teleport that far?" Niko asks. "Is that not dangerous?"
"Not if you put in the proper parts to the spell," I tell him. "And have enough magical power to back it and the mana necessary to weave it. Performing blind teleports – or any teleport, for that matter – requires putting in an aspect to the spell to ensure you displace anything where you end up and that the spell itself adjusts for the location if something is where you would have ended up. Once I'm there, I can simply open a gate back."
Niko examines the map, then points at Varilar.
"This is Varilar?" He asks, and I nod. He moves his finger a little north, to the border. "Here is the border of Varilar and Mar."
He has a look of longing on his face, and I realize that he might be homesick. From what he's said the last couple of weeks, he had never left the grounds of the Marran royal castle before, and now he's hundreds of miles away. Just traveling here in what they consider a reasonable amount of time required a heavy use of magic on horses and carriages.
I know that if I did not have the ability to open a gate home or teleport home, I would probably be homesick as well. Well, to my Jeshema home. I visit them every few days right now, though Papa Samuel said that my need to return and say hello will decrease the more I adjust to being here.
"I'm already doing a blind teleport a couple hundred miles," I tell Niko. "If you want, I can perform another one and we can stop by your home before returning here."
"I-I could not ask that of you," he shakes his head.
"My treat," I smile at him, then have an idea. "If it makes you uncomfortable to do that for free, then you can visit my other home, the one I built."
"You built a house?" He asks.
"When I was ten," I nod. "With my Mama Alyssa. It was a gift they intended for my coming-of-age, but they wanted me to have a hand in its construction. And Niko – I know that even though you hate that place, it was still home to you until you came here. Once I've been there, I can open a gate there anytime I wish, so if we go there now, I can open one there any time you're starting to feel too homesick."
"Are you sure you are okay with doing such a thing?" He asks.
"If it's for a friend," I smile. "I have no issue with it, Niko, and you are most certainly a friend. I do want to see if any of Alex's friends remain first."
"Okay," he nods. "Then I will come with you, as long as you promise that this spell is safe."
I've never tried it before.
"It's completely safe," I assure him as I finish doing the estimates in my head. "Though we might end up a little off of my target."
He nods, and I send the map back into my spatial storage before placing a hand on his shoulder and weaving together the spell. A few moments later, our surroundings change as we find ourselves floating a few feet above some fields.
Niko and I land using air magic to assist us, then start walking towards the walled city in the distance. It's nowhere near as large as Varil City, with only one hundred and thirty thousand residents instead of several million, but its size still catches me by surprise.
One bad thing about growing up knowing less than a dozen people and in a community of a single family is not having experienced the size of cities.
When we reach the gates, we're stopped by the guards and asked for identification, and upon seeing that we are not residents, they ask us for a two hundred varru entry fee. Niko pays without questioning it, while I pay knowing the fee is illegal.
The guards aren't even supposed to check identifications of those entering, only check carriages and goods entering for possible contraband or hidden criminals, as well as ensure that the faces entering do not match any current wanted posters.
Most criminals aren't exactly known by their real names, so looking for ID wouldn't help, especially as they are a rather new thing.
Inside the city, I take in everything with suspicious eyes. Every single soldier and guard that I see bears the emblem of the Duke over this region rather than the standard of the kingdom. There are far too many of them as well.
One thing that bothered me even before we arrived was the fact that according to the thief who tried to steal from Niko and me, the roundup happened after Leviathan Alex and Crusher Chris (a ridiculous name, but they're on the street, so whatever) left town. I know that Alex left to better his life, but it seems that this Chris, who was infamous for crushing the bones of those who crossed him and using earth-based magic on a decent level, also left around the same time as Alex.
Only according to the thief, he reappeared days later, wearing the Duke's emblem. The Duke bought him and turned him to his side. He turned one of the two strongest street lords to his side and waited until the other left town before going after the streets. That means it was something that had been planned.
This is his main city, but there are a few others, and he has two Baronies within his Duchy. Have the other two been hit like this one, or is it just Varilar for now?
Niko and I wander around, and my scan spell detects that we're being followed. By guards. We have been since we arrived, and it's making it hard to look for any signs of a street rat. Thankfully, we're both able to speak another language, so I convey to him that we're being followed without possibly alerting anyone of this.
They might be near the Marran border, but that doesn't mean they have much need of knowing our neighbor's language.
In the market, I notice the high prices of the goods being sold in the few stalls still open this late. Even with how far away from sources Varilar is, some of these prices seem a bit too high. A single varru should be able to buy me a dozen pears, yet they're being sold for ten a varru instead. That might seem like a small change, but it's significant enough to be suspicious.
