Chapter 34

(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you spot them, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!!)

While Kain had his hand nearly blown off, his father was waiting in a hallway of the Lomax mansion, slowly pacing up and down the crowded corridor.

As promised, he came to see his brother, Dukakis. He was in the office today, although there was a constant stream of important looking men entering and exiting the said office. Damien had to wait until there was a break before he could speak to his own flesh and blood. Kinda felt like he was waiting to speak to his father back when he was still living in this house, with his father enjoying robust health.

So, like father, like son, then.

Besides that, though….

Damien couldn’t help but cover his mouth and yawn. He did his best to do it discreetly.

See, the thing was, he had to turn in pretty late the night before. Obviously, Damien couldn’t have foreseen that a seemingly innocuous money collecting request would morph into something infinitely more troublesome.

One of those men got him pretty good. There was a stinging reminder to his right ribcage left behind by the bandits for hire. That’s what their job descriptions were – hired by merchants to sabotage a rival’s operations. Pretty classy, sarcastically speaking. Nothing was broken, at least as far as he could tell, but regardless, this was the result of getting way too excited for his own health. He properly reflected upon it.

Still, what he was told from the mouths of those fools troubled him greatly. To think, his son’s murderers were of such complicated origins…

To make matters even worse, the adjutant from the night before was absent today. According to Dukakis’s personal butler who was acting as a stand-in, this absence was quite sudden and unexplainable. Apparently, the missing man was a hard worker who managed to never miss a day. And that was including the national holidays and even his own wedding.

As much as Damien tried not to care, he wondered whether it was his fault for the poor sob not coming in for work today. He swore not to get involved here but, if he was indeed responsible for some of the guilt, then….

Then, nothing. He had a bigger, tougher fish to fry at the moment to worry about a stranger. As heartless as it might seem, that was the truth. Not a thing he could do about it to change the fact.

“He’s ready to see you now, Young Master,” said Dukakis’s personal butler, Jennings. He was immaculately groomed, as was the case with all the highly experienced butlers of the world were, but Damien detected a hint of tiredness in his eyes.

Jennings was doing his best to keep up with the demands of the commander of the local garrison but seeing that he lacked knowledge in the matters of the armed forces and their particulars, he was clearly struggling.

He had half a mind to ask Cassius to lend a hand but that wouldn’t change things for the better as the old butler was just about the same as well. Two old men running around flustered and out of their depths would only increase Dukakis’s already considerable headaches, so Damien didn’t suggest it.

“Thank you, Jennings,” Damien nodded and entered the Count’s office.

Inside the wide open space, a pair of humongous bookshelves extending all the way to the ceiling stood on both of the walls, filled to the brim with books, both arcane and new.

On four corners, tall potted plants of unknown origins emanating green glow, all the while oozing out pleasant and soothing scents.

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And in the middle, a huge desk that easily dwarfed the one back in Riverfield, its top strewn with parchments and half-open scrolls in various guises.

There were three brown-colored communication crystals of different sizes located in the office as well, with the two of them currently in use.

The smallest one was connected to the Captain of the local garrison’s quarters, and his tense face was projected just above it. He was in the midst of giving an in-depth report.

The medium sized crystal was projecting an image of a short-statured and heavily-armored woman who had a face of someone too young to wear such a fierce-looking things on her. She was speaking and listening to the man behind the desk.

And that man, was Damien’s elder brother, Dukakis. And they looked almost exactly alike. Except for Damien being a bit shorter of height and hair length, as well as Dukakis being narrower of shoulders and also a bit paler due to a lack of sun, they could even be called twins.

Maybe this isn’t such a good time, after all, mused Damien silently, seeing this scene in front of him. Dukakis, however, saw his brother’s entrance and nodded his welcome.

The woman’s face in the projection looked somber as she listened to the captain’s report, but as soon as she saw Damien it brightened up, showing a wide smile.

“Damien!! You’ve come!!” The woman shouted, but the projection’s ability to transmit the loud sound was limited and it ended up sounding garbled instead. Still, her joy at seeing her younger brother was clearly transmitted through no problem.

There were seven other uniformed and armored men in the office beside Dukakis as well. Before his sister’s outburst, only those closest to the door noticed Damien’s entry, but now, all eyes were on him.

