Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Page 1866

And for the record, I do think it would be ideal if we could resolve this crisis without relying on the Intarians or any other foreigners,’ said Garovel. ‘Hector and I will continue to work towards that end--at least until you tell us otherwise.

She looked between the two of them and nodded. “I appreciate that. I will take your words into consideration.”

You look great in that dress, by the way,’ said Garovel.

The Queen seemed surprised by the compliment and eyed Hector, perhaps for an explanation.

He scrambled for an answer. “Ah--yeah. Uh. You do.”

“Thank you,” said Helen, though not without hesitation in her voice.

Ask her about the King,’ said Garovel privately.

It took Hector a second to realize that he was receiving instruction. He’d gotten comfortable just listening. “H-How is the King doing?”

“He is well,” said the Queen. “I am sure he would like to speak to you, himself. He has been wanting to visit Warrenhold.”

“Oh, uh. Well, uh, we’d love to have him.”

“Only him?” said the Queen with a teasing smile. “Am I not invited, as well?”

Hector felt a flash of embarrassment at having missed that, but then realized that it was probably too late backtrack with any sort of dignity, and so decided to just go with it. “...Eh, I’ll have to think about it.”

And the Queen actually laughed. Lynn cracked a smile, too.

Hector wasn’t sure he’d ever felt more pleased with himself.

What an amazing feeling it was to make someone laugh. And royalty, no less.

Strange. For the briefest moment, he felt like he was having an epiphany.

He really liked making people like. In fact, it was one of the things he liked most.

How was he just now realizing this about himself?

The party’s going to begin soon,’ said Mehlsanz.

Soon isn’t NOW, though, is it?’ said Garovel.

You have more you wish to discuss?’ she said.

Not particularly. But it’s rare that I get to enjoy such fine company. I don’t want it to end yet.’

What a charmer.

Hector noticed Garovel’s hollow gaze turn toward Lynn. ‘How is your bodyguard doing, by the way?

The Queen perked up at that question, glancing at Lynn herself before regarding Garovel again. “Good, I hope. Is there anything specific you would like to know.”

Lynn’s expression shifted somewhat as she was perhaps sensing that she was being talked about.

Her aura seems a bit stronger than before,’ said Garovel.

Oh? That certainly piqued Hector’s interest.

“Yes, I am not surprised,” said the Queen. “She has been training diligently.”

What manner of training would that be?’ said Garovel.

“Attempting to unlock the secrets of that gauntlet,” said Helen. “Mr. Norez has been kind enough to offer his assistance in that regard, as well.”

Lynn just looked around awkwardly.

Oh, yeah, Harper,’ said Garovel. ‘I’m looking forward to seeing him and Darsihm again, too. They’re here, aren’t they? It’s tough to sense them with all these people around.

They are, yes,’ said Mehlsanz.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Page 1865

Maybe,’ said Garovel. ‘The loss in Kavia shouldn’t be disregarded as a total fluke, I think. Considering the Vanguard’s current advantage in numbers, that loss probably shouldn’t have happened, so the fact that it did is a warning sign, in my opinion. And now you’re telling me about this annexation offer? I think there may be a connection. I think the Vanguard is trying to pull out every weapon in its arsenal in order to finally deliver a decisive blow to Dozer.

“That may be true,” said the Queen, “but it does not answer the question of whether or not I should accept Intar’s terms.”

Garovel laughed mildly. ‘Are you asking me to make that decision for you? Why, I’m flattered you hold my opinion in such high regard.

She gave the reaper another flat look, but the edge of her mouth turned up with the whisper of a smile. “I would appreciate your counsel, though nothing more.”

Heh. Well, regardless, I won’t pretend to know what the right decision for Atreya is, but as should be evident from the explanation of my perspective just now, I don’t think Intar is looking to abuse or exploit Atreya or its people, necessarily. I think they’re playing a complicated political and military game, and Atreya is just one small part of it.

“I do not know if that is a relief to hear or a worry,” said Helen. “Even if Intar holds no ill will towards us, I still fear that Atreya is far from their mind. What is to stop this kingdom from being trampled under the feet of these warring juggernauts?”

What’s to stop it, you ask?’ said Garovel. ‘Well, I’m pretty sure that’s our job, isn’t it?’ He motioned not just to Hector but to everyone at the table. ‘And perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think any of our feelings on that particular subject are going to change anytime soon, even under Intarian law.

The Queen’s gaze fell to the table, and she was silent.

So was everyone else for a time.

A question occurred to Hector, and given the current opening in the conversation, he decided to take it. “...If you did decide to give up power, what would you do?”

She looked at him, considerate. “A good question. I would still be queen, but I would have no legal authority. That does not mean I would be powerless, however.”

Hector understood her meaning. Not being able to order people to do things didn’t mean she wouldn’t still have considerable influence.

But still. Queen Helen not being in charge?

He could hardly imagine it.

Well, so far, I’m not hearing a whole lot of reasons why you should turn the Intarians down,’ said Garovel.

The Queen merely frowned.

Whatever you decide, though, you should know that we’ll be with you,’ said Garovel. ‘Even, hypothetically speaking, if you were to make a horrifically unpopular decision that caused the public to turn on you, Hector and I would still be on your side.

The Queen exhaled a curt sigh. “Thank you.”

Monday, July 16, 2018

Page 1864

“What does that have to do with their desire to annex Atreya?” said the Queen.

Your debt to Korgum and Dozer,’ said Garovel. ‘Intar may be thinking a few steps ahead here. Suppose, for instance, that you went on being unable to repay your debt to Dozer, and then Dozer decided to come and collect? How would a country with such a reputation for violence do that?

