Zenith sighed. “Great. Just great. I go off to Cidala to see my friends for a few days, and look what I come back to!”
She glared at the group in front of her. How did everything get so complicated so fast!?
“We got Sara out though. And we saved a few people too. That’s something at least.”
“Yes. But you also let Markus wander out with you,” Zenith said through gritted teeth. “Why in the world did you not stop him beforehand!?”
Zenith pointed over to Markus, who had the decency to look…not ashamed. She faltered. He didn’t look proud either. Afraid? Shaken?
“Markus, hey. It’s alright. They told me what happened.”
Markus startled. “I-”
“Shhh. It’s okay. You did good. Go and rest now, you had a tough adventure.”
“I think I will, auntie. I’ve had enough for one day.” Markus mumbled as he walked slowly into the house. They watched him go, his shoulders hunched, as though burdened with some unknown baggage.
“He did do really good. Rescued a damsel in distress, even.” Paige nodded to herself, omitting the other half of his actions. Her actions were radiating contentment; much like a teacher watching her student progress by himself.
But Zenith knew how dangerous the fight had been.
By all accounts, Nick and Paige had been busy with their own respective fights and hadn’t been paying attention to Markus following them from behind. Paige was right of course, she had no way of knowing that Markus would be able to leave the house. And they all knew that Markus had acquired most of the skills they had, so it was not surprising to see that he was able to follow them without help.
“Still, tell me again Paige. What did you find?”
“An altar. A few people sacrificed. It’s not entirely safe for us here anymore, Zenith. I think we need to find another place to live soon. After we get the rest of these people settled, of course. Tch, I’m sure we’ll have to fill out paperwork for them.”
Paige looked over to the barn with a frown. Zenith knew the rest of the survivors were being kept there. It broke Zenith’s heart to see the children there, so despondent and lackluster. Some of the adults were no better, though a few had surprised her.
Well, two really. Sara and another girl were doing alright, all things considering. She had heard what had happened. She presumed that after Paige had attacked the altar they had snapped out of whatever spell they were under. Most were incoherent though. Or maybe traumatized was a better word.
“Are they fit to travel?” Zenith asked.
Paige leaned on her trusty replacement hoe, Zenith noticed, it’s shaft and blade not even covered with dirt yet. “Not alone. I’m sure if you and Markus are up for a transport quest we can get them out of here today or tomorrow. Send a request to Emilia though, and have the guards meet you halfway. Or let the Queen handle the fallout. No reason for us to get the credit.”
“Why would Queen Rebecca care?” Nick asked with a scoff. None of them were fans of the queen at the moment, barring Paige. Too many memories for her.
“The other girl is a Royal Scout. ‘Miranda Evans’ is a fake name that Rebecca made. It’s one of many names that she calls her informants by.”
Zenith looked over at Paige with a questioning gaze. “And the reason you didn’t say that before is…”
Paige waived their concerns aside. “I don’t really care that she is an informant. She’s just lucky to be alive. And I’m not about to torture or threaten a girl that just went through all that,” she shrugged idly as she walked to her fields, “Besides, who in their right mind would believe her when she says that a Farmer, a Boywer, and Apprentice could rescue everyone?”
“She reports directly to the Queen. Even Queen Rebecca wouldn’t outright dismiss that information.”
“Then she’ll chalk it up to Zenith. Good job, Zenith. Your dossier is probably going to get even larger after this.”
“Wha! Why would they pin the accomplishments on me!? I wasn’t even there! Everyone would be able to find out that much,” Zenith panicked.
Paige smiled. “Doubt it. Since you are already helping her out with Lily, contributing the spell to you would help her more than an unknown servant did it.”
Zenith deflated. They wouldn’t be able to hide Paige’s spell; that much was certain. In fact, the spell was the only reason she had come back at the break of dawn.
Paige’s dumb attack spell had illuminated the entire countryside. Since she could see the top end of the spell from Cidala, anyone within a sixty or so mile on ground level would have been able to see the effects. Feel the effects too, depending on their mana sensitivity.
In fact, Zenith didn’t doubt for one second that the Mage Guild was sparing no expense in trying to track down the source of that Spell. She had never even heard of Imperial Mages slinging spells that large around. Still, that was going to be a very good recruiting point for the foreseeable future for the Imperial Family.