Especially after the vendor tells me that taxes were raised to forty percent for the war against Mar. After a small amount of probing at several vendors, Niko and I learn that there is supposedly a war at the border, yet His Majesty no doubt has never heard of such of thing.
The Duke is using that money to strengthen his forces and likely wants to separate from Varil using these higher fees. He's no doubt turned all of the soldiers stationed here to his side, either by force or coin. Based on what I've heard, he's probably had any who opposed the change killed.
Just as I'm contemplating the best way to lose our tail so I can begin my search, a pair of finely-dressed men approach us from in front. They give Niko a light bow, telling me they know who he is before they open their mouths.
"We have just been informed," the man on the right says. "Of your presence here, Prince Niko. His Grace the Duke, Michael Adrils, would like to offer you lodging in his castle for the duration of your stay in Varilar."
They spoke too quickly for him, so I translate it.
"Take them up on the offer," I add. "I want to have a few words with this Duke. The plan is probably to keep you from learning too much about this fabricated war of theirs."
"Okay," he says, then looks at them and speaks in his heavily-accented Varilar. "I gratefully accept the Duke's offer."
The nobles lead us through the city towards the castle, and I spot someone as we travel who wears a dirty, faded blue scarf around his arm, a sea serpent stitched onto it in an infinity symbol with the leviathan eating its own tail near the center.
A member of the northies, of Leviathan Alex's gang. Just as soon as I see him, he hurries out of sight, and I follow his path as he moves through the city, my scan spell already stretched through it. He's swift and nimble, judging by how he moves over, under, and around objects and buildings.
He finally stops in a building with no one else in it, and based on my scan spell, the building itself is run-down, probably abandoned. It's likely the guards have already done a sweep through there and won't return for a few more days, if that's where he's picked. I mark it in my memory, then turn my attention to the nobles in front of us, who lead us through the gate to the castle.
Niko and I are led inside and to a spacious waiting room.
"His Grace will be a short while," one of the men says as I take in the grand room meant to impress. "As he is currently in a meeting. If you would like refreshments, please inform the servants."
"That would be fine," I smile. "Would it be okay if Niko and I had some time alone? We have journeyed far to reach here. A friend of ours is from Varilar, and we were hoping to see him, but it seems he left awhile ago."
"That is fine," he gives a small bow, then turns to Niko. "Please know that we do not hold Mar accountable for the actions of the bandits and rebels at the border, and His Grace prays to the gods that we may retain friendly status with your people."
"He's giving us misleading information in the hopes of dispelling the comments of commoners," I tell Niko after the prince gives me a confused look. "While probably attempting to provoke an actual war with Mar and have it blamed on Varilar turning back on the agreement between the two nations."
"Oh," he says. "So the Duke is attempting to start a war?"
"While also attempting to separate from the kingdom," I nod. "It would be a perfect opportunity to exit during the chaos, as His Majesty would likely not do something about it until after the battles were fought and the war ended."
"Then I think it best if we visit my family," he nods. "So that we can forewarn them of what is occurring. Are we still to meet with the Duke?"
"Yes," I answer, then look at the nobles and speak in Varilan. They were likely recently promoted to their status by the Duke, as they obviously do not know a word of Marran. "Niko thanks you and wonders if we can be left alone, as per the request already made? You said it would be awhile before the Duke arrived, and he would like to recover before then."
"Of course," they bow and exit, the servants leaving with them.
On their way out, the one doing the speaking informs us it would probably be around an hour before the Duke arrives, so I stand and put up some privacy enchantments, then look at Niko.
"I am opening a gate," I tell him. "I will be back soon. If someone looks in and asks where I went, tell them I had to leave to deal with an upset stomach. There are guards at the door, so they would know I didn't leave that way. Say that I use spatial magic to teleport around in short distances."
"What if I cannot convey that or they do not understand me?" He asks.
"It will be fine," I smile at him. "They want to start a war, so the Duke wants to verify your identity before killing you. Just pretend to barely speak Varilan, and if he speaks in Marran, tell him then."
"Killing me?" He asks.
"Of course," I say. "Killing a prince of Mar? What better way than that to start an actual war? Even if the Duke and his men aren't aware of it, the fact that you are supposed to be in Varil City and died out here would tell your family that Varil never intended on keeping to the promise made. Don't worry, you'll be fine. The Duke will verify your identity first, and he likely wants to prepare so that he can make sure he has it right before approaching."
Niko looks uncertain.
"I'll be back shortly," I tell him. "You'll be fine, I promise. Your magic is stronger than any but two here, and I am sure your control is enough to make up that gap. If all else fails, surround yourself with a barrier. Visualize it as a bubble around you. You have enough mana and magical power for that to last until I return, even if both of them try to break through."