“You think Dozer would attempt to conquer Atreya?”

I think Intar may think that. And they probably have a better grasp of the situation across the continent than we do, so if they think it might happen, then I’d say, yeah, it might happen.

You’re using a bit of circular logic there, aren’t you?’ said Mehlsanz.

Am I? Well, you see my point, though, right? Intar is quietly allied with Korgum and therefore at war with Dozer. So in their eyes, it would probably be best if you never repay any of your debt to Dozer.

The queen seemed to give the idea some thought. “If that is true, then that is quite the expensive strategy on their part...”

Not as expensive as Korgum losing the war,’ said Garovel. ‘Abolish already has a fairly strong presence in Azirat, Kortan, and Calthos. It may not be completely dominant there, but Korgum and Lyste are currently barring Dozer’s passage north. If Korgum were to fall, though, then I suspect that Dozer would storm into those countries and have them subjugated within a few months. Maybe less. Then Dozer would be able to knock on Intar’s southeastern door or maybe just invade Sair and try to add that to the pile.

The Vanguard would never allow Dozer to take Azirat, Kortan, and Calthos that easily,’ said Mehlsanz.

Oh, I don’t think they’d LET them do anything,’ said Garovel. ‘The Vanguard is having plenty of its own problems, right now--and worse, I think it might be blind to about half of them.

“But its recent victory in Jesbol is a good sign, no?” said the Queen.

Sure, but its even more recent loss in Kavia should raise a few eyebrows, too,’ said Garovel. ‘In fact, the line of thinking you just brought up is exactly what I’m most concerned about. It’s true that the victory in Jesbol was a major one and that Abolish is no doubt suffering hugely for military strength now that both Dunhouser and Gunther are dead at Jackson’s hands. But this is a full-blown war we’re talking about. It’s more complicated than just how strong its top guys are. The Vanguard still has to worry about managing its time and resources properly and not playing into the enemy’s hands. Overconfidence isn’t going to do them any favors. And anyway, the real top threats are Dozer and Morgunov, and they’re both still alive.

The Queen just folded her hands in front of her again.

You think the Vanguard is growing overconfident?’ said Mehlsanz.

Page 1863

((Triple Saturday -- Page 3 of 3))
Hector could hardly blame her, especially after all she had done to hold on to her power.

Everything Hector had helped her do, no less.

What a strange notion, that it might have all been for naught.

Well, okay, not all. They weren’t at war with Rendon. That was kinda important, Hector felt.

“In my stead,” Helen continued, “a governor would be elected, as is the case with all of the other Intarian territories. The ultimately authority over Atreya, however, would defer to the President of Intar.”

And this governor would be elected by Atreyans, right?’ said Garovel. ‘Not some sort of Inatarian council somewhere?

“Yes, it would be a fully republican process,” said the Queen. She shook her head. “And my traitorous brother’s goal will have been achieved...”

Hector had no words for her.

Nor did anyone else, apparently.

The Queen soon found her composure again. “Apart from that, of course, Intarian federal law will apply in Atreyan territory, which will usher in a host of legislative changes. Taxes, in particular, come to mind.”

Still, that’s pretty tame,’ said Garovel. ‘Were there any other stipulations?

“Not as of yet, no,” said Helen.

Hmm. Then, is it just me, or is this deal sounding a little too good to be true? Not that I’m eager to see you removed from power ‘r anything.

No, I was thinking the same thing,’ said Mehlsanz. ‘The worst part is that it’s not entirely clear what Intar stands to gain from this deal. Land? Sure, but not that much. Atreya is a tiny country, after all. Extra taxes? Maybe, but it’ll be some time before that revenue pays off all the money that they would be spending on this deal.

Ah, well, I may be able to answer that for you, then,’ said Garovel.

He had both Mehlsanz and the Queen’s attention.

Technically, Intar is not at war with anyone at the moment,’ said Garovel, ‘but from what I’ve been learning from the Rainlords and their reapers over the last month or so, Intar has developed a tendency in recent years to discreetly involve itself in international conflicts.

Mehlsanz nodded. ‘Mm. Yes. I heard that as well when I was working for the Vanguard. The Vangaurd doesn’t keep its own “territory,” per se--not like Sai-hee and Abolish do, certainly--but at the same time, it would not be wholly inaccurate to say that Intar is one of the main countries where the Vanguard operates.

Yes,’ said Garovel. ‘One of the core values of the Vanguard has been to never interfere with the peaceful governing of a people, so it has historically held Intarian law in high esteem--and even agreed to work for it, from time to time. It seems, however, that the bonds between the two are stronger than they have ever been. There is some fear that they may be merging into one, as is the case with Abolish and Dozer.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Page 1862

((Triple Saturday -- Page 2 of 3))
Atreya is indebted to Korgum and Dozer?’ said Garovel. ‘How the hell did that happen?

“A parting gift from my incarcerated brother, Luther,” she said. “And it is no insignificant sum, mind you.”

Goddamn,’ said Garovel privately. Then, publicly, he said, ‘Okay, well, is that all we’d be getting out of the deal? Debt removal?

“No,” said Helen. “Intar would also grant an additional four billion troa to each of the great houses of Atreya. Which would include you, by the way.”

Hector just blinked at that.

The “equivalent” of four billion troa, you mean,’ said Mehlsanz.

“Yes,” said Helen. “The troa would become a defunct form of currency. We would have to transfer over to the Intarian tero.”

I can’t imagine that the exchange rate on the troa is doing so great, at the moment,’ said Garovel.

“I am aware,” said the Queen. “I assure you, I would never agree to such a deal without being entirely certain of such details.”

