Trajan’s office was suddenly filled with a bright red light as the Prince opened the box. Within, Leon could see a thin plate of polished black onyx about six inches square, and set in the center of the plate was a brilliant red ruby about the size of his eye. The ruby glittered with magic power, and beneath the surface seemed to flow a red liquid that Leon was almost certain was only a trick of the light. Still, it was impossible to deny how magical the ruby was, especially as the room was inundated with a tremendous aura as well as red light as the lid of the box was opened.
“Look at that,” Trajan whispered. “Even in the capital where nobles wear more gold and silver than they keep in their vaults, this ruby would be a thing to marvel at…”
“It’s so pretty,” Alix whispered as she unconsciously reached out to touch the ruby.
As her finger got closer, suddenly a loud and extremely irate voice thundered from the gem, saying, “Keep your peasant fingers to yourself, girl!”
Alix froze in shock, but after taking a second for the words to sink in, her face twisted in anger. However, before she could retort, Trajan said, “Is that any way to thank the people who opened your box?”
“You could be the Sacred Bull himself and I still wouldn’t allow you to touch me so casually!” the voice shot back.
“Well it’s a good thing you brought that up,” Trajan said as his aura began to spike, “because I happen to be a Prince of this Kingdom, and if you don’t tone yourself down a peg or twelve, then I’ll rip that stone out of its plate and hurl it into the Gulf!”
His words carried a forcefulness that shut the voice from the gem up instantly, despite the aura coming from it being stronger than even Trajan’s. However, the gem’s aura didn’t carry even a hint of killing intent, whereas Trajan’s killing intent was so strong that Alix froze and found it hard to breathe, and even Leon couldn’t help but grow pale and stop all unnecessary movements.
A long silence followed, which only ended when Trajan leaned forward and grabbed the onyx plate out of the box, to which the voice sighed and said, “I suppose the luxury of choosing not to be touched is something I no longer possess…”
“No, it’s something you can certainly decide for yourself, but right now you need to consider your current situation,” Trajan said quietly. “Besides, making demands of Princes and insulting said Prince’s ancestor isn’t something that most people would recommend…”
“I… must concede to you on that point,” the voice admitted as Trajan closely examined the plate and ruby.
“If you cooperate with me, then you’ll be afforded every courtesy and respect due to someone of your station,” Trajan said. “But, if you let your arrogance run unchecked, then we’re going to have some serious problems going forward.”
“What sort of ‘cooperation’ are you suggesting?” the voice asked.
“You’re a venerable man with a wealth of experience in matters both magical and mundane,” Trajan said. “I want you for an advisor.”
“An advisor to a Prince, hm? I suppose I can lower… I mean, I’ll admit that it isn’t a bad job…”
“Certainly better than being locked in a box with nothing to do and no one to talk to for years on end,” Leon muttered.
“That boy makes a point that’s hard to argue with,” the voice admitted. “Very well, for the time being at least, Your Highness, I suppose I can lend you my advice, as recompense for opening my box.”
“Wonderful!” Trajan exclaimed. “Now that all that’s over with, why don’t we have us some introductions?”
“I am Caecilius Symmachus Aemilianus! Founder and first Master of the esteemed Bluefire Guild!” the voice declared.
“I am Trajan Anastasius Taurus, Firstborn son of Julius Sextus Taurus, Consul of the East, and Exarch of Ariminium!” Trajan thundered.
“Leon,” Leon said, identifying himself in the simplest manner he could.
“Alix,” Alix said, taking a cue from her knight.
Trajan rolled his eyes, then stated, “Sir Leon Ursus is one of the most promising young knights in this Kingdom. I have personally taken him under my wing. Miss Alix is his squire, also a promising young knight in training.”
Caecilius made a tongue-clicking sound, then scornfully said, “A barbarian and a common wench. If you want my advice, you ought to ditch this inferior stock and choose your knights with a more discerning eye.”
Both Leon and Alix immediately scowled and glared at the ruby, while Trajan squeezed the onyx plate so hard it almost cracked.
“I ought to warn you, Caecilius,” Trajan said through teeth clenched in fury, “that when it comes to those I choose for my retinue, I have a very discerning eye. From now on, you will keep such insulting comments to yourself!”
Trajan’s killing intent spiked, causing the temperature in the room to plummet. So strong was Trajan’s wrath, in fact, that the ruby itself seemed to lose some of its luster.
“I-I understand!” Caecilius sputtered. Even though he had no physical body left to make the words, it still took him a titanic amount of effort to speak them. Even when he was alive and at the height of his power, his own killing intent would’ve been dwarfed by Trajan’s. He simply hadn’t lived a life that revolved around death and killing, as Trajan had as a soldier.
Still, he had been a seventh-tier mage in life, so Leon felt more than a modicum of surprise that Caecilius submitted to Trajan so quickly.
A short moment of awkward silence followed Caecilius’ submission, which came to a sudden end when someone knocked on the office door.
“Enter!” Trajan called out. His assistants knew that he considered the matter with Caecilius to be of paramount importance and that they wouldn’t let anyone disturb him unless it was a matter of comparable substance.
A young knight with long auburn hair and clear blue eyes that sparkled with intelligence stepped into the office and bowed. Even in the dim light that the Prince favored, Leon recognized her as Dame Furia, one of the Tribunes serving under Minerva.
“Your Highness, I have an urgent report from Dame Minerva regarding the clearing of the guild district!” Furia said in a soft voice and almost lyrical cadence. Leon could tell from the way she spoke that she was nobility.
“What is it?” Trajan asked a little more curtly than he intended.
