The bell chimed for the third time of the day, bringing the recess to an end. Instead of the recommence of a string of tedious lectures, Robert found himself summoned to the highest floor of the campus, in a lavishing office brimming with a regal nature.
Everywhere Robert looked, the furnishings oozed out luxury.
An inordinately sweetened scent drifted within the spacious room meant for official duties, but a single whiff of the fragrance told Robert enough of this particular room’s history and some frantically archived incidents. Aside from the curious smell, Robert also caught the strange flow of Magic revolving in the room. It was the all-too-familiar inhibition Arcane enchantment. Some tampering was done accommodate the enchantment to the room owner’s whims and preferences but Robert wasn’t interested enough to know what was tampered.
“Ignorance is bliss,” Robert recited. As long it did not cross his path, he couldn’t care less if some bloody butchering or debauched carouse happened in this very room.
Speaking of crossing paths, Robert did not expect to be crossing path with a certain girl this soon. He eyed the unexpected individual inquisitively.
“Good afternoon, Miss Suri,” he greeted but his gracious gesture was hurl straight back at him with a scowl.
Sitting across one another on lavish couches, Suri fixed her indignant glare at Robert. Her eyes stayed on him even as she poured herself a cup of hot tea on the equally lavishing table, tossing a few cubes of sugar, pouring a little milk, and finally giving a few good stirs before sipping a taste of the daintily prepared tea.
Finishing her vaunt, Suri pushed the teapot to Robert. Serving tea was a maid’s staple task but due to a few obvious circumstances, Robert received no such service.
Before any wordless spar could further be exchanged, the door to the office was fling wide opened. In strode a woman of violet hair and a bold fashion that resided on the duality of a harlot and a dignitary. There was even an exotic fuming pipe in her smooth and delicate hand.
“Please, don’t get up,” LIlian spoke as she took a seat on the armchair adjacent to the two couches. She took a sip from her pipe while she looked over the two. A grin sneaked onto her expression.
With a dignify sound, the doors to the office slammed shut by itself.
Even though Robert knew it was coming, he couldn’t help but jumped a little in his seat. It was one of the demerits of his hyper-cognition. Sudden, sharp, and loud noises somehow always unfailingly made him yelp in his heart. Which was also the reason he took the liberty to first learn how to rid his opponents of their voice. He really hated their shrills of mercy, agony, or aid.
“Oh my, Robert,” Lilian breathed and her eyes widened slightly. “Perhaps it’s just me but it felt as if you are… stronger than the last time we met.”
“Thanks to a certain event two days prior,” Robert responded. After letting his gaze wander about all over the room, he glanced back at Lilian. “Where’s the principal?” he asked.
“You don’t think that there’s an off chance that you are looking at the principal?” Lilian returned the question.
Robert twitched his nose. “I’m not catching any scent of your special concoction of leaves in this room. There is some of it but not enough to show that you occupy this room on a common basis. What’s more, the fragrance grazing my nose in this room is too heavy for your liking.”
Lilian chuckled behind her hand. “Nothing really get past you, does it, sweetheart?”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Robert muttered as he glimpsed briefly at the silent and still-glaring Suri.
“You are right, dear,” Lilian admitted with a puff of her pipe. “I am not the principal but I might as well be.”
“Where is she right now?”
“He, my dear.”
Robert arched an eyebrow and looked around the room at the various effeminate ornaments and decorations. “Oh,” he muttered to his heart.
Lilian tittered at Robert’s raised brows. “I can understand your… scepticism.”
“This is palatable to the faiths?”
“Midas Valley is an independent city in various meanings, one of which is this orientation of one’s carnal desire. Even if the Faiths disagree, they have no power to say otherwise. There were two major Faiths who tried to act against the sodomy.”
“What happened to these two faiths?”
“You have been to the slums. There’s your answer.”
“Huh,” Robert murmured. “Well… I digress. Where’s the principal?”
Lilian shrugged. “He is probably indulging himself somewhere in the Red Light District, or perhaps in Mirona’s Den, or even maybe some new establishment. Regardless, he’s probably currently enjoying the smooth skin and gentle touch of soft little boys.”
Suri instantly found her own face contorting in disgust.
“Red Light District?” Robert questioned, inscrutably. “I though it’s closed during the day?”
“The things money and gold can change.” Lilian hid her laugh with a smile. “But I must say, you don’t seem disturbed like our mutual friend here.” Lilian tipped her head at Suri.
“I had worse,” Robert answered.
Suri abruptly pitched her stare at him. Her eyes spoke volume of her disbelief.