Of course,’ said Garovel. ‘But still, is that all? Money is great and all, but it takes more than that to make a nation whole.

“Yes, Atreya would also be formally recognized as a ‘territory’ within Intar and granted all accompanying rights,” said the Queen. “Every Atreyan citizen would be granted full Intarian citizenship, as would any child born in Atreya in the future.”

Ah.’ Garovel paused. ‘Alright, now THAT does sweeten the deal quite a bit, if you ask me.

“Indeed,” said Helen.

But still, are they offering anything else?’ said Garovel.

Is that not enough for you?’ said Mehlsanz.

What can I say? I’m greedy. And if we’re gonna go through with this, we should aim for the best deal possible, shouldn’t we?

“No other beneficial stipulations were put forward,” said the Queen, “but there is time yet for further negotiations.”

Ooh, interesting,’ said Garovel. ‘So you could theoretically still swing for maybe another few billion for new infrastructure or schooling, eh?

A faint smile crossed the woman’s lips again. “That would be pushing it, I imagine.”

Maybe a nice, big park for every city?’ said Garovel. ‘Gray Rock could use a nice, big park. Weirdly enough, Gray Rock has a lot of actually gray rocks everywhere. Not much greenery for all the proud, Atreyan families to raise their healthy, Atreyan kids in.

The Queen tilted her head at the reaper. “I can no longer tell if you are for or against this deal.”

Why, I’m neither. Yet. You still haven’t told us what they want us to give up. Specifically.

The Queen’s frown returned. “First and foremost, I would have to relinquish all governmental authority.”

Mm,’ hummed Garovel.

“I would still remain Queen of Atreya, but I would have no actual power. I would become a figurehead.” She did not look like she much cared for that idea.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Page 1861 -- CXCIV.

((Triple Saturday -- Page 1 of 3))
I see,’ said Garovel. ‘So, then, what’s your strategy moving forward? If things continue on like they have been, then it sounds like you won’t be able to keep up appearances for much longer.

At that, the Queen was silent for an uncomfortably long time.

Hector studied her expression, as well as Lynn’s, and he couldn’t help worrying about what he was seeing. Their solemn gazes. Their aversion of eye contact.

This wasn’t right at all. He was the one who was so supposed to be afraid of eye contact, not them.

At length, however, the Queen finally answered. “It may already be too late,” she said. “I know you are expecting me to say that I have some grand plan to save the kingdom, and if you were any other of the other lords here tonight, I would say exactly that. I would tell you what I thought you would wish to hear--indeed, what I would wish to hear. But with the two of you, at least, I feel I must share the fullness of my thoughts on this matter, terrible though they are.”

Hector’s own expression hardened as he listened, bracing himself for whatever he was about to hear.

“I fear there may simply be no way out of this particular crisis,” said the Queen. “Not for me, at least. Not for the Crown.”

Hector was confused. He waited for her to explain what she meant.

“Atreya will survive,” she went on. “There is no doubt in my mind about that. Because Atreya is its people. And we are a hardier bunch than I think even we ourselves realize. We are tough and often underestimated.” A thin smile crossed her lips briefly. “I would say you are a fine example.”

Hector might’ve blushed if he wasn’t more concerned about where this was going.

“And perhaps I am being overly dramatic,” she said. “It is not as if I will be gutted and thrown out onto the street.”

Hector couldn’t hold his questions any longer. “What are you talking about? Why are you saying all of this?”

For a short time, the Queen merely looked at him, her eyes softening before seeming to find their steel again. “This information is not yet public, but... Intar has offered to annex Atreya.”


Chapter One Hundred Ninety-Four: ‘Thine uncertain destiny...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Hector’s head reared back. He didn’t even know what to make of that news.

The Queen was not done talking, however. “I have not yet given them an answer, but it is certainly not something I can dismiss out of hand. And the terms of it, as they have been relayed to me thus far, would be rather generous, considering our circumstances.”

Wow,’ said Garovel. ‘And what are these “rather generous” terms, if you don’t mind my asking?

“Complete absolution of all our debts to them,” said Helen, “as well as the shouldering of all debts we have to other nations--namely Korgum and Dozer.”

Friday, July 13, 2018

Page 1860

The Queen regarded Hector and Garovel both another time. “I see. Forgive me if I seem skeptical. I have had few reasons for optimism, of late.” She removed her hands from the table and folded them over her stomach.

“I can imagine,” said Hector. He wanted to say something more, something reassuring preferably, but nothing was coming to mind.

“This financial crisis,” the Queen said slowly, “it is... my failure. So many of this nation’s problems might have been avoided if I had only been more attentive in these last five years.”

Hector observed her face with silent surprise. He’d been seeing her all over the news lately, giving speeches and the like, and she always looked so confident and composed. But here and now? Hector had never seen her so uncertain.

Come to think of it, her worried reactions earlier were a lot more expressive as well.

It put a question in Hector’s head.

“...Is the crisis even worse than the public realizes?” he asked.

The Queen met his gaze but didn’t answer him.

Perhaps that was an answer in itself, though.

“...Madame Carthrace wants to open a bank in my name,” said Hector.

Helen’s eyes drifted away from him, seemingly in thought. “A bank? Why would she...?”

“Ah... she seems to think that, er... that my reputation would be able to help stabilize the economy. I mean, I don’t know if, uh... if that would work, but... eh... that’s what she said.”

The Queen seemed lost in thought, but she still managed to say, “I see.” And then, after a beat, “Interesting.”

Hector supposed he shouldn’t stop there. “She, uh... she also wanted me to ask you for funding for it.”

Helen frowned at him.

“Ah--if you can’t help, though, then, er, I understand...”