He gives me a hesitant nod, then I open a gate and step through, finding myself in front of the gates to the royal palace.
"Please inform His Majesty King Zachary," I hold my ID up to the guards as the gate disappears. "That the son of the Sages has an urgent message for him."
The guards give me a skeptical gaze, but after verifying my identity, I am hastily led inside the palace grounds and to a room where I will wait for Uncle Zach. A few minutes later, Jacob and Lina enter the room, giving me curious looks.
"We heard that you had some sort of urgent news for Papa?" Jacob asks. "That you were basically rushing the guards as they were bringing you here?"
"Yes," I smile. "Niko got homesick and wanted to go home for a weekend visit, and after performing several blind teleports, we found ourselves in an interesting situation that your papa probably needs to know about."
"If you're using your status as the son of the Sages," Uncle Zach enters the room. "Then it is no doubt urgent. What happened, Jason?"
I give him a summary of what I discovered in Varilar, leaving out the real reason we were there and using the reason I gave Jacob and Lina.
"If this is true," he says. "Then it is most troubling indeed. Are you certain of this?"
"I didn't see a single guard wearing Varilan marks," I tell him. "All of them wore the Duke's. They are charging forty percent tax on goods even though we have a peacetime tax of ten percent, claiming it's to help supply soldiers and mages for the war with Mar. The lesser nobles who greeted us and escorted us to the Duke's castle made no mention of an active war with Mar, but with bandits and rebels at the border, which contradicts what the commoners are told. In addition, we know for a fact that many of the street rats were rounded up and killed, even ones who weren't actively fighting, many of whom were executed on false charges. We have probably half an hour or so before the Duke visits us, Niko and I are waiting for him right now."
"You left him alone?" Uncle Zach asks. "When you think they're going to attempt to kill him?"
"Niko might not be the strongest there," I say. "But he's decent, has a lot of mana, and has undergone my training for two weeks. I doubt he would go down at all, much less easily. I do wish to return immediately, however, but felt you should know about this situation."
"I see," he says. "Open a gate into this room in fifteen minutes."
I nod, then open a gate back and return to Niko, who still looks nervous.
"Where did you go?" He asks as my gate disappears.
"Back to Varil City," I answer. "Uncle Zach is bringing some soldiers with him in a bit."
"King Zachary is coming?" He suddenly looks nervous. "Will Princess Lina come as well?"
Why would he think she would come to such a thing?
"Unlikely," I answer. "As this is considered a dangerous situation, he will likely order them to remain behind."
"Okay," he lets out a sigh of relief.
Fifteen minutes later, I open a gate back into that room, then Niko and I watch as Uncle Zach and twenty Royal Knights and Royal Mages exit. The weakest of them has upper green magic, even among the knights. The strongest of the Royal Mages is upper blue.
A small force, but more than enough to level the city in an hour or two.
"Your Majesty!" Niko jumps to his feet and gives a slight incline of his head as he speaks in broken Varilan. "It is a pleasure to meet you once again, even if the circumstances are not under pleasant ones."
"Please," Uncle Zach gestures for him to sit as I close the gate and the Royal Knights and Royal Mages take up positions around the room. It's spacious enough to fit all of them, thankfully. "Have a seat, Niko. Lina thinks quite highly of you. I am glad to have agreed to the marriage, as you make her happy, despite having met only two weeks ago."
Niko's face lights up at the compliment and takes a seat, and Uncle Zach takes a seat as well, facing the door. Then, we wait until it opens, a pompous-looking man in a fine outfit entering. He freezes when he sees the forces in here, as well as his king.
"Your Majesty!" He bows. "I was not expecting your presence, my guards only told me of the Marran prince!"
"I was not expecting to be here," Uncle Zach smiles. "Nor to find out that you were abusing your authority as a noble, lying to the people, extorting commoners, and attempting to start a war with Mar, yet both of those occurred. Tell me, when I did I authorize raising the taxes to forty percent? When were you granted permission to make the city guard members of your personal military rather than the kingdom's? When did I implement an entry fee for non-citizens of the city?"
Judging by how the Duke stutters and fumbles for words, he was not expecting to be found out so soon or have to explain himself in a surprise visit from the king himself. Uncle Zach lets him fumble for a few moments before holding up a hand.
"Michael xan Victor xal Varilar," Uncle Zach says. "You are hereby stripped of all titles and holdings. You have seven days to leave Varil and are to never set foot in it again. You will first be questioned regarding your activities. Remus, Sebastian, ensure it happens."