“Hello, brother, sis” Damien nodded at Dukakis and then at the projection of his sister.

The older Lomax smiled thinly, before resuming the conference with the Captain’s projection. “Do carry on, captain.”

“Yes, my lord. Ahem. Yes, the systemic reconnaissance of the 3rd quadrant has yielded negative results. According to the gathered intel, the enemy combatants have relocated their base of operations to another sector. Please advise.”

Dukakis grimly frowned as if the weight of the world was weighing down on him. “Continue with the search, captain. We need to completely rout them for the sake of our city and its citizens. Post men around the predetermined strategic points in the quadrant as scheduled, and please report afterward.”

“Yes, my lord.”

The garrison captain’s image flickered and then dissipated like a rising smoke, a small sundial-like disk below the brown crystal rotating automatically until the needle stopped on the spot marked ‘0’. Dukakis then turned to the image of his sister.

“Donna, if you would.”

“Right, alrighty. I’m currently camped out near the village of Gomah-on-Bent and have encountered three groups of Barbarian idiots so far. Just like before, each group is no more than a dozen or so. I still think there’s a hall in a wall somewhere, Dukakis. I really think it’s high time you send someone, preferably me, to check out the borders.”

Donna’s voice eerily buzzed out of the badly synched projection of hers. Still, her words were crystal clear. The military hardmen present inside the office murmured to each other and began to offer their own take on the situation.

Damien patiently waited for the conference to end, all the while his eyes surveyed some of the open scrolls carelessly strewn about on the huge desk.

One particular parchment attracted his attention. It was half unfurled, revealing a crest on top, but the content itself was obscured from his view. He was too far to get a good look at it, however.

“Donna, stay on course. We’ve reports of Barbarians disguising as bandits and performing raids all over the area you are in. We need to find them before the damage spreads too far. As for the borders, I already have made arrangements. So do not mind it.”

Only allowed on

Dukakis took in all the recommendations from his advisers and then began handing out his orders. Donatella wasn’t happy, but she nodded her head, and then she looked at Damien.

“Hey, little bro. Don’t you run away before I get back home, you hear? You’ve got a lot of things to answer for, you know?! I’m gonna make sure you tell me EVERYTHING!!!”

Damien smiled weakly and scratched the back of his head. “Oh, come one, Donna. I don’t know if I’ll be here until then. But do take your time out there. I mean, we need you to do a thorough job, right? And not let any enemies slip through the cracks. Well, good luck, sis.”

“Hah!! Whatever, Damien. But wait for me, alright?”

Then her image flickered away. Like before, a small sundial, this time embedded into a pedestal below the large crystal, rotated as well until coming to a rest at ‘0’.

Dukakis ended the conference, but the truth was his work would never end. He sent his advisers out to do their respective jobs, which left Damien alone in the office with his older brother whom he hadn’t seen in a decade. Sure, there were exchanges of official letters in the past, but this was indeed, the first face to face after Damien had left home.

“You look good, considering,” Dukakis smiled bitterly. The expression wasn’t of malice, though. It was more like…. him unable to think of something brotherly and welcoming to say, so simply improvised on the spot.

“Yeah, well. You too, Dukakis.”

Damien returned a similar sort of cramped smile that didn’t carry any ill intentions.

“I heard that you spoke with father. I’m assuming that didn’t go smoothly?”

Damien genuinely chuckled at that. “As much as you can imagine. No, he’s still a bastard, that one.”

“Look, Damien. Regardless of what he is, what he did, he is still our father. At least…. At least let us keep some decorum and address him in proper manners.”

Damien wanted to disagree, but then he saw his brother’s tired face and shut his mouth up. Instead, he chose to simply nod his consent.

“What is wrong with him, anyway? Is it an illness? Or something else?”

Damien asked about the condition of their father. Although he did not care for that man’s condition, still he found himself wondering about it in the end.

“It’s a combination of poison and the complication from the treatment. It was the Barbarian agents spiking father’s drink. The antidote was easy enough to procure but the side effects were severe. And the result of all that, it’s clear to see, isn’t it.”

Dukakis sighed, massaging his temples slightly.

His curiosity somewhat satisfied, Damien moved on. “And what about this Barbarian situation? How did it become this bad?”

