“Three tons of Silverleaf, enough military equipment to field half a battalion, four million three hundred and seventy thousand silver coins, almost fifty crates of wine and glassware, and twenty-six smugglers captured,” Trajan listed, reading from the report Leon had given him that morning.
After capturing the smuggler’s cave, Leon had a messenger dispatched back to the Bull’s Horns to report their success and pass along Leon’s request for additional soldiers to help with the clean-up. Minerva responded immediately to Leon’s request, sending out another hundred soldiers and twenty wheel-less carts before the sun rose the next morning. Leon’s team was relieved when these reinforcements arrived, and they accompanied the three squads assigned to escort the prisoners back to the Horns.
This had been Leon’s first command, and it ended in victory, so understandably, the young man eagerly wrote his report as soon as he returned home and sent it to Trajan before passing out from having been awake all night. Once he woke up, he was ordered to meet with Trajan to go over the results of his mission.
“Dame Minerva will squeeze those smugglers for any information they have, though I’m not expecting too much,” Trajan said to Leon.
“Yeah, I think I was a little too hasty when I ordered the opening attack,” Leon responded with a frown. “The galley’s captain and that foreigner who met with him probably knew a lot more than most of the rest of the smugglers. Still, we might get something out of that other fourth-tier smuggler…”
Trajan sighed as he glanced up at Leon. “I can’t say that you did poorly, as your mission was a success by any metric, and I’m glad you’re thinking about it—shows you’re learning from any mistakes you made. Why don’t you tell me what you think your biggest mistake here was?”
“I treated the raid on the smugglers as a military operation,” Leon instantly responded. “I… shouldn’t have done that. After killing a few of the stronger smugglers, the rest surrendered far too quickly for the level of force I used…”
“I agree,” the Prince replied. “I doubt any of these smugglers were particularly invested in the operation, and they clearly weren’t willing to die for what was probably just the best job they could find in their own unique circumstances. Better to be imprisoned for a handful of years than to be killed protecting some rich asshole’s property.”
Leon nodded in understanding. “Were I to go on another mission like this, I think I would try and take everyone alive that I could. Open up with a demand for the significantly less-armed and armored people to surrender.”
Trajan sighed again. “A good idea and one I wish occurred to more knights. Too often, a knight will be sent in to deal with bandits and the like, and their first instinct is to kill everyone. A side-effect of training people to fight and kill foreign invaders only to turn them loose on our own lawbreakers, I suppose. I’ve been hoping to speak with my Royal Brother about that, about codifying the difference between domestic criminals, foreign enemies, and magical monsters, and having separate and, more importantly, specific regulations for dealing with each, though the opportunity hasn’t arisen yet. There’s always been something else that’s come up that demanded my attention.”
“Aren’t there already specific regulations for dealing with monsters?” Leon asked.
“Some. Not enough. There are a few guidelines, but they really need to be codified. That being said, it’s the designation of military targets versus civilian targets that needs to be cleared up.”
“Makes sense to me, there wasn’t a single class at the Knight Academy that dealt with criminals and the like. The training was entirely geared toward countering an enemy army in various forms, not with less organized criminals from the common sectors.”
Trajan leaned back in his seat with his hands behind his head. This had been a problem he’d been aware of for a long time, but with the recent riots and the smuggling problem they uncovered, the issue had come to the forefront of his mind. Knights were expected to be both soldiers and law enforcement, but Trajan had come to learn in his position that the problems encountered when fulfilling each of these separate duties couldn’t necessarily be solved with the solutions that would apply to the other.
“I don’t suppose you have any suggestions?” Trajan asked, pulling out the obsidian plate and shining red ruby that housed the magic body of Caecilius, the founder of the Bluefire Guild.
The gem was silent, with no voice emanating from it.
“What’s up with him?” Leon asked.