She sighed mildly through her nose and shook he head. “At this time, I am afraid I can offer you no such assistance.”

Really?’ said Garovel. ‘I don’t want to give you a hard time, but it seems a little odd that you wouldn’t choose to subsidize a potential solution to the main problem facing the nation. Or HELP subsidize it, at the very least.

The Queen’s frown deepened. “I would if I could,” she said.

It’s that bad, huh?’ said Garovel.

It is,’ said Mehlsanz. ‘We’re already running on fumes, as it is. The Gala? Everything you see here tonight? Bought with funds borrowed from Intar.

Intar, huh?’ said Garovel. ‘Well, it’s true that they’ve got plenty of money to throw around, but I can’t say I like the idea of Atreya being indebted to them.

“Nor do I,” said Helen, “but it is all we can do to keep up appearances, for the moment. Why, if not for David’s silver tongue, I doubt even they would have agreed to lend us any more.”

And now they’re pressuring us to grant special privileges to their businesses. Their influence is growing stronger by the day.

Well, that corroborated what Madame Carthrace had told him, Hector figured.

He would’ve much preferred to learn that she’d been wrong.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Page 1859

Yes,’ said Garovel, ‘but if nothing else, then at least YOU could come, Mehlsanz, and give them a look.

Mm, perhaps. But I’m a busy girl, too, you know. And besides, I don’t think Helen values my opinion that much.

The Queen gave her a flat look, now.

Heh, well, if that’s true, then maybe she’s right to not care about your opinion,’ said Garovel.

Excuse me?’ said Mehlsanz dryly, though Hector heard a hint of amusement in her voice.

You can’t just revive someone and then expect them to treat you like a sophisticated intellectual,’ said Garovel. ‘I know I make it look easy, being this obviously smart all the time, but trust me, it’s a whole ordeal unto itself.

Careful,’ said Mehlsanz. ‘You and I are old friends, but not THAT old.

Garovel just chuckled.

“This fugitive from Sai-hee,” said the Queen, apparently wanting to get the conversation back on track, “tell me about him. You said that you did not think these Rainlords will be a problem but that you think someone else will. You were referring to this man?”

“Oh,” said Hector, “ah... yeah. He’s... well, his name’s Leo. He seems to trust me, but... ah... he might be under the impression that I’m... one of the oldest servants in the world.”

The Queen expression remained blank, and she just stared at Hector for a time.

Hector and Garovel did their best to bring the Queen up to speed with regard to what had happened with Leo in the Undercrust. It ended up drifting all the way back into what happened at Dunehall and even in Marshrock, however, and by the end it, Helen and Mehlsanz were looking more bewildered than ever. Even Lynn was eyeing him as if he was suddenly a different person or something. It was always tough to tell what was going through her head, though.

But anyway, enough about us,’ said Garovel at the protracted silence. ‘Tell us about what’s going on with you. We’d like to help, if we can.

It sounds like you already have your hands full,’ said Mehlsanz.

Yeah, well, if we can help you with your problems, then maybe you wouldn’t mind helping us with ours.

“I am not certain how I could help with this Leo character,” said Helen. “He sounds rather unstable. Do you have a particular tactic in mind?”

We have a few,’ said Garovel, though Hector wasn’t sure if that was a lie or not. ‘But for the moment, I don’t think we’ll need your help in dealing with him. The way Hector talked about the man was a bit foreboding--and not unduly so, perhaps--but as for me, I’m optimistic about our relationship with him. I think Hector and I will be able to bring him around and count him as another valuable ally and protector of Atreya.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Page 1858

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 3 of 3))
“Well, they’ve been driven out of their homeland,” said Hector. “But they’re very... proud, to say the least. I’m sure they’ll want to go and win it back, sooner or later. I’m just hoping that it’ll be later.”

“Hector.” The Queen rested her hands on the table and interlocked her fingers together. “I know you have only been back for a handful of days, but even so, you must realize that Atreya does not need this manner of trouble, at the moment.”

He frowned, knowing that her mood was probably not going to improve after what he was about to say. “Ah... honestly, I don’t think the Rainlords are going to be a problem. But I do think someone else will be...”

“Excuse me?” said the Queen.

There was no good way of putting this, he felt. “You know who Sai-hee is, right?”

Helen blinked at him a couple times. “Please tell me Sai-hee is not going to invade.”

“Oh, uh, she’s not. I mean, not as far as I know.”

Helen did not look very reassured.

“...But I did bring another fugitive from her group with me,” said Hector.

At that, the Queen actually buried her face in her hands.

Mm,’ said Garovel, ‘if I could butt in for a second here, I feel like maybe Hector isn’t explaining the situation quite as well as he could be.

The Queen did not look up, but she did answer through her hands. “Do go on, then, Garovel.”

Well, y’see, we didn’t really have a whole lot of options with this Sai-hee fugitive. This guy isn’t one of the Rainlords, by the way. In fact, they kinda hate him, at the moment.

I’m not sure your explanation is any better,’ said Mehlsanz.

Look, okay, we get it,’ said Garovel. ‘It’s a precarious situation. But it’s also an opportunity like no other, right? Like Hector said, the Rainlords are incredibly powerful. And right now, we’re on quite good terms with them.

“Yes.” The Queen removed her hands from her face and took another. “Amelia mentioned that these guests of yours might make for valuable allies. I, however, remain unconvinced.”

Abruptly, Hector realized that Madame Carthrace had not followed him into this meeting. Jamal and Matteo weren’t there anymore, either. With the Scarf, though, he could sense that they were waiting outside the room with a pair of royal guardsmen. He had no idea where Madame Carthrace had gone, though.