Dukakis reached out to a large wooden box on the corner of his desk. Opening the lid, he fetched an ornately decorated smoking pipe carved out from a bone of a powerful Fiend. He went through the ritual of stuffing the end with tobacco then lit it with a small ball of flames which he created with an Invocation spell.

Breathing in deeply the resulting smoke, Dukakis slowly leaned back and spoke. “The rumor has it that a few months ago, three of the most influential tribes beyond the borders went to war against one another. A three-way melee, as it were. Don’t really know the reason, but it became a free-for-all very quickly. A bloody nightmare, is what it is. As you well know, there isn’t a central governing body with the Barbarians, so it became an utter chaos up there.”

Damien silently listened, slightly perturbed at the information. Again, this was new to him.

After taking in another deep smoke, Dukakis continued. “One of the tribes involved in this mess is Northern Lepudia. From what the intelligence officers have gathered, that tribe is this close to being wiped out, their Tribal Mystic Totem in danger of something called A Corruption.”

“I think I know what that is,” Damien spoke when he detected Dukakis wanting a little break in explanation. “A Tribal Mystic Totem is a sacred artifact passed down to the heirs of the chieftain, isn’t it? It’s supposed to be a representation of the Soul of the tribe. A Corruption only means that it’s close to being destroyed by the outside influences.”

Dukakis nodded. “That’s what I heard as well. As expected, you knew already, huh.”

“Well, yeah. It’s something forced down on me, so….” Damien shrugged his shoulders dismissively.

“The surviving members of the Northern Lepudia tribesmen have scattered all over. Some have tried to claim asylum in my city, so far none have been granted. However, there were a few that have slipped past the border control.”

“I see. But I can’t see how disrupting the peace of Marlborough could help them,” Damien narrowed his eyes. “Is there something else?”

Dukakis nodded. “Yes, as a matter of fact, there is. Out of the three-way melee, the Tigris tribe gained a lot of power. However, the Tribal Mystic Totem of Lepudia tribe is missing, presumed smuggled out of the tribe’s safekeeping. Also presumed to be south of the national border. Even worse…. Tigris think father granted an asylum to the ones in possession of the said Totem.”

“Oh, I see where this is going,” Damien groaned.

In order to completely defeat an enemy tribe, the tradition among the Barbarians was to destroy the Tribal Mystic Totem. If not, it meant that the spirit of the tribe lived on and thus could rise up again in the future.

So if the Lepudia tribe’s Totem wasn’t destroyed, then that means no matter how Tigris claim the victory, it’d be not acknowledged by the other tribes in the area.

Dukakis exhaled the bluish smoke after sucking on the pipe. “The Tigris thinks father is shielding the Lepudia’s Totem, since he did limited amount trading with them in the past. They want it out in the open so they can destroy it and claim the unconditional victory.”

“But knowing father, he did not grant an asylum. And we have no idea where the Totem or its holders are hiding.”

“Correct,” Dukakis smiled wryly. “But it’s not like the Barbarians to trust the words of us Imperials. We’ve been fighting them for the last five hundred years, so it’s obvious they wouldn’t believe our words.”

“I’m guessing that the reason for targeting the local nobles is to force your hand to negotiate for the peace at the price of the Totem’s whereabouts.”

“Yes, that’s what the messenger said.” Dukakis sighed, shaking his head. “The one who poisoned father left behind a letter demanding the reveal of the Totem and its holder, the granddaughter of the Lepudia Chieftain.”

“Oh, boy. Alright. I get it now. But why haven’t you contacted the Capital? When I stopped by there earlier on, the news of this situation hadn’t reached the ears of the populace. Surely, you could have called for an assistance.”

“It’s more complicated then that.”

Dukakis carried a grim expression as he opened a drawer, producing a missive. Damien immediately recognized it. After all, as a baron and the lord of Riverfield, he had seen in many times before as well.

It was the Imperial Decree, hand delivered by the Imperial Couriers and signed by the highest authority in the nation – the Emperor himself.

Damien opened the missive and pored through it. As he read the contents, his face lost color. “Is this for real?!”

Dukakis formed a fist and gritted his teeth. “Yes, yes it is.”

The missive wasn’t signed by the Emperor, but one of the princes who was in line for the throne.