“Can you please just ask for me, Paige. Please. I already have enough pressure on me,” Zenith asked. “I mean, you should get some acknowledgment too!”
Paige frowned and glanced over at her, disdain and disbelief were written clearly across her face. Zenith quickly thought of what could appeal to Paige.
‘Money…no, she’s probably richer than the average Scion. Status…she’s been on the run for centuries, so that’s a no go. Power, Influence… nope. Gaah, what could Paige possibly want!?’
Her eyes darted back and forth across the clearing. ‘Something Paige would want. She has no family, no real disciples, no hobbies. I mean, she’s been the most content of all of us, and she’s just a Farmer!’
A Farmer. “LAND!”
Nick and Paige startled at her low shout. “Land! I’m sure the Queen would give us some land, somewhere to go and relax and escape from the world if we were influential enough.”
“Umm, that’s what this forest is forest is for.”
“Yes, but now it is clearly unsafe for us, long term wise. We all knew that we would have to abandon this place eventually. Why not have the Queen deed the forest to you for your actions? You always said that the forest was mysterious enough for you to explore later on,” Zenith paused and smiled mysteriously. “And you’re not a true Farmer if you don’t have any land to your name.”
Paige frowned. “We’ve lived here almost six years now. It’s already ours. I know the laws here, Zenith.”
“Then you would also know about the Transference of Land Rights.”
“…” Paige’s eyes twitched. Zenith smiled. She knew she had her. It was supposed to be their land, yes. But there was one thing that Zenith had found out about the forest that she hadn’t told the rest of her Party. Other people had already claimed the forest. Well, one person really.
Paige’s older brother. He had bought the entire forest and had personally funded the construction of Cidala and Nespe. So the entire region was nominally owned by him. Even Emilia had to pay taxes to both Alcudia and Peter’s estate. Who got that money, she had no idea, but it wasn’t an insignificant amount every year.
“You know who owns it, don’t you?” Paige asked suspiciously, her eyes narrowing slightly.
“I do. And I’ll tell you, after you talk to the spy.” Zenith pointed out.
Zenith watched Paige carefully, noting how her face shifted between desire and laziness. Sure, she could probably just send a letter, but that would take time. And that was what she was betting on.
“Fine, I’ll go talk to the girl. Markus told me some interesting tidbits anyways, so I’ll go and get some answers. One quick question, is the person still alive?”
“The person who owns this property. Even the queen can’t take away property if the owner is still alive. It’s not worth asking questions if I can’t get the land in the end.”
Zenith blinked. She was sure Peter was dead, so… “The person who owns it is dead. Definitely dead.”
Paige turned and walked off toward the barn. “Tch. I’ll be back in a bit.”
Paige slipped quietly into the barn, careful to not make any sudden sounds. The rescued people were understandably jumpy, and with what they had to go through, she didn’t have the heart to fault them. She looked around and spotted the younger girl taking care of a toddler. Her smile was restrained, but Paige could tell there was a hint of longing in her eyes. She wasn’t sad as she played with the toddler, but she had experience with younger kids.
A mom. Young mom, perhaps. Which would fit Markus’s description. A funny coincidence… Or was it?
Still, as Paige watched her from across the barn, Miranda stiffened and looked up, instantly meeting her eyes. ‘Scout confirmed. But why would she be one?’ Paige cocked her head to the side, and strode out of the barn to wait for the girl. No point in having other people listening to them, and she didn’t want to deal with toddlers right now.
No, Paige was as tired as Markus was, if not more. She hadn’t used that much power in a long time, and she could feel herself slowing down.
‘That dumb monster was tough. Really tough.’
If not for her skills and divine mana, she wasn’t really sure if she could beat it normally, or at least not without turning it into a battle of attrition. Even Dragons bled, and that creature hadn’t been afraid of exchanging blood for blood. At least, not until she destroyed the altar.
She shuddered as she thought about what the Battlefield must look like now. But that was all. It wasn’t her problem to deal with. The Imperial Family was still there and had Scions to spare, so the situation there must be stable.
‘Maybe elemental magic would have been a better counter? Elemental Skills? Magic circles would be the best way to counter them. Maybe bombard them from afar?’
She stopped thinking about it as Miranda creeped out of the barn, jumping down from an open second story window.
