As Leon walked up the stairs from the Silverleaf warehouse, it occurred to him that the villa had probably already been searched by those who had found the warehouse to begin with. He, of course, had to search it again to fulfill Trajan’s orders, but the first thing he did was to find the knight in charge of the clean-up in the area. It was easy to find the man, as he was the only fourth-tier mage out of the dozen or so workers and soldiers who were cleaning the place.
“Ah, Sir Leon!” the young Centurion exclaimed as Leon, Alix, and Anzu approached.
“You know who I am?” Leon asked in surprise and confusion.
“Yes, Sir, I don’t think there’s a single knight assigned to the Bull’s Horns that doesn’t know the knights in His Highness’ retinue!” the knight answered.
Leon had approached the knight with purpose, but this surprise brought some color to his face and rendered him momentarily speechless in embarrassment. After a few mostly-silent chuckles, Alix came to his rescue, saying, “I believe you have Sir Leon at a disadvantage…?”
“Right!” the knight exclaimed as he hurried to identify himself. Unfortunately, Leon was embarrassed enough that the man’s name didn’t even register with him.
“Right… um… so, has this entire place been searched?” Leon quietly asked once the introductions were over.
“There are a few rooms that are still blocked, but those that are open have been searched,” the Centurion responded. “Everything of note that we found has been taken to the atrium.”
“Thank you,” Leon responded as he started to make his way over to the atrium.
“Yes, Sir! We’ll be here should you need anything else!” the Centurion said as Leon, Alix, and Anzu walked away.
After they left, the Centurion’s third-tier Prefect came over and asked, “You all right, Sir?” The Centurion’s face was a little pale and he was obviously a tad jittery, but he quickly nodded to his subordinate.
“I wasn’t expecting one of the Prince’s own men to ask me anything, especially not him!”
“Right…” the Prefect said in understanding. In the year that Leon had been serving under Trajan, just about all the soldiers in the Bull’s Horns had heard about the quiet, stoic, and intense young Tribune that had been recruited into the Prince’s retinue. Leon wasn’t all that aware of it, but there were all kinds of rumors flying around the Legions in Ariminium about who he was and where he came from.
“He was nothing like what I’ve heard about him, though,” the Centurion continued.
“Indeed, I was under the impression that he was far more severe and arrogant,” the Prefect added.
“Really? I’d heard that he was a bloodthirsty brute, more prone to killing any soldiers who looked at him funny than he was to talk to any of them…” the Centurion replied as he forced his heart rate to slow.
Both men shivered a little at the relief of seeing Leon walk away, but that disconnect between what they had heard about him and how he’d acted twisted their minds in confusion. It took them nearly an hour to get their minds back on clearing and patching up the villa.
Unfortunately for the two of them, both Leon and Alix had heard the entire exchange, as the atrium wasn’t far enough away for their voices to be lost. Leon’s face was as expressionless as ever, but his cheeks were still slightly flushed, and Alix was staring at him and desperately trying to contain her mirthful chuckles. Ignoring her, Leon turned his attention to the pile of papers, personal items, and anything else that the workers had deemed noteworthy in the small atrium.
“You start over there,” Leon said, indicating one end of the pile while he walked over to the other end and grabbed the nearest stack of papers. A quick scan revealed nothing more than what was already known: the owner of the villa was a fifth-tier mage in the Iron Dove guild. Leon set the unhelpful papers aside and reached for another stack. He could already tell that this was going to take a long while.
Two hours later, Leon and Alix met in the middle of the pile. There had been a few things learned, such as the names of several of the villa owner’s friends and family, but otherwise, nothing that might have shed light on the smuggling operation that they could tell. Leon noted everything down that seemed relevant, but even then, he barely needed more than a couple sheets of paper for all of it.
“I can’t help but feel like that was all a giant waste of time,” Alix pessimistically muttered.
“You’re not alone,” Leon said. “The other rooms should be cleared by now, let’s check the place out.”
“Mm!” Alix responded.
The villa had been built in three narrow rows, with a row of rooms going from the front door all the way to the farthest room in the back. All the other rooms branched off this central row, with a second floor that had a similar design layout, though much smaller; neither the atrium nor the room that led to the underground warehouse possessed a second floor above them. Most of the rooms were barely big enough to comfortably hold a couple pieces of furniture, so searching the place was hardly a challenging affair.
Leon and Alix moved from room to room, with Anzu trailing behind looking both bored at what they were doing and tense at all the other people around. Their search didn’t go far, especially at first, as most of the rooms closer to the front door had already been ransacked. As they continued, they found a few rooms that had been cleared of rubble in the past two hours, but even then, the fire had destroyed anything that they might have been interested in.
Storage rooms, guest bedrooms, bathrooms, a dining room, and a living room, Leon and Alix went through them all, and they found little more than ash and charred furniture.
“The owner of this place really should’ve invested in some fire suppression enchantments,” Alix complained as she and Leon ascended the stairs to the second floor. Despite the stone exterior of the villa, much of the building’s frame had been made of wood, not to mention the highly flammable tapestries and wooden furniture. After the frame burned, much of the villa had started to collapse, which only spread the fire further.
“If they had, then we likely wouldn’t have found out about their little smuggling operation,” Leon said. “But, yeah, if I were in the business of smuggling a plant, then I would’ve put some time into designing—or getting someone to design—and install some kind of anti-fire enchantments, regardless of the price.”
“Are they expensive?” Alix asked curiously.
“From what I understand, all enchantments are prohibitively expensive when applied to something as large as a house, even if that house is small,” Leon explained. “Even the enchantments that power household appliances aren’t cheap, which is why most rural households have little more than a single freezer, toilet, and maybe a shower per home.”