A gleam appeared in Lilian’s eyes. “You had been in a similar position?”
“Life was full of wonders in my hometown, yes, I had.”
Suri’s glare soon turned into a stupefied gaze towards Robert. She knew Robert had some hardships growing up. After all, she believed a person would not grew up this twisted without a twisted childhood but hearing Robert’s own experience in detail, she felt sympathy, almost. She snapped herself out of her solace and kicked it right back to whence it came. Despite her mistress claiming otherwise, this person had dug his claws into her mistress, betraying her trust and breaking her heart.
His upsetting past was just his premature deserving punishment, Suri believed.
“Every time we talk, you cast a bigger and darker shadow,” Lilian paused to took a puff from her pipe. “Soon, you might just cast an eternal night over the city.”
As much as Robert appreciate the compliment, he wasn’t going to just gloss over a worrying statement that just escaped the sultry woman’s lips. “Are we going to ignore the fact that our principal is such a deplorable man? And judging from your overtone1looks like I have mixed up overtone and undertone in the previous chapters., it didn’t sound like much of a hidden fact.”
Lilian tittered as she sipped from her pipe, before letting it out all out in a intriguingly graceful manner. “Everyone has their darkness in this city. Even the presumed saints. As long as the students get their honors and certificate at the end of their education, the principal can be a death monger for all they care. We’re not even a nation. We’re just a city, at the primal mercy of the valley’s natural resources and strategic terrains. No one in this city believes in charity, not even from nature. Everyone will just take whatever they can get. Consequences be damned when you’re poor and desperate enough.”
“This city is a mess.”
“Everywhere is a mess. It’s just a matter of how good the administration or government could hide it.”
Robert made no remark.
“Peasants sometimes sold their own children or wives into slavery just so they could live like kings for a few months, that is of course, right before burying themselves in mountains of debts.”
“Slavery?” Robert pondered for a brief moment before he resumed, “Southerners?”
“Who else could it be? Only the south dares to deal in such trade.”
“Huh…” Robert pursed his lips.
“And the nobles don’t?” Suri asked with her expression tinged with consternation.
“They do,” Lilian said, puffing out odd colors of smoke through her thin and lush lips with a joyful expression. “They merely coined it with another term. Political marriage.”
Reminded of her mistress’s former betrothal, Suri’s eyes clouded with apprehension.
There were so many things to say about that analogy but Robert decided to just nod along. Robert glanced down at his pocket watch, almost half an hour had pass.
“Now, I’m sure you are eager to know why this little Demon is here.” Lilian simpered. “Then again, I’m also sure that you already knew why.”
Lowering her cup, Suri shot daggers at Robert.
“It’s clear as day,” Robert answered, returning Suri’s glare with an amused mien2yes, i used thesaurus, fight me.. “You do know what the implications are if your truly intending on taking your mistress’ place, right?”
“Let implications be hounded,” Suri damned. “It does not matter if it means Iora can be kept out of harm’s way and away from your nefarious grasp.”
Robert hung his head in thought, plunging himself in between the decision of Iora or Suri as his spy within the Devetra household.
“I’m taking my mistress’ place, Robert Ross, regardless of your choice.”
Robert raised an eyebrow and glanced at Lilian.
Reading his question off his eyes, Lilian replied, “she is correct, I’m afraid. We came to an agreement just yesterday.”
“Hear that, scum?”
“Well…” Robert muttered, tapping his fingers away on his lap, “I guess we won’t be going to Mirona’s Den tonight if you’re the one coming.”
“What are you saying?” Suri blurted out her inquiry as she cast a dubious glance.
“I was thinking maybe a tavern would be better. We can talk over a drink and a meal, and mayhaps warming both of ourselves on a bed at the peak of night.”
Suri didn’t know if her face could be twisted any further but she was about to find out. Her hands flashed, faster than the eyes could follow, and the teacup was already in her grasp, ready to hurl it into the face of the hateful boy before her.
However, none of those happened as Suri found herself unable to even twitch her brows. She was just frozen in place but there was no cold present to her skin nor ice encasing her body. But there was a dreadful sense of oppression clutching her whole body.
“No violence, dear,” Lilian said, her tone chilling even a Demon’s natural cold-resilient skin.
When the pressure subsided, Suri reluctantly put the teacup back onto the saucer. It was a bit fortunate that the cup was empty. Otherwise, the mess would be ghastly, Robert noted.
“And Robert,” Lilian called out.
“Aye?” Robert responded.