"Yes, Your Majesty!" A Royal Knight and Royal Mage salute, then escort the former Duke out of the room.
"I have a question," Niko says, and I look at him. "Your people's names mean 'son of' or 'daughter of' and 'from', yes? So if Prince Jacob were born a commoner and not a noble or royal, would his name be 'Jacob xan Zachary xal Varil City'? His name would actually have 'city' in it? Or would it simply be 'Varil', even though that is also the name of your kingdom?"
"Varil City," I say. "Is actually called 'Varilsy', but everyone calls it 'Varil City'. His name would be 'Jacob xan Zachary xal Varilsy' as a result. Most cities in Varil whose name is the name followed by 'city' is really the name with 'sy' at the end. In that same vein, if someone's origin ends in 'sy' and you haven't heard of it, remove the 'sy' and add 'city' to the end, and see if you know of that."
"Understood," he nods, then looks at Uncle Zach. "What happens to the Duchy now?"
"My men interrogate and arrest everyone involved," Uncle Zach answers slowly, though it's not an 'obviously' slowing down to mock the Marran, but a casual one meant to allow Niko to actually process what he's saying. I'm sure Niko appreciates that. "And someone worthy becomes the new Duke of Adrils. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Jason."
"You're welcome," I say. "Niko and I should probably be leaving, Uncle Zach, so that we can reach his home before it's too late in the evening."
"Enjoy the rest of your trip," he dips his head us.
As we're walking down the street, my gang escorting me to where I'm staying so that they can see it for themselves, a familiar face greets us. He's standing in front of Jason's house, and has a smile on his face.
"Peter!" I exclaim when I recognize the fifteen-year-old member of the gang. "You're alive!"
We embrace, and then he embraces the others as well.
"Yeah," he nods. "Things went to hell after ya left, Boss. The last month or so hasn't been pleasant, and I barely avoided getting nicked. Then some noble mage and a Marran showed up. I thought maybe they were there to help deal with the rest of us, 'cause some of the nobles came and greeted them, but then later, they showed up where I was staying. Tried to fight 'em, not sure how they managed to find me. They told me that they could send me to ya, that they ain't my enemies. I wasn't so sure, but the noble opened some sort of spell that let me just walk right here. This ain't Varilar for sure."
A gate? The only magician I know of who could do that would be Jason, and if that were him, then the Marran would be Niko, but that's impossible – they're on their training exercise and would be nowhere near Varilar.
"Did he say who he was?" I ask.
"Nah," he answers. "He seemed to be in some sort o' hurry. Told me if I wanted to hang with ya and the gang here, to step through the spell. He called it a gate, but that ain't no gate I ever seen before."
"We're in Varilar," I tell him as I wonder who that was. "What was he wearing?"
"Black pants and boots, and a black and purple tunic," Peter answers. "Plus some fancy-looking sword. Didn't expect him to be a mage. Then again, most nobles have swords, even if they don't know how to use 'em."
"True," I nod. I'll try and see if Jason knows of any other magicians who can use the gate spell when he returns. Then again, he might not answer that, so probably best not to. "Well, you're here now. I was just showing the gang my house, then they were heading to where they're staying until they decide what they're doing."
"So it's just us?" Barry asks Peter, who gives a sad nod. "Damn. Let's go share some drinks for the others."
The rest of us agree to that, then head off to the nearest tavern.
"Well," I say in Marran as Niko and I land, using our magic to assist us. "At least I dropped us onto the cliff and not off the edge."
"Yes," Niko smiles, pointing. "There is the castle."
I look over the edge of the cliff and see a city with tall walls not far from here, maybe only a mile from the cliff, possibly less. It's resting a little lower down the mountain than we are, and when I take a few breaths, I find the air thinner than I am used to. Looks like I'll be using magic to fix that until I can adjust. Rather than creating air equal to enough for me, I simply increase how much of it is around by a little bit. This allows me to adjust faster.
Niko and I pull coats from our spatial storages. It might be summer, but we are deep in northern mountains, and high up as well. The air has a bite to it. Once we're wearing our coats, I reorient myself, then enhance my sight so that I can see the front doors to the castle. The moment I have the distance gauged and the location visualized, I teleport Niko and myself there.
Our sudden arrival startles the guards, whose hands move to their swords. There are no magicians guarding the doors. I could easily walk right through them unhindered with my magic alone.
"At ease," Niko holds up a hand. "It is me. I did not wish to deal with the guards at the gate, so I had my friend bring us directly here."
"Prince Niko!" One of the guards gives a bow. "Our apologies, Your Highness, we did not expect your return so soon."
"I am just visiting," Niko smiles. "I have classes on Monday, and so will have to return before then."