“I suppose that does make some sense, given how little we had at Fort 127…” Alix whispered. “Though, that might not be the best comparison—even my childhood home in a country town had more amenities than Fort 127…”
When they reached the top of the stairs, they found that the workers had largely finished their work and were busy trying to stay out of Leon and Alix’s way. Leon actually had to fight back an amused chuckle when he saw several first-tier and mortal workers scramble out of the room when he appeared at the top of the stairs.
“There’s probably an office and a bedroom up here, let’s start there,” Leon said.
“Got it,” Alix responded.
The two immediately split to continue their search. Alix found the bedroom, while Leon found the office. The office wasn’t that large, with only a desk and several cabinets to search. The desk was bereft of anything useful, but within one of the cabinets, he found both a small stack of letters and a stack of papers that were very interesting indeed. The papers seemed to be accounting information that indicated how much Silverleaf had passed through the villa over the past year or so, while several of the letters had times and dates written on them that Leon assumed were from the villa owners’ smuggling contacts.
‘This guy was just asking to get caught smuggling!’ Leon thought as he rifled through the incriminating documents. If he were the smuggler, he would’ve burned the letters and receipts, but to be fair, he’d never had to keep track of multiple tons of contraband.
Leon left the office with his evidence in hand, but the search wasn’t over; he still had another large room to check out on the second floor. However, once he poked his head into it, he instantly knew that he wouldn’t find much within—the room was what Leon guessed to be an enchantment lab, though the roof had collapsed and burned almost everything of note.
“There’s nothing in the bedroom,” Alix stated as she joined Leon in the lab.
“Then I’d say we’re done here,” Leon said. “Let’s head back and report to the Prince.”
Leon and Alix found the Prince out in front of the villa, watching the workers like a hawk as they piled the boxes of Silverleaf in the street to burn. It was fortunate that just about everything they had seized was the raw plant. If it had been refined into the wind-magic-boosting drug, then they would’ve had to had to find another way to dispose of it.
“Your Highness,” Leon said in greeting.
“Sir Leon! Find anything?” Trajan replied.
“Some accounting details and a couple of possible accomplices,” Leon answered as he waved what he’d brought from the office.
“Good,” Trajan said. “Dame Minerva has some people speaking with the neighbors; once they get back, you can hand all of that off to them.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Leon responded.
As they spoke, the last of the Silverleaf was carried out of the basement and taken to the pile. The Centurion that Leon had spoken to earlier then tossed a roll of paper onto the pile, causing a huge portion of the Silverleaf to immediately burst into flame. The heat roiled off the pile and the fire spread rapidly, but there were more than enough people around to keep it in check. It only took about ten minutes, but more than a ton of Silverleaf was rendered into ash.
Merovech’s clothes were soaked with sweat, and he had to fight with every fiber of his being not to shake or show other outward signs of his anxiety. Ever since the riots in the guild district, he’d been locked up in the prisons of Ariminium, and he was sure he’d missed at least three drops by his contacts. If he didn’t get out soon and see to his Silverleaf supply, then the smugglers he’d been working with for the past few years would be in a decidedly violent mood when they met with him next.
He desperately hoped that with the riots, his contacts might be a little more understanding than he feared, but he also knew that three weeks without access to his warehouse would cut into their profits by a huge margin. Every day he spent languishing in prison, both he and his smuggling friends were losing out on enormous piles of silver. But there wasn’t anything the man could do about that while he was in the dark, dank, dirty cell that he’d been in for almost a month.
Suddenly, just as Merovech had managed to temporarily drive the fears from his mind of what would happen when—or if—he was released, he heard the sounds of approaching footsteps. This in itself didn’t raise any alarms with him, as guards frequently patrolled through the prison, but as the footsteps grew closer, Merovech started paying more attention. As a fifth-tier mage, he wasn’t imprisoned with the rest of the hundreds of rioters and was instead held in the basement of Ariminium’s principal prison in a specially constructed cell to prevent him from using his elemental magic to escape. He quickly realized that these footsteps were descending the long flight of stairs into his cell block, where only himself and a small handful of other high-tiered mages were being held.
Merovech pressed his face against the bars to try and get a good look at whoever was coming—he and the rest of the prisoners in his neighboring cells hadn’t received any visitors in the weeks since they’d been arrested, only a few officials to process them and inform them of the date they’d go before an Arbiter and be tried for their crimes. However, with the sheer number of guild mages that had rioted, the courts had to scramble to find the time for everyone. Consequently, Merovech and about a third of the mages arrested for their part in the riots were still waiting on their trial dates.
Finally, after an agonizingly long wait, the door to Merovech’s cell block opened, allowing light to spill out into the dark dungeon that nearly blinded him. As the guild mage-cum-smuggler averted his eyes for a moment, he heard the footsteps of about half a dozen people move past his neighboring cells and stop right in front of his.
After a brief moment, Merovech’s eyes adapted to the sudden light and he turned back toward the bars of his cell. There, he saw a beautiful but terrifying woman staring back at him. She had glossy black hair, sharp facial features, and brown eyes so dark they appeared almost black.
Merovech had, for a moment, been hopeful that these people were finally bringing him word about his trial, but as he stared back at the cold and merciless eyes of this woman, he knew in his heart that that wasn’t the case.
With almost theatrical slowness, as if she were reveling in Merovech’s growing horror, the woman reached into a small satchel at her hip and pulled out a single Silverleaf, then dropped it through the bars of Merovech’s cell.
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Efflorescence - Kyle J Smith
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