“May I help you, Miss…”
“Cut to the chase. You already know my name. And Markus’ name, for that matter,” Paige waved away her question idly. “Joanna. Markus saved her from being bullied during Lily and Tyler’s party. But how did you know my name?”
Miranda blinked and smiled. “Joanna loves talking about that incident.”
“Extended family? No, definitely her mother.” Paige amended her statement as soon as she said it. The look of longing made sense now. “So, what is a royal spy doing here in these woods.”
The girl looked down. “I’m no-”
“Miranda Evans is a fake name. Standard royal protocol,” Paige held up her hand and stopped the girl. “I don’t really care about that. What are you going to report to your Queen?”
Miranda paused, looking straight into Paige’s eyes. “To our Queen. Or, do you not recognize her sovereignty?”
Paige regarded what the girl had said with a weary gaze. A trap. A verbal one, nonetheless. She quickly thought of the laws that would apply in this situation, and which outcome would be best for them.
“Yes, yes, I am a loyal citizen of Alcudia with all the rights and so on and so forth. But that’s not what I asked.”
Paige mentally frowned as the spy smiled, feeling that she still managed to mess something up. Everyone’s forged identity was solid, to the best of her knowledge anyway.
But Paige brushed that concern aside. It hardly mattered much to begin with. Paige knew that they vastly outclassed everyone else. At least, everyone up to a Scion. Without seeing one in person, it was hard to say what the Imperial standards were.
“I will tell her the truth. Like I am supposed to,” Miranda answered confidently.
“No. You’ll amend it to give Zenith credit for everything. She did everything herself,” said Paige unabashed.
“… You’ll never get the other people to agree to that. They all saw you, Nick and Markus rescue them.”
“All an illusion spell to keep them from panicking.”
“Does the Mage know how to do that?” Miranda asked carefully, her face skeptical.
“And the spell that was used?”
“Classified. But you didn’t hear from me that it could be [[Mana Overload]], combined with a [[Lunar Beam]], and a few artifacts she had set up to channel mana to herself. Call it a one-time spell,” Paige made up everything on the spot. She would have to teach Zenith a new spell, of course, but the artifact would be easy to explain away. Paige was sure she had a book that explained how to cast Lunar Beam, though she amended her schedule slightly just in case she had teach Zenith how to fake to make it look realistic.
Miranda watched her carefully. “And what do you get from this?”
“Anonymity. Though I would like the forest and the land surrounding it to be transferred to her name.”
Paige smiled and pushed everything on to Zenith. She already had enough excitement for one lifetime. Not that she wouldn’t help Zenith, of course. But she’d rather be in the background for once instead.
“…you’re so powerful though. Why wouldn’t you want to help? Especially since you have the capability to do so.” Miranda struggled to voice her thoughts.
Paige sighed. This was not something she wanted to talk about. And not with a stranger, no less. “Look, all I want is to be left alone for a good while. Well, for me and my Party to be left alone. It’s…complicated. Look, maybe you should go back home and be a mother. No offense, but you really aren’t cut out to be a Royal Scout.”
“None taken. But I think you are wrong about that. Someone once told me that I should find my own way in life, and do everything to the best of my ability. But most importantly, do what I want to do. And right now, I want to be a Royal Scout,” Miranda said with conviction.
She frowned and looked at Paige, a little bit of disdain shining in her eyes. “And who says I can’t be a Scout and a mother?”
“Fair enough. Not my place to judge another. Just giving my own opinion.”
Miranda scuffed the ground with her shoes. “Well, to be honest I usually wouldn’t be in this kind of situation. But the Queen is short on Scouts, so she asked me to come check this place out. I mostly deal with parsing through information.”
“I figured. Not many spies have kids,” Paige answered wryly. “So, you asked me a question. Now it’s my turn. Did the queen know that Trent’s Scouts have penetrated this deep into the country? Or does she have any idea why they were here?”
“We’ve had no reports of Trent’s Scouts in the region. The Imperial Scion finished rooting out the enemies a few years ago. I don’t know why they were here since I was captured shortly after I arrived in the region,” Miranda snapped to attention while she spoke.
“Last question. How come you and Sara weren’t killed?” Paige’s eyes narrowed as she looked Miranda up and down. “Those with Classes are always killed first. I would say the two of you are well into your Specialized Classes, and I doubt the people who were sacrificed were stronger than you both.”