The contents speak of changing the lord of Marlborough to another family altogether, for a reason of incompetence in part of Caleb’s failure to secure a proper heir to his title.

Apparently, Dukakis wasn’t an officially recognized heir even though he was the eldest child, because Caleb had failed to declare it so.

This meant that in the event of Caleb’s passing, the peerage of Count Lucius Lomax would become vacant. Damien was not eligible due to having his own peerage of Baron.

Using this as a pretext, a faction of nobles currying for a favor in the Imperial succession race, saw an opportunity to increase their influence in one of the most strategically important provinces in the whole of the Empire, plotted against Caleb, and was trying to evict the Lucius Lomax out of Marlborough. This much wasn’t stated in the missive, of course. It’d be something Damien would learn of much later.

Having this mess of Barbarians would only compound the matters further and give ammunition to these bastards.

Damien’s face was quite ugly at the moment. Not that he cared for who might be lord of this city, no, but of the future of his siblings. If Caleb didn’t pass the peerage, then both Dukakis and Donatella would be no better than commoners without a home as the nobles would be able to take the city away.

Yes, Damien could take in both of them in his capacity as a Baron, but that would have its own downside as well.

This wouldn’t even be an issue if Caleb would just recognize either Dukakis or Donatella as the heir to his title. But that stubborn old fool hadn’t.

“Does father know this?” Damien asked, almost crumpling the missive in his clenched fist.

“Yes. And guess how he reacted? He went quite ballistic. But still, he didn’t even want to talk about the solution to the problem.”

Dukakis took in another deep breath of the tobacco. He looked philosophical as he spoke the next words out. “Sometimes, I wonder. I wonder what it would have been like if you never left home. That you stayed behind and became the next Count.”

“Dukakis…” Damien murmured weakly.

“Could I have been the painter that I always wanted to become? I was getting really good as well. My tutor had praised my talents more than once, you see. I even had the recommendations to enter the Imperial Atelier as an apprentice.” Dukakis’s eyes were distant as if he was reminiscing about the past. “I still paint, occasionally. Not lately, however. As you can see, can’t seem to find the time.”

Damien didn’t say anything, just quietly studied his brother’s face for a while. Finally, he spoke his mind as well. “Dukakis. You know why I left. Looking back, it was not a correct choice, I admit. However, I don’t have any regrets. Because I left, I was able to live a life of my own, away from father. I met Liz, I have a family with her, a home in a warm climate, have…. had, a son and still have a daughter.”

“Yes, you have lived a good life, so far…. No, that’s not quite right, is it. Yes, I heard you lost your arm as well as your son under tragic circumstances. It is belated, but my condolences.”

Dukakis’s voice was pained. There was not a single hint of sarcasm in it but somehow, Damien felt there were hidden barbs in the way his brother spoke those words.

“Do you blame me for…. this, your current life?” Damien asked slowly the one question he wanted to ask his brother. A question that burned in his mind ever since…. well, ever since he abandoned home and became an Adventurer.

“Blame you? I admit that, in the beginning, I did. Father was always abusive towards us, especially so after mother passed on. But when you left, he shut us, Donna and I, out completely. It was like we didn’t even exist anymore. So, yes, I did blame you for my suffering.”

Dukakis sighed again, this time even more weakly. Then, abruptly, he stood up and headed for the window. He pushed the heavy, mulberry-colored drapes out of the way and opened the windows to let the fresh air in. He then took a long breath of the pipe.

“Now, though? No, I don’t blame you. You were smart and courageous enough to seek your own fate. I, on the other hand, couldn’t because I was weaker than you. And during my time here, in this seat, I’d like to believe that I have done good things for the people of this city, for this territory as a whole. So, no. I no longer blame you for my position. Can’t speak for Donna’s feelings, however. But knowing her, well, I’m sure she’s the same as I.”

As Dukakis leaned against the window sill, a chilly wind entered the office, and the documents on the desk fluttered. An awkward silence pervaded the office, turning the mood rather gloomy. Frowning, Damien searched for a different subject to break the insufferable atmosphere, only to have his attention involuntarily land on one of the open parchment that was the closest to him. It was the very same one he had noticed while waiting for the conference to end earlier on.

Now that he was closer, the emblem on the top of the parchment was clear – that of a mountain and a pair of new moons on either side of it. There was a line of words written below it.