“Upset that I dissolved his guild, I expect,” Trajan replied. After another moment of silence, Trajan laughed and ran his fingers through his salt-and-pepper colored hair. “Whatever,” he said, bringing the conversation back to the matter at hand. “I’ll leave the specifics that need to be sorted out to the lawyers and other people that I pay to be more knowledgeable about these things. For now, you and that squire of yours just got back from a successful mission, so take the next week off.”
Leon nodded gratefully, but as he rose from his own seat across the table from the Prince, he asked, “We still on for morning training?”
“Not trying to weasel out of your morning beatings, are you?” Trajan asked with a challenging smile.
“No, just making sure the ‘week off’ didn’t apply to that,” Leon answered, countering Trajan with a smile of his own.
“See you tomorrow morning, then,” the Prince replied. “Get some rest, because I’ve got something special in mind for tomorrow that you haven’t seen, yet.”
Far away from Leon and Trajan’s joking atmosphere, more than a thousand miles to the west of the Bull’s Horns, Duke Euphemius Decimius was practically pulling his hair out from stress. His finances were in tatters, he was behind on his payments to his knights, and Heaven’s Eye refused to cooperate with him whenever he tried to fix his financial situation.
“Why did you suddenly change the policies on me again?” he demanded of the Heaven’s Eye representative sitting across his desk from him. His face was pale and gaunt, his clothes lacked the garish colors and decorations that otherwise would’ve been present, and there were a few empty alcoves and bare spots on the walls of his office where expertly carved statues and exquisite tapestries could once be found.
Every time the representative’s eyes passed over one of these spots, he struggled not to smile. Heaven’s Eye made it almost impossible for Euphemius to access his vaults and accounts on a regular basis, and it was clear that Euphemius’ financial situation was at the point where he was starting to sell some of the ostentatious trappings that nobles of his caliber surrounded themselves with.
“It’s only a security measure,” the representative said with a dismissive smile, pausing in his answer just long enough for Euphemius to know that he was being disrespectful on purpose.
“One hundred and sixteen years I have been alive,” Euphemius said, his pale face flushing red with anger. “One hundred and sixteen years, and you have never once brought up these concerns with me. Not once have you brought up these concerns with any of my ancestors, either! And yet, now, suddenly, you’re telling me that I can’t access more than a single vault every month?! You can’t deny me access to my resources like this!”
“It’s an order from the top, Your Grace,” the representative said, not even trying to make his tone sound reassuring.
“From Lady Emilie, then?” Euphemius belligerently demanded, the last year of being forced to accept his financial losses leaving him with only a fraction of the patience he once possessed.
The representative simply smiled back at him without bothering to hide his pleasure at the noble’s fury and indignation.
Euphemius took a deep breath and stood up. He glowered down at the seated Heaven’s Eye representative and growled, “Leave.”
The representative acquiesced, rising and giving the Duke a slight, almost sarcastic bow, then walking out of the office.
Euphemius waited an entire minute to ensure the representative had left earshot, then he screamed in rage and scattered the papers on his desk. With a wave of his hand, he conjured a blade of ice and started laying into his desk, his chair, and all the rest of the furniture in his office. In five minutes, everything within was little more than a pile of splinters, but Euphemius was feeling much better—he was still indescribably furious, but he no longer felt like strangling the first person he saw.
When the Duke left his office, there were three servants waiting outside almost shaking in fear. They had clearly heard what the Duke had just done, but after his little bit of catharsis, Euphemius was back to the smiling, jovial, and kind nobleman that he always pretended to be.
“Please clean all of that up,” was all he said to the servants as he made his way to a small meeting room where his smuggling contact and the leader of his Shadow Guards were waiting for him.
“I take it the meeting went poorly, Your Grace?” the Shadow Guard said, easily seeing through his lord’s mask of serenity.
Euphemius glanced at his guard, the man’s pitch black eyes giving nothing away; the guard’s expression was neutral, his black clothes were simple if of obvious quality, and all of his hair had been shaved, leaving him appearing as nondescript as possible. The only thing anyone would be able to find noteworthy about the guard was a ring on his left hand set with a sparkling emerald.