“I, I don’t know? Luck, maybe?”
It was clear that the girl didn’t know about the sacrifices went, but Paige knew better than that. There was always a process. So if they were skipped…
“What items have you acquired recently?”
“A weird item. Or maybe a gift from someone. Artifact? Or maybe an heirloom? A unique item, basically.”
Something that could hide a Class. She knew of such things, like her Imperial Wardstone. True, it could break through magic circles, but it had far more functions than Scions gave it credit for. But that was assuming you were willing to break one, that is. And Paige was well accustomed to using them.
Sara would have to have one too, or maybe it just hid the Classes of everyone within a certain distance. Either way, it would be good to know what items the altar was not able to pierce through.
Miranda stilled as she reached into her pocket. “I did get something, though I don’t know what it is. Don’t break it though, since I had to trade for it.”
Paige waited in suspense as the girl took something out of her pocket. It was made of wood and was carved by an experienced hand. It was a simple statue, showing a figure seated on a ledge. The small figure looked playful, though the weapons that sat next to her were nothing to be scoffed at. A girl was smiling as she looked up at something, in her hand was a plain looking amulet.
She could feel her eye twitching at the sight. The figure looked exactly like her. No, it was her. Paige grabbed the statue and looked at it carefully. Turning it over, she looked at a tiny inscription that was written on the back. ‘A Happy Idiot.’
She had half a mind to destroy the damn thing right then, but the sight of Miranda watching her carefully stopped her. Paige frowned and looked closer at the little statue. Something was off with the background. Taking a closer look, she scoffed as she realized what it was. The little Paige wasn’t sitting on a ledge.
It was a hearth.
“…where did you get this lovely statue from?” Paige asked as she handed it back.
Miranda coughed politely. “Funny you should mention it, I got it here in these woods.”
“From an old man, actually. I traded a few things for it. Why?”
Paige stiffened. An old man. In these woods.
“Is, is there anything else?” Miranda asked.
“No, no that’s all. We’ll be transporting you all today, just as soon as the caravans come from the town. Just remember, attribute everything to Zenith. That’ll help the Queen more than if an unknown Farmer did it. Understand?”
Miranda stared at her. “Mhmm. I understand perfectly. For the good of the country. Right?”
Paige sighed. “Yeah. May the light of Alcudia shine bright in the night.” She saluted idly and turned around, not caring for the glances Miranda was giving her.
There was something, or someone, in these woods she had to go find instead.
Zenith walked alongside Nick as they headed back toward the town, the rescued people sitting quietly in the carts alongside them.
“So what did Paige tell the girl? Did you ask her.”
“Mhmm. She said she would report everything honestly. I’m proud of Paige, she’s actually going to take responsibility for once.”
“Paige said that? I half expected her to go about her merry way.” Nick looked over, his face cloudy with skepticism.
“Well, in not so many words, according to the girl. Officially, she said that the whole Party would have to receive credit for rescuing the prisoners, but her own personal reports to the Queen will be accurate.”
“And that is better how? Having conflicting reports is bound to get us in trouble at some point, you know.”
“True, but now you all have a reason to appear, instead of just me alone. And so long as the Queen believes it, then Paige will have to do something other than lay around.”
“I suppose so.”
“Doesn’t she look familiar? Just a little?” Zenith frowned as she looked over to the front of the caravan. Kate, Sara and Miranda were sitting there, chatting. Evidently Miranda and Kate knew each other,
“Markus said something about Joanna. Know the girl?” Nick looked at the girl and shrugged. He grabbed his water skin instead.
“Ah! That’s Kate’s niece from up north! No wonder she looks familiar then.” Zenith looked over at the girl, her brown hair swaying idly in the breeze. She still looked familiar, but Zenith couldn’t figure out where she had seen her at. Her memories were usually better than that.
“Hey, do you know when Tyler will be coming back? Think he’ll have any news from Appealte?”
Nick coughed as he choked on his drink. “Ack, what?”
“Tyler. Do you know when he’ll get back? I thought he said the trip wouldn’t take long. I mean, Appealte is barely a few days from here.”
Zenith looked over at Nick.
He faltered. “He’s… checking into something for me. And he’s trying to gauge whether my bows will sell or not.”
“Yeah. I wouldn’t lie about something that minor.”