Merovech felt his heart sink into his feet as he stared at the single gray leaf that the woman had tossed into his cell.
‘She knows who I am,’ Merovech thought, instantly grasping the obvious.
The guards accompanying the woman swiftly opened the doors of his cell and rushed in. Merovech, in a futile attempt to protect himself, launched himself back while calling upon his magic. He was already imprisoned for rioting and rebellion, so he didn’t think twice about fighting against the guards.
However, as his magic power burst out of his soul realm and into his blood, a deep and terrifying aura erupted from the woman, stopping him in his tracks. The killing aura from her alone was enough for Merovech—who honestly didn’t have that much experience with combat—to freeze up and feel like a rabbit caught in the jaws of a wolf.
A pair of guards grabbed his arms and dragged him out of his cell, to which he offered no more resistance. The woman was a sixth-tier mage, and going by her green and gold uniform, she was a Legate in the Royal Legions, so she was far more used to fighting and killing than he was—though he didn’t need to assume, her killing intent alone was enough for him to understand that.
Merovech was dragged out of the dungeon and through the halls of the prison, rising from the cold and dark granite of the prison’s lower reaches into the bright white marble of the administration sectors. He didn’t get much time to savor the heat and the comfort of these parts of the prison, though, as he was immediately dragged into a stark and featureless interrogation room. Following close behind were the rest of the guards and the woman whose killing intent continued to strike fear deep into his heart every time they made eye contact.
The interrogation room was just barely big enough for all eight people within to stand comfortably and was so immaculately clean that Merovech was extremely conscious of the fact that he hadn’t been allowed a shower or bath in over a week. But all concerns of his appearance or smell vanished the instant the woman sat down across a table from the chair in which he’d been unceremoniously dropped by the guards.
The woman fixed her steely gaze onto Merovech until he began to noticeably sweat, then stated, “I am Dame Minerva.”
Merovech felt his stomach sink, which mildly surprised him as he didn’t think it could sink any further. Regardless, he knew exactly who Dame Minerva was: the second-in-command of the Legions at the Bull’s Horns. Not only did she know that he was smuggling the primary ingredient in a highly illegal drug, but she had personally come down to the prison to question him.
“We found your little warehouse beneath your villa during the clean-up of the guild district,” Minerva said, confirming Merovech’s suspicions that she knew how big of an operation he was involved in.
Merovech couldn’t say anything in his defense. Perhaps if he hadn’t spent the past three weeks worrying about his safety when—if—he ever managed to get out of prison then he might’ve tried denying it. But now, he could only sigh and hold his tongue.
Minerva glared at the smuggler. She’d learned from his arrest record that he’d been captured only a street or two over from his villa fighting some of the other rioters. ‘Probably trying to defend his home and the fight got out of hand,’ Minerva had thought when she read the record. Regardless of how the fight between Merovech and the looters had begun, the smuggler had resisted when the soldiers attempted to take him into custody and so been labeled a rioter.
Of course, Minerva could understand why the smuggler hadn’t wanted to even claim that he was defending his own property, as any association with the soldiers could be dangerous given his profession. There would be more than a few awkward questions asked of him when he next met with his contacts.
Then again, Minerva didn’t know that for certain. If Merovech’s smuggling contacts weren’t the inquisitive or cautious sort, then maybe they wouldn’t have asked. Either way, Merovech decided not to cooperate with the soldiers and had spent the past three weeks locked in a cell as a consequence.
“The amount of Silverleaf we confiscated from that warehouse was substantial,” Minerva continued. “If your contacts find out what happened, surely they won’t be pleased…”
Minerva hoped that Merovech would be smart enough to pick up on her insinuation. Given that he hadn’t said more than a few coherent sentences to the soldiers guarding the prison, though, she was fully prepared to explain what she meant in excruciating detail.
Fortunately, however, Merovech understood perfectly well that if he were to leave now, with the millions of silvers worth of Silverleaf in his possession lost, then he was already a dead man walking.
“How will my cooperation affect my current standing?” Merovech asked, his voice raspy and hoarse from lack of use over the past few weeks.
“We can come to an arrangement,” Minerva said. “If your information leads to the capture of more smugglers, then the Arbiters will certainly take that into consideration. If you give us enough, we might even let you go…”
Left unsaid was just how much was ‘enough’. Merovech knew that the damage the riots had done was enough to get him locked up for a long time, let alone the rebellion charges added once Trajan was forced to get personally involved, and so if he were to have his crimes forgiven, his information would have to be significant indeed.
Slowly, with the full understanding of what he was doing and the hesitation that such a betrayal brought, Merovech said, “I think I can give you what you want…”
“How is it that we had to nearly have the entire city burn down around us to find any of this out?!” Trajan thunderously demanded of his Legates and Tribunes. The Prince and his highest ranked subordinates had gathered in the meeting room where Leon had first met Trajan, and everyone had a copy of Minerva’s initial report in their hands. Trajan glared at each one of them in turn, only skipping over Leon and a small handful of other Tribunes who were standing off to the side as their duties were so restrictive as to make it laughable if anyone held them at fault.