That’s perfectly understandable,’ Garovel was saying. ‘I encourage you to come to Warrenhold and meet them yourself.

The Queen gave the reaper a flat look.

We don’t really have the time for that,’ said Mehlsanz. ‘And all eyes are on us. It was difficult enough arranging this meeting here without drawing the attention of the entire media. If we visited Warrenhold, it would make it that much more difficult for you to keep your “guests” hidden--which I assume you wish to continue doing?

Page 1857

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 2 of 3))
“I am, however, very curious to hear about these ‘guests’ who are currently staying at Warrenhold,” said the Queen.

Hector had been wondering when that would come up. He’d known that Madame Carthrace had told her about them.

He considered his next words carefully. He knew that he shouldn’t keep any of the important details from her, but it was still tough to know where to begin. He supposed he should just get the hardest part out of the way, though.

“...They’re fugitives from the Vanguard,” he told her.

For a moment, the Queen merely looked at him, her expression tightening. Then she exhaled and averted her gaze. “And here I was worried that they might be on the run from Abolish.” She rubbed her brow with a manicured hand. “This is far worse.”

“...Sorry,” was all Hector could think to say. He glanced at Lynn, who seemed more interested with the Queen’s reaction.

Helen took a long breath. “I assume you have a good reason for bringing them to Atreya?”

Hector had had plenty of time to prepare for that question. “They’re good and noble people,” he said. “The Vanguard was in the wrong. And, ah... Abolish attacked them, too. They were kind of desperate for help, so...”

The Queen nodded. “So you volunteered.” She still did not sound terribly pleased. “I also understand that they are... warriors, of some sort?”

Lynn was looking at him again, he noticed.

“...Yeah,” said Hector. “They’re... well, they’re incredibly powerful, actually.”

“Wait,” said Lynn, her one eye widening, “these aren’t the Rainlords you went to help, are they?”

Hector head reared back a little. “Er, yeah, they are. I... thought you guys already knew that.”

Helen’s eyes widened a little now, too. “You brought the Rainlords back from Sair with you?”

He gave a small nod. “Ah, well, about half of them, anyway. The other half was captured by Sanko.”

“You fought Sanko?!” said Lynn.

“What? No, I didn’t fight her. The other half of the Rainlords did. And, er, they lost.” He was little surprised that Lynn even recognized that name, but after a moment, he supposed he shouldn’t have been.

The Queen was rubbing her brow again. Suddenly, she looked a lot more exhausted than she had a minute ago.

“...Madame Carthrace didn’t tell you they were Rainlords?” said Hector.

“No, she did not,” said Helen.

That was surprising. When she’d said that she’d “told the Queen about their new houses guests,” Hector had just assumed that she’d informed her of everything she’d been learning about them while managing Warrenhold’s affairs.

Clearly, he should not have assumed that.

Bah. How amateurish of him. Not very lordly at all.

“How long do you intend to give them refuge at Warrenhold?” the Queen asked.

Now there was an important question. He exchanged looks with Garovel, wondering if he wanted to chime in here, but the reaper merely nodded at him.

“...As long as they need,” said Hector.

The Queen expression tightened again. “Indefinitely?”

Page 1856

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 1 of 3))
Hector was still feeling locked into his poker face, so he didn’t smile, but his the corners of his mouth did edge up ever so slightly.

Wow, it was good to see them. Safe and well, seemingly.

The Queen was looking more queenly than ever, he thought strangely. It was probably because of her dress. He’d never seen her wear anything so elaborate and flowing. It covered the entire booth she was seated at, draping over the side and sprawling across the floor like a sparkling blue carpet.

And her crown. She wasn’t wearing it at the moment, but it was sitting right there on the table in front of her. A circle of silver, lined with gold and topped with sapphires in the shapes of stars. He’d seen it a few times in a history book or on television, but laying eyes on it in person was providing a decidedly different feeling.

He was perhaps the most keenly aware of Lynn’s presence, however.

Her uniform was a little more elaborate than he recalled, too. The Atreyan Seal and the crest of House Belgrant were both woven into her collar. He remembered that she’d often taken to wearing her white cloak while on duty, but the one she was wearing now bore long silver stripes and boasted miniature Atreyan flags at each shoulder. It also had a deeply black interior, perhaps to conceal pockets or to be reversible.

She still had her eye patch and sword as well, of course. And her bone half-gauntlet was concealed beneath a glove, but Hector had no doubt that it was there, too.

And damn.

He was torn, wanting to both stare at her and to avoid eye contact.

“There you are,” said the Queen upon seeing him. “I am glad you were able to arrive before the Gala was officially underway. I doubt we will have much opportunity to speak privately tonight--certainly not before midnight.” She gestured to the other side of the table. “Please, come and have a seat, Lord Goffe.”

Hector made his way over. Lynn was watching him like a one-eyed hawk. He thought she might say something, but she didn’t, and he sat down.

Oh shit, he was probably supposed to say something here, wasn’t he? “Ah, uh--thank you, Your Highness...”

Helen smiled warmly at him. “It is very good to see you again,” she said. “In truth, we had been growing quite worried about you.”

“Oh, ah... yeah. Er. Sorry about that...” He glanced between her and Lynn. Mehlsanz was there as well, he noticed, floating up from behind the Queen’s enormous gown.

“I understand you had quite the eventful trip,” said Helen.

“That’s... one way of putting it, yeah.”

“I wish I could hear all of the details, but from what Amelia told me, it would be quite a long story, and we have other matters to discuss.”

Not to worry,’ said Garovel. ‘I’ll tell Mehlsanz all about it later, and then she can relay it to you.

Yes, I think I’d rather hear it from you than Voreese,’ said Mehlsanz.