Ignoring his strange tenor of a respond, she warned with great stringent, “I wish you could be less inflaming. Be a good boy and do that favor for me, will you?”
“I will.” Robert nodded. He admitted he was being quite puerile but given his fight with Qyoni, he was accumulating a lot of lust and frustration. And in front of his eyes, there was a perfect subject for him to relieve and release himself on without restrain or care. Unconsciously, he licked his lips.
His imprudent gesture invoked a faint exasperated smile from Lilian but spurred an intense grimace from Suri, who was doing everything she could to not decapitate him right on the very spot.
“That will be all, Suri, I believe?” Lilian asked.
The Demon maid nodded her head in affirmation but her infuriated gaze refuse to bulge from Robert.
“Now, make yourself scarce,” Lilian said, curling her lips amicably at her.
Suri lurched from her seat without breaking her eyes away from the sniggering boy. She gave brief glimpses at him until she disappeared through the door. Even then, Robert could hear the hesitance in her steps as she slowly hobbled away from the doors.
Shedding her white coat, loosing her ponytail, and casting away her spectacles, Lilian directed a glance at the Robert who was all smiles. “Planning to make an enemy out of every woman in the city by the end of the month?”
“Well, I intend to only make love, not friends.”
She took a puff. “Impressive feat, Robert.”
“I’m being serious. You acquired a spy within a prominent household. You achieved what we could not with decades of efforts.”
“Because there was no ‘Iora’, then.”
“I suppose that is the reason. How cruel of you, Robert.”
“Kindness has never taken me far but cruelty have saved my life for more times than I can count.”
“True,” Lilian nodded. “Especially in Midas Valley. You would be nothing more than a prey if you have no capacity for cruelty.”
“The Harix family begs to differ.”
“Ah, yes. The Harix family. I guess they are an exception but that’s only because they have the fortune of obtaining powerful allies. A one in a billion fortune.” Lilian then tittered. “Speaking of which, you have an encounter with Olivia Harix, didn’t you?”
“Seven…” The informant was obvious to Robert’s understanding. “I have,” he answered. “But she’s not a factor, as of yet. What is a factor however, is this slip of a tongue I heard, the perishing of Clan Riean. Know anything about that?”
Lilian’s smile spanned to her ears. “That will be the handiwork of Creed and the Dragon Knights.”
Robert arched an eyebrow for the umpteenth time. “What the fuck? We’re working with them now?”
Lilian immediately threw her head back and chortled out loud, accentuating her profuse bosom further.
“So that’s what the coat was for,” Robert thought as he enjoyed the view but somehow, he wasn’t able to feel any carnal desire towards such display by Lily.
“Darling, of course it’s not what you’re imagining, whatever is it you’re imagining.”
“Then explain, please.”
Suppressing her rising laughter, Lilian unveiled the tale. “The Fourth Wing was adamant in her search for the enigmatic but competent information dealer, our mutual friend, Creed. By the counsel of Mister Smith through Mister Tann, it is decided that the Dragon Knights can be useful to our cause, if they danced perfectly to his tune. And so far, they had.”
“Couldn’t you have done this sooner?”
“We can’t. In order for the Dragon Knights to dance to our tune, they will need to be on the stage, which we can’t force. Thankfully, they climbed onto the stage on their own accord.”
“Doesn’t this dismiss our previous plans?”
“Not yet,” Lilian said. “We can’t be sure they will remain on stage for the whole tune. We best kept our plans at bay or better yet, make more plans. For now, we will assist the Dragon Knights from the shadows.”
“You mean manipulate them.”
“Oh my, you don’t need to be this derogatory.”
“Hmm,” Robert resisted rolling his eyes. “For the tune, you lot are using are using the Dragon Artifacts, I presumed?”
Lilian nodded, prompting Robert to keep going.
“I wasn’t aware you lot are in the know of the Dragon Artifacts’ whereabouts.”
“We weren’t. And we didn’t need to be in the know. If our guesses turned out wrong, we won’t be the one being disgraced.”
Narrowing his eyes, Robert retorted to the smile filled with nuances, “And did Clan Riean have it?”
“They did, surprisingly.”
“And that set off another chain of reaction from the nobles, I’m sure.”
“Nothing new. Everyone is already on their toes, unless they started flying, it can’t be worse. But because of that, everything that comes in and out of Midas Valley is now under a stricter watch. Many soldiers have been reassigned from their usual city watch duty to guard all the possible ingress roads, save for the unpaved ones.”
“Save for the unpaved ones? Isn’t that just negligent?”