It said “West & Brooks.”

Seeing this, Damien’s face became ugly once more. Because it brought him the memories of the night before when he interrogated the quartet of thieves-for-hire.

The info he learned then made him nearly lose out all his strength, all his drive for vengeance. Because it turned out that Westbrooks wasn’t a person. It wasn’t even a proper name, per se, as it was actually West & Brooks.

No, rather than a single person, it was a name of a Young Entrepreneurs’ Association based out of the Western Reaches featuring tens of members. Meaning, there were lots of potential suspects for Damien to investigate.

How could a reliable information broker like Mikael mess up so badly? It could only mean one of two things. Either that he was deliberately fed false info, or he fed Damien wrong info on purpose.

However, the second scenario was unlikely – Mikael knew Damien well enough to understand that such a tactic was useless. Besides, there didn’t seem like a good enough reason to get on Damien’s bad side like this.

So, that only left one possibility behind, which was of the spreading of the deliberate misinformation by the members of the said organization. As to why they would go to such a troublesome length of subterfuge, Damien could only speculate, but whatever the case maybe, it wouldn’t be because of a nice, heart warming intention.

Damien picked the scroll up and pored through the contents. It wasn’t anything special – just that, it simply talked about potential investors wishing to join the collective cooperation laid down by Dukakis and the representatives of West & Brooks.

“Hmm? Oh, that?” Dukakis noticed Damien reading the parchment and spoke amiably. “That’s one of the good things I’ve done for the city’s wealth over the years, working with those men. Thanks to the trade agreement, during the last fiscal year we recorded the very first surplus in decades.”

“….Congratulations,” Damien smiled, trying to disguise the uneasiness bubbling in his mind. “When did this organization contact you for an agreement?”

“Actually, it was one of the local merchants who suggested we should work alongside West & Brooks. It took a bit of negotiation, but in the end, the gains for the both sides are substantial. As for how long…. I guess, it’s been six, six and a half years? That sounds about right.”

That long, huh. Damien muttered inwardly. “What do they do, exactly? I’ve never heard of these people up until now.”

“Basically, it’s an amalgam of various children of nobles who might not get to inherit the peerage due to their circumstances. So, you would find merchants, architects, engineers, even Invokers among its membership. Their aim is to provide more than an adequate financial and political base for the members and friends alike.”

Damien nodded, still poker-faced. “Good to hear that these people are helping the city out. But with the things as it is, how are they taking it so far?”

“Oh, they have been a godsend,” Dukakis chuckled happily. “They have somehow managed to keep any unnecessary information from leaking out to the Capital. And of the little bit that did, they have spun a nice tale to go with it as well. Then, there is the procurement of emergency supplies, as well as the extra combat personnel and equipment to go along with them.”

Hearing this, Damien couldn’t help but let a small, complicated expression escape. Quickly reigning in his worries, he asked again. “A good ally to have in this time of need, I guess. I wonder if I could entice them into considering having a working relationship with Riverfield too.”

Dukakis brightened up. “Well, I could introduce some people. You could have a chat and see what they have to say.”

Damien’s eyes sharpened slightly at the turn of the events. “Mm. That could work.”

“Then, it’s settled. But you’ll have to wait a bit for a meeting, unfortunately. None of West & Brooks’s high ranking members are in the city at the moment – with the situation as it is, most of them have evacuated from here, waiting for a favorable news.”

“Oh? Then how should we contact them?”

“I’ll let them know of your intentions via the communication crystal. But first, we need to rid my city of these Barbarian bastards. And then, we can arrange for a proper meet & greet.”

Damien slightly tilted his head. “Wait, you want me to lend a help? Is that it? My services don’t come cheap, you know. Just because you’re my brother, that doesn’t mean I’ll discount my usual rate for you.”

Dukakis laughed softly and returned to his seat. Shaking his head with a wry smile etched in his face, he opened another drawer in the desk and produced a request form. “Here, take this and register it in the Association or whatever it is you Adventurers do. Now, get out of here, brother. I got work to do.”

“You even had one of these prepared, just in case? Dukakis, I wasn’t aware that you could be so…. insightful,” Damien remarked in jest as he took the form and scanned it quickly. “Alright. I’ll see what I can do to help…. but, I do have another errand to run in the city. Hopefully, the two won’t clash with each other, much.”

