“The castles are all unoperational? How the hell did that happen!” Paige practically shouted that out as soon as Tyler finished his account of what he had seen, and she knew that Tyler was probably right about his analysis. No messenger birds traveling to and from each castle; barring merchants from entering visual range; and the number of supplies heading into each and none going out painted a clear picture to those who knew what to look for. The savvier merchants were already stockpiling their supplies if the increased prices were any indications. “No, don’t answer that yet Tyler. The war. What happened differently?”
That was the problem Paige had; how had the war gone so differently? She had left early on to deliver the terms for Isabella, but by all accounts, her brother would not have had any reason to leave Alcudia at the beginning of the war. Nor would he have been so stupid as to let the defensive lines fall.
Of course, Paige couldn’t leave the forest to check on anything, but from what she gleaned from Tyler’s travels up to now was that there were only minimal changes in the world. For the defensive lines to fall so easily, especially with so many of the national her-. Her eyes widened. “The National Heroes Tyler. Who was protecting the southern defensive lines?”
Tyler sighed. “Not many Paige. From what I could tell, only Lidia, Daniel and Robert were holding down the southern castles.”
Paige frowned and shook her head. “It couldn’t have been just them Tyler. You know as well as I do that Jordan and Ezekial would never leave Castle Carmel. Too many memories for them. And Haylee would never leave Castle Vaste, not with her husband being the Chief Sargeant of the Guards. Veronica and Brulton were easily your match Tyler, no offense. And Ponce-“
Tyler held up his hand, forestalling Paige’s arguments. “The Admission Act never passed, Paige. Rebecca never got it past the planning stages. Operation Darkfall never got off the ground either.”
“Impossible. Those were her idea to begin with!”
“Tyler, Paige. What was the Queen intending to do?” Zenith asked quietly. Although she had been a diplomat for a short time, she hadn’t been born when the Queen ascended the throne and knew little to none about what they were talking about.”
Nick interrupted, surprising the entire room. “The first one was controversial from the start. The Admission Act allowed full-blooded Demons and Halfbloods to become full citizens. Before that, they were allowed in the country but they had no real power or protection against prejudice. I don’t know what Operation Darkfall was, but if I had to guess, it would be when she allowed Demons to join the military and hold a rank. The spies from Alcudia got noticeably harder to trace after demons were allowed to join. It was for that reason, Zenith, that when Queen Rebecca formally passed it, Leit and Appealte went to war. It wasn’t until Evidia invaded Alcudia that the border countries, as Paige likes to call our countries, reconciled to fight off a common enemy.”
“Trent actually. It wasn’t well known, but Trent had sent out a few platoons in that war. They were the main opponents, under the guise of the Evidian military. Not that Appealte or Leit would have known the difference.” Paige said quickly, her eyes darting back and forth, her mind deep within her own thoughts. ‘Repercussions. The capital Terpeii was destroyed, but the southern lines still held. Was it because the Demons were resisting at those castles? Or something else? Oh Peter, what did you do?’
“-the castles have most likely fallen. The Imperial Family seems to be supporting the rebuilding though, so it can’t be too far from completion. But judging by the crests I’ve seen, the majority of the nobles have their own armies at each castle.” Tyler said.
Nick scoffed. “That means absolutely nothing, Tyler. For all we know, the Imperial Family has political hostages. Even the Crown Princess is serving the Imperial Scion stationed here. In what capacity, I don’t care to know. Paige. What will the Imperial Family do next? Of everyone here, you would know best what their next move will be.”
“It… it depends on the Scion, really. I don’t know how much has changed in their teachings now, of course. But the Imperial Family places the safety of the Empire above all. If the Scion does something that goes against that mandate, death would be the least of their worries. But I do know something that may be helpful. By all accounts, there is only one Scion. That’s something, at least.”
Everyone blinked at Paige’s statement. Zenith couldn’t help herself though and asked the question on everyone’s mind. “…How is that helpful, Paige?”
“He didn’t come with as a Party. So it’s not that serious. Or, maybe I should say not as serious as it could be. I’d expect at least a dozen Scions or more if there was a significant threat. I mean, there are usually at least six parties of Scions when the Healer Hall transfers Clerics.”
“Peter didn’t have a Party either, Paige. Neither did you, for that matter.”