“While clearing the villa of a fifth-tier mage in the Iron Dove guild,” Furia explained, “we uncovered a small hidden warehouse filled with what we estimate to be an actual ton of Silverleaf!”
“What?!” Trajan exclaimed as he rose from his seat. “That much?!”
“Yes, Your Highness, and Dame Minerva believes from the charred remnants in the warehouse that there was quite a bit more in there that was destroyed in the fire,” Furia said.
Trajan slipped Caecilius’ onyx plate into the chest pocket of his dark green Legion uniform and started walking toward Furia. “I want to see this warehouse. Is Minerva there right now?” he asked.
“She is,” Furia answered.
“Good. Oh, and Ursus,” Trajan said, turning back to Leon and Alix, “I want you to come with me as well.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Leon instantly replied as he almost sprang to his feet and made to follow Trajan, with Anzu and Alix hot on his heels.
The villa Furia took the group to was relatively small compared to some of the others in the district, especially considering its owner was a high-ranking mage in the Iron Dove guild who Leon guessed would’ve been fairly well-off compared to most of the other mages in the guild. It might have been a cozy and far more impressive place if half the rooms hadn’t been blocked by rubble and the white granite walls and red roof tiles hadn’t been scorched black by the fire.
“The Silverleaf is in the back,” Furia said upon their arrival.
She directed the group past a handful of laborers working to clear the rubble and temporarily reinforce the villa with magic so it wouldn’t crumble when the rubble holding up what was left of the ceiling was gone. The group had passed by hundreds of other villas in the district that had similar work going on within; the hours-long riot had done a significant amount of damage to the district, and it would likely take months to completely rebuild.
The room farthest in the back was their destination, and upon arrival, Leon immediately understood how the hidden warehouse had been discovered: the ceiling had collapsed, and a support beam had fallen on a hidden hatch in the floor, causing it to also collapse. The beam had been moved to make room for people to get past, but not far enough to disguise what had happened.
Furia led them through the crushed hatch, down a short flight of stairs, and into a basement made entirely of concrete with a vaulted ceiling to support the villa above. The room was as large as the villa’s entire footprint and packed almost floor-to-ceiling with huge boxes. The area nearest the door had been scorched from the fire, and a handful of workers were busy cleaning up the remains of dozens of boxes that had been destroyed in the blaze. Several other boxes had been damaged, allowing Leon to see bales of shiny grey leaves within.
“That is a lot of contraband,” Trajan muttered in shock as his eyes scanned the hundreds of boxes around the room. “How did all this get into the city without anyone noticing?!”
“That’s what we intend to find out, Your Highness,” came a voice from behind the newcomers. Leon turned to see who it was and saw Minerva striding into the warehouse. “We’re already looking for the owner of this villa, but with everything that’s happened over the past month, we’re not confident that they’re still alive.”
“Why not?” Trajan asked.
“The Silverleaf is still here,” Leon offered.
“Just so,” Minerva replied. “Had the smuggler been alive, then I don’t think we ever would’ve found this warehouse; they would’ve had this place cleaned up without us.”
“Then check with our records. And get Iron Dove on it!” Trajan said angrily.
“What if they don’t cooperate?” Minerva asked.
“They will if they don’t want to end up like Bluefire!” Trajan replied.
As soon as the Prince said this, Caecilius spoke up from within Trajan’s pocket, worriedly asking, “Wait, what was that about my guild? What’s happened to it?!”
Minerva stared at Trajan with a rare look of bewilderment as the Prince pulled the onyx plate out of his pocket and said, “We can talk about that later, but for now we have a smuggler to find.”
“No, what in the hell has happened to my damned guild?!” Caecilius demanded.
“The master fucked up, tried to take everyone’s money, started a riot that turned into a rebellion, and the guild was disbanded,” Leon succinctly explained.
“What?! I… Why… How did this happen?!” Caecilius shouted.
“Your Highness…?” Minerva asked in confusion.
“This is the founder of the Bluefire Guild,” Trajan explained with a sigh. “He attached his magic body to this ruby so he could live on after his physical body died.”
“Why would you do that?” Minerva couldn’t help but ask, shivering as she did at the prospect of facing an eternity trapped in a tiny gem.
“To advise my successors and help to guide my guild!” Caecilius howled in anger and despair. “If I had been there, if they had listened instead of sealing me away, this wouldn’t have ever happened!”
A short awkward silence followed with no one knowing what to say. Eventually, Trajan simply slipped the onyx plate back into his pocket and said, “Perhaps we should return to the pressing issue, that being this smuggler…”
“Right…” Minerva responded. Caecilius didn’t say anything more, falling into a depressed silence.
“What’s the deal with this Silverleaf? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it before,” Leon asked.
“It’s a powerful drug that can enhance wind magic,” Trajan answered.
“It’s also horrifically addictive and extremely damaging to the user’s body,” Minerva added. “Apparently, it gives one hell of a high to go with the boosted power, but it comes with a low to match the high and severe damage to the internal organs. Some addicts have been found with their organs liquified after indulging too much.”
“I see…” Leon said. His own experience with ingesting materials strong in wind magic—the feather he needed for Xaphan’s potion back in the Knight Academy—had been painful and quite damaging to his body. He didn’t question it when Minerva mentioned the damage the Silverleaf could do to a person’s body.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Trajan said, turning every head in the warehouse in his direction. “We’re going to burn all of this Silverleaf. Minerva, I’m going to have you get on finding out whatever you can from Iron Dove about the owner of this villa. Leon, I want you to search this place for anything that might have survived the fire that could be useful in this investigation.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Leon and Minerva replied in unison.
“Good. Now get on it.”
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