After saying the temporary goodbyes, Damien walked out of the office and met up with Cassius. He offered light lunch which Damien obviously accepted – if he could save even a single Bronze coin, that he’d take it. This also meant that he stayed in the mansion for a longer time than he had originally planned to do.

Not once did he run into his father. Damien didn’t care too much about it, though. He had much bigger, more important fish to fry to worry about his old man’s feelings.

No, he was looking forward to having a meeting with these West & Brooks bastards and see what’s what. This turn of events was something Damien was thinking of ever since he learned of the identity, or identities, of his targets. So far, his plan was sailing along fairly well.


“Basically, this is what they have said to me.”

In a very foul mood, Michelle spoke to Lizbeth and Rosy after dinner. The girls – Katrina, Kaleena – were fast asleep, their tummies full and totally wiped out from another day’s intense learning schedule.

Michelle’s foul mood originated from a meeting she had with the school’s administrator earlier in the day, regarding the children’s very ill-advised session with the cold-tempered lecturer, Sonorra, and the subsequent chain of events that followed.

After that day’s hellish happenings, Katrina saw fit to report the injustice to her aunt as well as to teacher Michelle in the hopes that the mean lady would never have the pleasure of tormenting them again.

“The school’s administrator was apparently pressurized from someone higher up from SOIR’s circle of Elders. His hands were tied on that as he was merely following orders. Yes, yes, I called him a spineless coward already, so stay your anger, Lizbeth.”

Lizbeth was about to explode with anger so Michelle quickly raised her hand in front as a gesture to calm her down.

Grumbling, Lizbeth sat back down on the large couch, but her anger hadn’t cooled in the slightest. “Who gave out such an order? Surely, a person with a grudge would be behind such a tactless and terrible move.”

“After I finished my little chat with the administrator, I headed to the Central district. Funny thing was, though, none of the old fogies were in the office!! Could you believe it?! What an incredible timing they all seem to possess.”

Michelle fumed equally as hard as her former student. Her words barely could hide the thick sarcasm in her voice, all ready to burst out and go to town with a poor sob who fail to read the atmosphere.

Rosy watched the two woman with a slightly bemused face. She was at a loss as to what to say or do in this case. She was well acquainted with her madam, Lizbeth going all berserk and showing a thing or two to Damien before, but having Michelle here too, made things a tad more complicated.

Only if Delilah was here, Rosy muttered under her breath, wondering if she should get out of here before something bad happens.

“I met a few other concerned mothers there to make a complaint while in the Central district,” continued Michelle under her breath. “They were all wives of prominent folks in the Capital!! And it was quite clear to me that the old fogies have totally let go of their senses, offending that many people. Yes, as SOIR members such things don’t really concern us, but heck, these kids are the future of our organization!! How would they think and act once they achieve adulthood? I shudder to think just what kind of idiotic thoughts were running amok in their brains to give out such an order!!”

“I should imagine!! Even I was up in arms regarding the terrible treatment my daughter and Katrina had received. If it wasn’t your advice to stay home and do research, I would have accompanied you to the administrator’s door and knock some sense into him!!”

Lizbeth harrumphed angrily, Aeterna flaring around her like a coiling snake ready pounce on a prey.

As the two women tattled on, pouring out their mutual anger, Rosy noticed a presence nearing the residence’s doorsteps.

The presence itself didn’t try to mask its approach, leading her to believe it wasn’t a hostile one. “Madam, Miss Michelle, we have a visitor. I’ll go see who it might be.”

Rosy spoke briskly and stood up, neatly bounding towards the front door. The night had deepened and only the soft and distant lights lit the dim streets. There was a lamp hanging just above the front door, illuminating the late night visitor’s countenance.

A lone gentleman in late fifties stood there, waiting. He held a simple black cane, a black top hat and a three-piece black suit and a robe combo. He oozed a sophisticated air of an aristocrat and that of a powerful Invoker. Not to mention he had a restrained elegance of a debonair lady’s man.

As soon as he saw Rosy and her twitching whiskers, he smiled softly. “I’d like to speak to Master Michelle Banovsky. Tell her it’s Master Omar Malick, young lady.”