Heh. I’ll let her know you said that.

Oh, god, please don’t.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Page 1855

Garovel kept pointing notable people out to him as they continued toward the main entrance. It provided him with a helpful distraction, but even so, the walk felt like it was taking an eternity.

And everyone was staring at him, he realized. Not just the cameras but the other lords, too.

He just had to walk. And breathe. Walking and breathing. He could do that.

In theory.

Holy fuck, this was way too much attention. All the lights on him, the eyes, the noise. The weight of it was almost physical, as if he were suddenly moving underwater.

He’d known it was going to be like this, of course, but he still couldn’t help feeling overwhelmed.

He could help showing that feeling, however. He just had to keep his thoughts and his actions separate, to maintain a poker face. Maybe that wasn’t going to look particularly welcoming or friendly, but at least it would be better than looking like a panicking wreck. And at least it was something he’d been getting considerable practice with, too.

How we doin’, buddy?’ said Garovel as they neared the enormous double doors with inlaid silver ornamentation. ‘You’re looking a little rigid there.

He honestly didn’t know how to answer that. Almost there. Just a bit farther. The long, flat steps up to the doors were only six in number, but they were beginning to look like a mountain climb unto themselves with so many people crowding the edges of the path.

Oh god.

C’mon,’ said Garovel. ‘Keep talking to me. You can do it. You don’t want the people of Atreya to see their fearless hero freaking out on national television, do you?

...That’s not helping, Garovel.

Well, you’re talking to me, so I think it is.

He might’ve frowned if he wasn’t so intent on keeping his face like stone.

Miraculously, he managed to make it up the steps and into the building. The noise from outside began to fade slowly, and a sharply dressed woman appeared in front of him, bowed, and then motioned him to follow her.

He did so.

He spotted more nobles loitering around the massive welcoming chamber, talking amongst themselves and throwing glances his way. Apparently, the press hadn’t been invited inside yet, but Hector was fairly sure that they would be eventually. As he understood it, most of the Gala was going to be televised.

The guide led him through a number of rooms, and Hector relied on the Scarf to scout ahead a little. He was trying to make out where the Queen and Lynn might be. It was probably safe to assume that they were together, he figured, but there were just too many people around to tell. Bosliat was positively bustling with activity. He could only imagine how busy the palace’s staff was.

Then, abruptly, Hector realized that the guide had taken him to a familiar room--a small offshoot of the main dining chamber. He’d previously had dinner with the Queen here, he recalled. That was when she’d decided to give him Warrenhold.

And lo and behold, there the woman sat again. With Lynn standing beside her.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Normal posting will resume on Tuesday, July 10th

Lately, my schedule has gotten all screwed up, and I apologize for that. I think it's time I just admit that I need a break to relax and get organized again. I really don't like missing my deadlines. So I'm gonna take a week off.

Thank you for your patience, everyone.

The past couple months have been pretty strange for me. I had a family emergency that kinda just turned my whole life upside down. Things are better now, but there've been some lasting consequences that I've been trying to get used to. And today, I found out that, sometime soon, there might be another family emergency involving a different family member. Maybe there won't be, though. It's just one of those things. Worrying news that you can't do much about. But that's life for you, I guess. We deal with these things the best we can as they come.

I'm sorry if you'd like greater detail, but I'm uncomfortable sharing much more than that. At least, for the time being. However, I also don't want you guys to worry too much. I, myself, am perfectly fine, and I certainly don't plan to stop writing TZKS.

In any case, I'd like to thank you all again for your support over the years. It really has meant the world to me. I'll have more story for you soon.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Page 1854

((Belated Triple Saturday -- Page 2 of 3))
The Rainlords had also put up something of a fuss about letting him go to the Gala alone. They’d repeatedly told him that he should take a team of servant bodyguards with him, but the obvious issue with that was the Rainlords’ infamy. As much as Hector might’ve liked to bring Diego Redwater or Dimas Sebolt or someone else along, it wouldn’t do if the Vanguard saw their faces on camera. Sure, the Gala was not an international event, but it wasn’t like it was a national secret, either.

But the Rainlords had nonetheless been insistent. And the solution that they’d come up with was to simply avoid sending anyone recognizable. Hector had outright refused a full team of bodyguards, believing that would be more intimidating than protective, but he did decide to accept one Rainlord bodyguard, at least.

Matteo Delaguna was the chosen young man’s name. Hector had seen his square face and heavy gaze a few times before, but that was it. The guy couldn’t have been much older than him, probably not even twenty years old. His reaper, Ernivoc, accompanied them as well.

Matteo seemed to be taking his role as a bodyguard pretty damn seriously, too. He even dressed like one, complete with a dark suit, black tie, and sunglasses. He’d barely said anything since they’d left Warrenhold, though that was just fine with Hector. Ernivoc and Garovel talked plenty in their stead.

But it was weird, having this extra body around, following him like a shadow. He’d just been starting to get used to Jamal’s frequent presence, and now there was this guy.

Hector felt like maybe he should’ve asked him some questions or something. Tried to get to know him better, maybe.

He felt that way. But he didn’t act on that feeling, which ended up just making the feeling worse.

Agh.

Baby steps, he supposed.

It didn’t help that that he had about a thousand other things on his mind, as well. In between conversing with Ernivoc, Garovel had privately been explaining to Hector about all of the intel he’d been gathering recently about the various Atreyan nobles, and even now, as they were walking down the greeting carpet toward the palace, Garovel was still coming up with new things to tell him.

Ah, see that guy?’ The reaper pointed subtly forward with the tip of his scythe.

Yeah?’ said Hector, noting the well-dressed, gray-haired gentleman whom he was referring to.