“This is a very complex smuggling network, Your Highness,” Minerva offered in everyone’s defense. “Additionally, it seems that the smugglers are receiving some substantial help from someone important within the Kingdom.”
“How so?” Trajan brusquely asked.
“Simply by the fact that we haven’t heard of this before indicates that the smugglers have the kind of resources that would be almost impossible to possess without some inside help from the more corrupt sectors of the Kingdom’s government,” Minerva said. “Not to mention some of the names Merovech gave us implicate a few bureaucrats within Ariminium itself, as well as a handful in the six merchant cities of the Southern Territories. This is an extensive network of smugglers.”
“And what’s more,” offered another Legate sitting close to the Prince, “this Merovech has indicated that the Silverleaf he stores is destined to move up the Tyrrhenian River, meaning that it originates within the Kingdom.”
Trajan scowled. He wanted to believe that the King’s surveyors wouldn’t miss the kind of large-scale farms that would be needed to produce the amount of Silverleaf they had found in Merovech’s villa, but the fact that they had only just accidentally stumbled upon the smuggling ring prevented the Prince from indulging in that want. These smugglers had powerful help, that much he couldn’t deny.
“How many of the people Merovech identified have been arrested?” the Prince asked.
“About half,” Minerva instantly responded. “A few others were reported dead in the aftermath of the riots, and others still aren’t permanent residents of the city. If they show up, though, we’ll get them.”
“Right,” Trajan almost spat. He almost added a few scathing remarks, but he knew that it wouldn’t help, so he refrained. “Ursus,” the Prince growled.
Leon immediately stepped forward, drawing the attention of everyone in the room. He felt the pressure that brought quite intensely, but after a year in Trajan’s service, he’d become at least somewhat acquainted with just about everyone in the room. As a result, he wasn’t nearly so anxious as he might have otherwise been with so many powerful mages staring at him.
“Your Highness,” Leon whispered as he gave the Prince a slight bow.
“When we get actionable intel on any locations where more Silverleaf can be found, I’ll be sending you to deal with it. I’m going to assign you three knights from each of the local Legions and fifteen men-at-arms as well.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Leon said as he fought back the smile of being given his first command, even if it was temporary and he was accompanied by far more experienced knights. “I won’t let you down.”
“I know you won’t,” Trajan responded with an almost fatherly look.
Leon returned to where he had been standing feeling like he had been suddenly energized. He was as excited as anyone would be after being entrusted with new, if temporary, responsibilities, but on the other hand, he was almost paralyzed with anxiety at the prospect of having to deal with so many new people and the pressure placed upon him by Trajan’s expectations.
As Leon was lost in contemplation, Trajan handed out other assignments to several other Tribunes and younger Legates. For the most part, these orders were to follow up on the people Merovech had named that hadn’t been caught yet or to interrogate those who had been arrested.
“I want as much information on these smugglers as all of you can bring me,” Trajan stated with killing intent pouring out of his body. “We will find those who believe the King’s laws are beneath them, we will find those who exploit the King’s own people to peddle their poison, and we will break them in every way possible! Now, you all have your orders, so get moving!”
“Yes, Your Highness!” everyone responded in unison. Immediately, most of the Legates and Tribunes began to file out, but Minerva, Leon, and the three Legates that commanded the three combat Legions stayed behind.
“What is it?” Trajan asked. He knew why Leon was staying: unless otherwise dismissed, it was the young man’s job to stick with Trajan in these situations to learn from his elder’s example. Minerva and the three most senior Legates stationed at the Horns, however, weren’t given to flights of whimsy—if they had stuck around, then Trajan knew there was a damned good reason for it.
“Our spies to the east have been sending back some concerning reports,” one of the Legates said—he was Amatius, the son of Count Occius in the Eastern Territories, and was the first of the Legates that Leon had met. “They tell of the mustering of troops by Prince Owain of the Talfar Kingdom.”
“Hmm, Talfar is currently at war with the Han Kingdom, no?” Trajan inquired.
“Indeed, Your Highness, and from our accounts, it seems to be a bitter stalemate,” another Legate by the name of Saufeia answered.
“Chances are that this gathering army is meant to reinforce their eastern front, but they’re worryingly close if they’re being gathered at Briga… Keep an eye on them. If they move west instead, I want to know.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” the Legates responded, and all three finally left, leaving only Trajan, Leon, and Minerva in the meeting room. Trajan had nothing more to say, though, so Leon followed the Legates out only a couple minutes later.
Anzu, who had been anxiously waiting in the meeting room’s antechamber, stared at the doors every time they opened, and when Leon appeared, the young griffin bolted over and almost knocked Leon to the ground.
“Hey there, little buddy,” Leon said quietly as Alix, too, rose to her feet from where she’d been sitting and approached with an inquisitive look. “Expect to be heading out soon,” Leon said with a smile of anticipation.
Alix responded with a smile of her own, and she said, “We’re going to be destroying the smugglers, right?”
“More than that,” Leon continued. “I’ve been placed in charge of a team to do just that.”
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