“No need, Rosy,” said Michelle as she peered around the young Pantherikin girl. “Master Omar, what brings you to my abode this late in the day? Surely, I’m too old for your tastes by now.”

Omar Malick chuckled warmly. “Your wit always had a stinging barb attached to it, Michelle. May I come in and have a word with you? It’s regarding the unfortunate situation with the children under your care.”

Michelle raised one eyebrow, before welcoming him in the house.

When Omar saw Lizbeth, his eyes gleamed brightly for a second before he smiled amiably and introduced himself.

“It’s an honor to meet you, Lady Lizbeth. This here is but a humble servant of SOIR, Master Omar Malick the Third. I am with the Central district and my job is to see to the Academy’s fiscal administrative duties.”

Lizbeth nodded, knowing how important a person this Omar was. After all, he was basically saying that he was the one who decided where the considerable wealth of SOIR went to.

Rosy was asked to prepare a set of tea but Omar politely refused it, before turning towards the two women to explain just what the hell was going on at the moment.

“I don’t have much time to describe in detail, so I shall be brief. Basically, your children have been caught up in a very nasty power struggle between two factions,” said Omar. “To this side, you have the Queen’s faction featuring her direct family members and retainers. And to the opposite side, you have Emperor’s own siblings having other ideas.”

“So, what does that got to do with our little classroom?” Michelle asked irritably.

“It is not a well-known fact but, among the children in your particular class is one with a Royal blood in him. Not a direct descendant, no, but reasonably close to the top of the pile if a handful of heirs keel over inexplicably out of the blue.” Omar smiled thinly. “SOIR is supposed to be removed from the struggles and all the politicking of the Capital, but you know that’s just a distant dream. No. Our Grand Elders are very much invested in which way the needle of the future swings to.”

“So, I presume the one responsible for that order was related to the Queen’s faction, then?” Lizbeth asked, narrowing her eyes.

“Quite correct, my lady. Such an order serves two purposes – one is to retard the possible progress of the boy in question. After all, he is a tremendously talented child. Top of his generation if it weren’t for Kaleena’s sudden entrance. If he were to rise to prominence on the back of his Invocational talent, you can bet your house that Emperor’s siblings would use that to push forward their own agenda.”

“Hmm. I understand,” Michelle nodded. “And for the second purpose, let me guess – the Queen’s faction does not wish for Kaleena to form a bond with this boy, no? By turning her into a villain of sorts in the eyes of impressionable kids early on they don’t have to fear a potential One Sorcerer becoming an enemy to their cause. Am I on the right track so far?”

Omar chuckled. “Quite. Well, it seems my errand here is almost complete. Now, I came here to offer an opportunity – an opportunity to change the school to another one where the chances of harassment should be lower. It is within my powers after all.”

Michelle waved her hand before anyone could say anything further. “Which one of the Grand Elders is leaning towards the Queen’s faction?”

Omar had a slightly calculating smile on his lips as he answered. “Not even I can tell you that, Master Michelle. But, as you rightly suspect, not all the Elders see things the same way. There are those who disagree with pandering to the factions. If you’re planning to appeal to them, well, good luck to you. My offer to change the school shall remain on the table in the meantime.”

Omar left after that. He was very courteous towards the three ladies to the end, all handsome smiles and manners that could have charmed the underpants off many an unwary lady of the Capital.

Not Lizbeth and Michelle, though. They were too busy digesting the information they just had received.

“What do you think, teacher?” asked Lizbeth as she sat back down on the couch. She slowly rubbed her belly, which had begun to show a smallest of small bumps.

“Hmm. Lemme talk to a friend of mine in the circle of Grand Elder first, see where that takes me. Andrea L. Pressario is the best possible place for both the education and the safety of our children, so if we can manage to avoid another one of those factional infighting spilling over somehow, then I would like them to remain where they are.”

Hearing this Lizbeth nodded her consent. “I agree as well. I remember wanting to go to Pressario myself when I was schooling here. This time period should prove to be an excellent opportunity for both of the girls. Let us ensure it remains so, regardless of whatever nonsense the others decide to throw at them.”

The two of them came to a conclusion and decided it was time they should turn in for the night.

Little did they know, the decision taken that evening would have a large ramification way into the future, several years from now.

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