That’s the Lord of House Vollier right there,’ the reaper said. ‘Domitrus Vollier. Important guy. Arguably the richest man in Atreya, right now.

That name caught Hector by surprise. ‘He’s named after the first king?

Yep. Heh. Surprised you picked up on that. I’m proud of you.

Even first graders know who King Domitrus was,’ said Hector.

Exactly my point. That’s very advanced historical knowledge for you.

Shut up.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Page 1853

((Belated Triple Saturday -- Page 1 of 3))
And indeed, Hector had read the historical accounting of the ambassador of the Mohssian Empire who had been largely responsible for convincing the emperor to grant Atreya its independence. In the account, the ambassador had arrived in this brazen little country to chastise its newly appointed King Domitrus and negotiate terms of a legal retraction, believing that a nation with such comparatively little land would have no other choice.

However, according to the account, the ambassador began changing his mind almost immediately upon seeing Bosliat Palace, because he didn’t think there would be enough wealth in the entire nation to create such a grand structure.

It had made one hell of a first impression, in other words, and the king and all of his supporters had furthermore been able to follow through and change the ambassador’s view of them so radically that Atreya’s independence was officially recognized by the Mohssian Empire in less than a year.

Weirdly enough, Hector had never really felt or put much thought into national pride, but reading that had stirred something inside. Just a bit.

An odd feeling. Especially considering he’d already met the Queen and even fought for her. Multiple times. Shouldn’t he have been feeling this way about Atreya all along?

He couldn’t recall the school system ever evoking any sense of nationalism in him. Which was strange, wasn’t it? Shouldn’t they have been teaching national unity or whatever?

Eh, maybe they had, and he just hadn’t been paying attention. In fact, that seemed like the most likely explanation, the more he thought about it.

He’d been thinking about what he would say if he were to be asked what he thought of Atreya--which, tonight, might very well happen. It was a tough notion to wrestle with. In the end, he felt like his allegiance was more to simply protecting innocent people, but he certainly knew that there were limits to that. There was only so much that he could do. And if he overextended himself, then the people who were already safe under his protection might very well end up in danger again.

Lives were on the line here. With a whole castle full of people waiting for him back in Gray Rock, Hector felt like he’d been too naive in the past. He needed be realistic about things now.

As he stepped out of the black SUV and onto the blue-striped carpet, he tried to push his anxiety down as far as it would go.

Which wasn’t very far, sadly--not with all the cameras and microphones and eager reporters in front of him. The path forward remained clear, at least, thanks to a team burly guardsmen holding the news crews behind a velvet rope, but the shouting and shuttering of cameras was still plenty distracting.

Oh man.

Jamal Easton was already there in front of him, having stepped out first, and Amelia Carthrace was stepping out behind him.

Page 1852 -- CXCIII.

Hector turned and looked out the window. “That’s... good to know.”

“If I had to pick one family that I thought you should be wary of, it’d probably be them. For obvious reasons.”

Hector nodded at his own faint reflection in the glass. He could only imagine what a miserable first impression he would’ve made if he ended meeting the leader of House Gaolanet without even realizing who they were. “Thank you for telling me...”

“Sure.”

Hey, I could’ve told you most of that,’ said Garovel.

Then why didn’t you?’ said Hector.

You never asked. And I was planning to. On the way to Sescoria, that is.

Mm. Have you got any other information on the nobles for me, then?

Of course I do. Hector, I’ve probably been preparing for this dinner even more than you have.

Heh. Well, I’m listening.


Chapter One Hundred Ninety-Three: ‘The Gathering at Bosliat...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

It had felt like ages since he’d last seen the royal palace, but he knew it hadn’t really been all that long. After having seen Warrenhold, the Golden Fort, Marshrock, Dunehall, and the Swallow’s Nest, Hector now felt an even greater sense of appreciation for this place. Despite all that competition, Bosliat Palace did not pale in comparison. Sure, it may not have been as big as Warrenhold or the Golden Fort; nor did it have a particularly eye-popping gimmick like Marshrock’s rock or Dunehall’s sand or the Nest’s defensive structure, but it did have a certain “regalness” to it, he thought.

Perhaps it was the national colors that did it. The more he looked at it, the more it seemed as if the blue-and-white flag of Atreya had been imbued into the building itself, somehow.

And perhaps it was, in a sense.

After receiving the invitation to the Gala, Hector’s curiosity had been piqued, so he’d been looking up the building’s history during his rare moments of downtime--which usually meant reading off his phone while he was out patrolling Gray Rock. He remembered vaguely learning about the palace in school, but he certainly didn’t remember any of his teachers telling him that it had been built as part of a declaration of independence.

Economic independence, that was. No actual rebellion had been fought, but Bosliat Palace had played a key role in accomplishing that feat--of securing the nation’s borders without bloodshed. Of course, it had also helped that the Mohssian Empire had already been fighting five other wars at the time and probably hadn’t wanted to make it six.

The idea that this building, with its turreted towers and sprawling gardens and dozens of guardhouses, was designed to be the proud, beating heart of an emerging nation, to represent Atreya as much as the sun-and-stars of the flag did--that made sense to Hector.

Page 1851

“Yeah,” said Gina. “As I understand it, she got into an argument with another reaper the other day. And ever since then, she’s been acting even more out of control than usual. That was what Master Roman told me, anyway.”

“Huh...”

“But anyway, that’s not really important, right now.” Gina folded her hands on the small table in front of her. She was sitting in the corner of the room while Hector stood by the wide window that overlooked the great courtyard of Warrenhold far below. “There’s not much time left before you have to leave. Do you really not know anything about the political establishment? You were born in this country, weren’t you?”