“In other places, yes, but we’re in Midas valley. Unless you plan to climb out of the valley all the way on foot, no one uses those roads to leave Midas Valley.”
Noble houses becoming more unease. It was a worrying news but it didn’t have anything to do with Robert directly. He was more worried about the Dragon Knights than the fit of the nobles. They were just relentless. The day his face or name came to be known to the Dragon Knights, would be his last day in Midas Valley.
On the bright side, he didn’t need to plan a mass slaughter of an entire household now. And it also meant another thing, consideration was no longer needed for Asten. In a way, he was grateful.
Robert sighed, in relief or disappointment, it was open for debate. “So, my load will be getting lighter, I reckon? My pay will be getting lighter too, then.”
“Hardly,” Lilian said. “This is just the beginning and Azaela is not a lazy fool. She’s not the type to be content with things just being out of sight or being strangely convenient like all the nobles here.”
“Great…” Robert rolled his eyes.
“For now, let them handle the other three clans, if they are still dancing to the tune.”
“There are a few who escaped the Dragon Knights’ foray.”
“Someone actually managed to run away from the Dragon Knights?” Robert didn’t had a good impression on the Dragon Knights, but that was before his encounter with the Blue Rose. He found it hard to believe that someone went under their notice, given their persistence.
“It’s the luck of a sloth, my dear.” Lilian took a last draught of her pipe before stowing it away into the rippling air at the glow of her ring. “The stragglers were indulging themselves away in the pleasure quarters until the break of the dawn. By then, they have already heard the rumors of their clan’s demise.”
Robert narrowed his eyes. “Not one of the Dragon Knights pursued the stragglers?”
Lilian smiled, her eyes seemed to gestured at something. “They do not know if there are any stragglers nor could they afford to care. They maybe effective but they are only a few. However, they do not need to concern themselves with these stragglers for they have an unlikely ally in the shadows.” Saying so, Lilian passed a bundle of papers to Robert.
He quickly combed through the papers he received. “Hmm,” Robert murmured dryly. The papers entail his targets, a little bit of their background, and their last known whereabouts. Shrugging while rolling up the papers, he tossed them into his Storage Ring.
“Do you think they would try to run?” Robert asked.
“The train and highways are being constantly watch. The two dozens of small roads are also being guarded, with at least five soldiers, thanks to the recent developments. However, all roads out of the valley eventually leads to the northeast or the west. If they do try to run, we will definitely know. So, Robert, best be prepared.”
He groaned. “I know you trust my abilities but— don’t the lot of you have your own cutthroats for these sort of things?”
“We do have a variety of sorts for every kind of job but why bothered with them when we have already paid you?” Lilian gestured his Storage Ring.
Robert threw his eyes up. “Touche.”
Robert raised his hand. “Just out of curiosity, what happened to the children? Did the Dragon Knights let them live?” he asked on a whim.
Seeming to find it amusing, Lilian simpered. “Oh my, Robert. How gracious of you think to about the children.”
“Just answer the question.”
“Well, the children and women are spared as one would expect of a faith’s militia.” Her smile then turned guileful. “But you are not a man of faith, are you?”
“Huh… that does pose a plight to my moral compass.”
Lilian burst into a chuckle. “You? You have a moral compass? After what you did to Iora?”
“Everyone has a moral compass. It is subjective to the individual itself.”
“Well then, what is your dilemma?”
Lilian scoffed with an amused smile.
“I only kill hindrances and obstacles in my path. If they stray from my path and truly never intending to be a block on the road again, I’ll let them go.”
“So, how many lives have your spared, then?”
After a short contemplation, Robert replied, “three, including Valena.”
“How many lives have you taken?”
There was a brief silence before Robert answered, “more than I could count but certainly enough to last a life time of nightmares.”
“I thought you don’t sleep.”
“I’m so thankful for that.”
Lilian burst into a chuckle once again. Only after a few seconds past did she regain her composure as a ‘prim and proper’ lady. “But how many… ‘innocents’ have you slaughtered?” she asked.
“Ten,” his answer was immediate.
“Ten? What happened with these ten?”
“What kind of accidents?”
Robert sighed. “Curiosity towards my Arcane. I was neglectful of the dangers Arcane held.”
“And you feel bad till this day?”
“No,” Robert answered firmly.
“Then why bother with a compass?”
“Precisely why I needed a compass.”
Lilian nodded. “I see.”