“I wasn’t acting in any official capacity for the Imperial Family. We don’t know if Peter didn’t have a party. I wouldn’t put it past him to have wooed a few people here and there. I mean, he was a Hero after all,” Paige stilled and deflected with a slight wave of her hand. “Look, it doesn’t matter. We can inquire into his Party later as well. That Scion too. If you can get me a name, Tyler, and not just his title, I could tell you what I know.”
Nick sighed. “So the castles have mostly fallen, the Imperial Family is getting ready for war. How much time do we really have? Before we start seeing the effects?”
“At the rate the castles repairs are going, and based upon Paige’s assessment of the Imperial family’s stance, I would say full out war within three to six years. Assuming that the castles will be fully operational before the next war starts.” Tyler said quietly.
They all became quiet at that estimate. Three years was not comforting at all. Especially when Nick and Paige were still stuck in the forest for the worst-case scenario. Zenith spoke up quietly to the room. “Short term plans. Should we warn anyone? I mean, Kat-“
“No. Barring our private thoughts, our activities would be interpreted as spies of some type. No noble will willingly disclose this to the public, and it is likely even the Imperial Scion will keep this under wraps for as long as possible. Besides, keen merchants will most likely notice something within these two or three years. ” Tyler interrupted Zenith quickly. “It all comes back to our identities. Our classes really limit us on what we can do. If we had battle classes, this would be a different story, and we would have at least a few ways to put out the information. We won’t let Lily or Tyler come to harm, Zenith. Their families either. But we cannot be the ones who let this information go public.”
“Tyler, we were thinking of moving our focus away from the Evidia border to around here from now on. Are you okay with that?” Nick spoke up, moving the conversation along.
“I am. Barring the castles, I got most of my hidden stashes, so we won’t be limited by funds in the short term. Paige, that means stopping the search for Isabella.” Tyler spoke quietly to the room. Paige looked down and sighed. The search for Isabella close to the Evidia border was the main reason she was pushing the search there. “I am sorry, Paige. We will find Isabella. But for now…”
“… for now, let’s change our focus. As the Party Leader, I formally announce that we will change the direction our party is heading. We will focus on improving our current identities instead. Tyler, it will go along way for us if you can work with Nick and Zenith to expand our network to Appealte or Leit. Hold off on contacting anyone of importance and focus on commoner to middle-class contacts. Nobles and above should be avoided at all costs. Military too. Any other suggestions?” Paige spoke firmly, settling her mind on this.
“I’ll stick to local Merchant Associations that have no known backings to any regional players. That should help us spread our name and not get dragged into anything unsavory for the time being,” Tyler nodded. He had played politics for the Royal Family enough to know how to stay low key.
“Appealte will be a little harder for us to penetrate into since the Founding Houses keep strict watch over their jurisdiction. The only way I can see us making a name for ourselves is if we sell either monster parts or refined some magic trinkets and amulets. Nothing that would stand out for a merchant going to Appealte, at any rate.” Zenith added her remarks.
Paige glanced over, “Is there a high enough demand for elder monster parts? Monster cores and the like? Of the monster parts we’ve collected, only a few of them have a bounty at the Guild Hall.”
Zenith nodded her head. “Apprentices would be interested enough in elder monster parts. Rarely would a specialized mage need materials such as those. They might use an elder core if they were poor or in desperate need but at their level, they should be looking to upgrade their equipment. I don’t think it would raise too much suspicion, and even if it did, no mage would freely give away who they got their equipment from. Paige, I was paying attention to the crowd when I was giving Lily her staff and none of the battle classes present were really surprised by the gift. If Nick could spend some time carving a few staves, we could look to sell those as well. Tyler, do you think that would be too conspicuous?”
Tyler thought about it shook his head slowly. “I should be fine. Selling bows in Appealte would hardly make sense, so having something in demand would help smooth things out over there when I pass the borders. Paige, Nick, any objections?”
“Hold off on the amulets and focus on the staves. We need to check out the market for amulets,” Nick stated quietly. “Amulets attract too much attention in Leit, so I can’t say the same about Appealte. But weapons and monster parts are universal, no matter the market,” he added quietly after seeing Zenith blink in confusion.