“That base-born maggot has locked away all of my property in Heaven’s Eye vaults!” Euphemius raged, his hatred, wrath, and disdain evident in his tone despite his meager attempts to control himself. He was able to control his outburst about the rest of his finances, though, as he didn’t want to let his contact with the smuggling network know how bad of a state he was in. At the moment, the revenue brought in from Silverleaf production and smuggling was the only thing keeping Euphemius’ head above water, as even glass and wine were barely bringing in a tenth of the silver they did only a year ago.
But, Euphemius quickly found out that his involvement in smuggling wasn’t as secure a revenue source as he had thought when the smuggler said in a grave tone, “We have another problem: our eastern route has been severed.”
“What?!” Euphemius exclaimed.
“We lost contact with our people in Ariminium several weeks ago. It seems they flipped when questioned by Prince Trajan’s people because a couple days ago our closest storage point to the city was raided by a team of Legion knights.”
Euphemius fought to keep his temper under control, and quietly asked, “How much did we lose?”
“Well, I ordered that everything stored there be moved once it became clear that our guy in Ariminium was arrested. Still, we lost more than half of what we tried to move through there during the past three months.”
“How much?!” Euphemius demanded. Once the smuggler informed him, the Duke shot to his feet in anger and almost stormed out of the room. His sixth-tier aura burst from his body and filled the room with so much killing intent that both the smuggler and the Shadow Guard captain froze up for a brief moment.
The Duke didn’t angrily leave the room, though. Instead, he slowly turned back to the smuggler and asked, “How much can we move by the southern route?”
“We don’t have a strong presence in the western coasts of the plane,” the smuggler explained. “Since there’s not many wind mages in Samar, moving much more Silverleaf than we have been doing lately won’t be cost-effective.”
“Transport as much as you can. Take my glass and wine with you, as well. If I can’t sell those things for what they’re worth here, then someone somewhere else will buy them for a decent price that isn’t mitigated by taxes and tariffs…”
“Not much choice until we get another eastern route established,” the smuggler said with a shrug.
“How long until you get that sorted out?” Euphemius asked.
“A year, maybe longer,” the smuggler responded.
“Then get on it.”
With that, the smuggler rose and left, pointedly not bowing or lowering himself to the Duke before doing so, which only enraged the Duke even more. Despite this, Euphemius managed to contain himself.
Turning to his Shadow Guard, he asked, “How many of the Kingdom’s surveyors are on our borders?”
“About three dozen,” the guard replied.
“I’ve stalled as long as I could. Prince Octavius has yet to get them to leave, and I’m running out of excuses to stop them from entering my lands. See to it that they get attacked by ‘bandits’ in the near future.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” the Shadow Guard replied, his face twisting in a vicious smile.
Euphemius collapsed into a chair in one of his sitting rooms. This room was being used as a temporary office until his actual office could get new furniture. As the Duke stared at the financial report his accountants made to replace the furniture he destroyed, he sorely regretted losing his temper, as he couldn’t afford unnecessary expenses at the moment.
At the current rates, his already high taxes and incomes from his rented lands could only support about half of his expenses. The wine and glass used to be enough to pick up the rest of the slack, and more besides. Originally, his allowance for the growth of Silverleaf on his land and to facilitate its transportation was only to make a little bit more on the side.
Now, with most of that additional revenue gone and his vaults effectively seized by Heaven’s Eye, he had about two months of liquid assets left before he would have to start disbanding his army or selling his private land. He’d even had to stop sending bribe money months ago to Tiberias for the other knights in Tiberias’ Legion, which was still based uncomfortably close to his land.
“Shit,” he muttered, seeing few ways out of this desperate situation.
Thank you to my Seventh-tier patrons:
Efflorescence - Kyle J Smith
Please visit Royal Road and leave a rating or review!
Patreon (Up to 20 chapters ahead)