“Maybe I don’t? But it doesn’t matter in the end, I guess. This is just business.” Lilian smiled as she leaned comfortably and entirely into the armchair. “Now, for the other purpose of your summon, first item on the list, the Hunter’s Associations is fucked and pretty much half of the Hunters have left the valley.”
“That was… concise?”
“The Dark Zone is getting worse and its the worst now.” Lilian took a breather before she continued, “The middle layers is now just another land claimed by Limbo. Funnily enough, some of the anomalies in other parts of the world— well, many of the anomalies in fact— have vanished.”
Robert knew it was coming but he let his eyebrow rose anyway. “Vanished? Like how?”
“No concrete reports. None of it came from our own spies, so these are all just hearsay. Just the various whispers and the same old rumors being retold at the myriad of taverns and bars, and even brothels.”
“It’s a cause for rejoice but I’m sensing… a huge ‘but’,” Robert said and poured himself some tea, drinking from the same cup Suri used, and even from the same edge.
“The guess is, the quantity dwindled but the quality rose. Some place are rejoicing, while the unfortunate places, there was no more of anything to rejoice. It’s bad, it’s getting real bad. There are even rumors of the dead rising from their graves now. Luckily, all these news are still nothing more than a drunkard’s slur in Midas Valley.”
“My vacation is cut short, then?”
Lilian offered a wry smile. “We’ll see how everything goes in the mean time. If the hours have truly become desperate, discretion be damned.”
Unconsciously, Robert had finish his tea but he was still holding on to this cup.
“The Kiva Faith is making their move again after a while of silence from them.”
“The Faith of peace and prosperity, how are they handling it?”
“Unlike the Caeleon or Aeryeon Faith, the Kiva Faith are less corporeal with their endeavors.”
“They are a peace-loving bunch and even their own Paladins prefer a conversation than a battle. As of this morning, they have spent a lot of Ris in their pursuit of answers. And that’s counting in the millions, nearing a ten. Be careful of them, Robert. They might be peaceful but they have troves of gold and Ris, and they are the largest faith. So truly, be careful.”
“Huh, peace and prosperity they really are,” Robert joked in his sullen mind.
“Don’t look so down. It gets better, my dear,” Lilian roused. ”It wasn’t just the Kiva Faith, the Empire is not being subtle anymore too about their approach.”
“They have also spent quite a bit of their gold in arming themselves up with the finest armors and weapons.”
“And the city is quiet about Empire’s men purchasing armaments in great deal?”
“They were brazen with their actions but not their allegiance. As far as the city is concern, there are no Empire presences in the valley. So, another reason for the increase of your vigilance.”
“Jesus… I really need to fuck someone tonight.”
As if to further plunge the mood into a deeper abyss, Lilian pulled a bulky book out of the rippling air and slid Robert the bundle of hundreds of pages.
Robert took the book and began flipping the pages without any questions nor hesitation. As he skimmed through the book, his eyes widened at the column and rows of numbers that seemed to be the only contents in the book.
“Creed mentioned you’re familiar with this sort of books.”
“Talrons’ but essentially, his vassals’ too since they, in a way, work for the Talrons.”
“Figures. And this is just a copy of the original, I believe?”
“It could be the original.”
“It couldn’t,” Robert retorted after a split moment of thought.
Lilian tittered behind her hand. “Aren’t you curious on how such a secretive element is in my hands?”
“Why am I looking at this?” Robert raised his eyes but not his head from the book.
“See that red marker?” Lilian pointed at a red ribbon protruding from one of the pages.
Robert turned to the marked page in a single flip. His eyes instantly gathered at a single particular row. He flip back a few pages, his eyes quickly going through the rows as he did so. He flipped back to the marked page. His lips began a small murmur, incurring a confused frown from Lilian just as she was handing him a counting board.
“Any problem?” she asked but was met silence as she waved the board in front of his face.
His murmurs continued for a good minute until he spoke up. “They owed the Empire a lot of gold.”
“Did you just did all that calculation in your head?”
“The balances are wrong in a few pages.” Robert ignored her question. “Some of the items and properties are missing but some are in excess, but none of it are reflected in the profit and loss. Why?” he looked up.
Lilian smiled. “Why do you think?”
Robert hung his head in thought as poured himself another cup of tea.
Lilian couldn’t help but watched warmly over his allure towards the tea.
After taking a sip, he said, “they’re working with the Empire.”
“That is the most obvious take. We don’t know why, yet. But we will.” Lilian eyed the subtle twitch in Robert’s eyes. “You already know why, don’t you?” she asked, leering at his impassive gaze.
Robert smiled back. “I think I do.”