“Fair enough. I’ll get Kate to give me a letter of recommendation and have the Cidala Merchant Association write me up a travel permit.” Tyler responded.
“Great, you can come with me and Markus next time I go to teach in two days.”
Nodding their heads, they all got down to business and started planning their short term goals, as well as to tell Tyler about what they know about classes.
Paige sighed to herself as she sat outside, watching the stars idly as she sat in her fields. Not too far away, Boary was resting in a field of clover she had planted, mainly to distract the boar from eating the tastier crops. “The meeting went better than expected at least. Still, I really don’t want to be stuck here when the war breaks out. Not that I can help much anymore. Or rather, why should I help out? It’s not like that time in the Northern Islands, or when the Clerics were attacked. I’m not in any position to fix humanity’s problems anymore.”
She sighed. “I WAS just a Farmer’s daughter. It was just blind luck that I survived and became who I am. So why do I always feel like I need to help others?” But she already knew the answer. “Because I can. I don’t always make things better, and I know most people haven’t forgiven me, but I know in my heart I made a positive difference.”
She fell silent as a meteor shower passed overhead. “Can I make a difference now? As Farmer Paige, instead of Warrior Paige?” Her intuition strongly shouted yes to that question. She could feel that in her bones, in her mana core, that she could make a difference here. It’s just that she didn’t know if she wanted to right now. Couldn’t she have a break for a few years at least?
But she couldn’t help but think of the first thought she had every morning since she had awoken in the forest. Find Isabella. Train Markus. Were those her own thoughts, or… regardless, Paige knew she had to eventually do those things; at the very least to stop those thoughts from bugging her each day. At least it wasn’t an incessant wail like -.
Paige shook her head before the thought completed itself. She knew thinking of it would only make it worse. “…We will find you, Isabella. I promise.” They would find Isabella eventually, of that Paige was sure. Isabella’s class was listed as an Apprentice Cleric when she was captured, and judging by the reactions of Markus’s party at the mausoleum, they certainly knew her worth. Barring that, Paige knew from experience that it was almost impossible to hide a Princess for long; not without help at least. The only question was did the Demon party members know how to hide a person’s class. ‘If the Imperial Family knew, is it possible that the Demons know how to hide a person’s true class as well? There shouldn’t be more than twelve people alive who have seen me change a person’s status before, so what are the odds?’
The other problem was harder though. Train Markus. Her head hurt just by thinking about how many problems could arise from this. How much was she willing to impart to someone who could rival herself one day? He couldn’t have been very old before this mess started; otherwise, he would have known better and tried to escape instead of staying to fight. Young people tended to stay their ground and fight because of pride and whatnot, a stage Paige got over fast after a few near escapes. But they had been carefully watching him for almost five years now, and by all accounts, it seemed that he truly had forgotten his past. Either way, she would have to talk with the rest of her party, especially Tyler and Nick, about what to teach him and when.
‘Still, how should I train him? Certainly not how Imperial Scions learned. His technical skill was really good though. Maybe a modified version of Grandmaster Flynn’s teachings? Wait, am I allowed to pass that on?’ Paige stopped thinking and sighed. Her other apprentice wasn’t that hard to teach since she already had her own styles but from what she’d seen of Markus, he was a very technical fighter much like herself. But the problem she had was not being able to hold a weapon and truly use skills at will. Sure, she could teach using a farm tool, Paige supposed, but she was fairly certain she wouldn’t get around the issue of weapon dissonance that way once she started using full-blown battle skills.
“…Well, I learned how to use a sword that way. So it shouldn’t be too hard to teach him the same way? But first… I truly want to pass down what I know. I want to truly pass -” She chanted that to herself quietly, hoping it would work. ‘Zenith said it was all my own thoughts that were stopping me from consciously using Warrior skills, so maybe changing my mindset would let me pass it down. After all, that’s how I can use skills when I adapted it for farming and I wouldn’t be using the skills in battle or to fight someone.’
Looking at her hoe sticking straight into the ground, she quietly changed its shape to something that she had not thought of for centuries. As her mana solidified into its final form, she blinked as she stared at a short pole; the original cotton binding of the hoe’s handle dangled in the cool wind. Something that did not look like a sword at all, but more like a toy to allow a young girl to twirl a ribbon for fun.
Her original training weapon.