“Uh. I mean, sure, I know a little. Like, names and stuff. But, er...”

“Well, I assume you know who the Carthraces are, at least? You do have their oldest member working for you, after all.”

“Ah... yeah,” said Hector, suddenly trying to recall everything he’d ever heard about them over the course of his entire life. “I haven’t met any of them besides Amelia yet, but uh, they’re... real estate people, aren’t they?”

“That’s right,” said Gina. “They own tons of land, especially in Sescoria and Klein. Probably other cities, too. And that makes them very influential. Who else do you already know about?”

He thought about it. “...Masdens. Volliers. Holbachs. Greenways. Um...?”

She kept waiting, but he couldn’t think of any more. “That’s not bad,” said Gina. “You named pretty much all the major players, apart from the Kemps and the Gaolanets.”

He was glad to hear that. “But like I said, all I know are names, really.”

She straightened in her chair and cleared her throat. “Alright, well, let’s run through them real quick. House Masden. They’re a big fishing family. Their main territory is coastline, but they’re pretty influential outside of Atreya, too. House Vollier. They’re the country’s leading industrialists. Nobody owns more factories in Atreya than they do. House Holbach. They’re the nation’s biggest tech family. Which isn’t really saying much, compared to what’s going on in Intar and Melmoore, but y’know. They’re the best we’ve got.”

She paused a moment, eyeing him and perhaps also gathering her thoughts.

Hector just waited patiently.

“House Greenway,” she went on. “They’re a little weird. They’re more of a pure political family. A lot of people wonder how they’re able to maintain their fortune, but there’s no great mystery there, really. They invest. All the families invest in things, of course, but the Greenways take it to a whole different level. It’s like all they do.”

Hector nodded to show that he was listening.

“House Kemp,” said Gina, looking at her phone now. “Their money comes from fashion and clothing. They’re also pretty influential outside of Atreya, too. And then, finally, there’s House Gaolanet.” She paused again. “I’m a little surprised that they weren’t on your list.”

“Why?” said Hector.

“Because they’re the local power around Gray Rock,” said Gina.

Hector blinked.

“Or at least, before you showed up, they were,” she added.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Page 1850

((Belated Triple Wednesday -- Page 3 of 3))
Hector had an idea. “Can you tell me about the other big Atreyan houses?”

She eyed Roman, then pursed her lips together.

“Why’re you askin’ her?” said Roman.

Hector scratched his cheek but couldn’t help smirking just a little. “Ah... well, I just figured that she knows lots of stuff, and she probably isn’t going to get sidetracked arguing with Voreese, so...”

Roman blinked, and his neck whipped around so that he could stare at Voreese.

What?’ she said. ‘It’s not my fault that Hector’s finally realized he’s been talking to a dumbass this whole time.

As usual, Roman didn’t look especially fazed by her insults, but seeing as his own name and thoughts were being brought into it, Hector felt compelled to intervene.

“I don’t think Roman’s a dumbass,” he said.

A close approximation of a dumbass, then.

“No,” said Hector through mild laughter.

Aw, Hector, are you just saying that, because you guys are friends?’ said Voreese. ‘That’s sweet, but it’s okay. You can totally have a friend who’s a dumbass.

Hector just sighed and looked at Roman apologetically.

“Sometimes, I envy Gina for not being able to hear Voreese,” said Roman.

See?! That right there is a prime example of his dumbassery! As if not being able to hear me could ever be considered a good thing! Absolute fucking idiocy, I tell you!

Roman tapped Gina on the shoulder. “You just go ahead and explain the rest for me, please. It looks like I’ll have to take care of Voreese again for a little while.”

Take care of me?! What’s that supposed mean, asshole?! I’m not some baby! I can--

Without looking, Roman’s hand shot out and grabbed the reaper’s center of non-existent mass.

Whoa, hey! Easy on the merchandise! What do you think you’re doing?!

“C’mon,” said Roman, standing. “We’re gonna leave ‘em to it.”

What?! No! I’m not done talking!

“I know,” said Roman. “Everyone knows.”

No! I wanna stay! Stop it! I’ve still gotta tell them all about your tiny penis!

“Wow.” He started carrying her toward the exit.

No! Hector, save me! Roman’s abusing me! This is illegal! It’s a human rights violation! I want my lawyer!

“You don’t have a lawyer.”

Then I’ll use yours! This is a miscarriage of justice! I’ll sue, you bastard! I’ll take you for all you’re worth!

By that point, Hector didn’t really know what to do, so he just kind of sat there and watched them go, watched Roman wave apologetically with one hand while gripping the thrashing reaper with the other.

There was a brief period of silence after they were gone.

Garovel was the first to speak up. ‘Well, that was... certainly something.

Hector had to agree.

Gina smacked her lips. “Well, um... judging from your silence and the look on your face, I’m guessing Voreese just made a scene?”

“Uh. That’s... one way of putting it, I guess.”

“Yeah... she’s been doing that a lot, apparently.”

Hector cocked an eyebrow. “You mean that’s, like, a recent development?”

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Page 1849

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 2 of 3))
“Really?” said Hector, not having known that. “The royalists believe the Queen was chosen by Cocora?”

I think it’s a little more complicated than that, but basically, yeah,’ said Voreese.

“Hence why I have trouble calling myself a royalist, even though I obviously do support the Queen,” said Roman.

Hector could understand that. He wasn’t so sure he would be able to call himself a royalist, either, in that case--or why it was politically relevant, for that matter.

He wanted to keep an open mind, though. It was not lost on him, the fact that he was stepping into an arena that was very different from what he was accustomed to. It didn’t seem like a good idea to go into it with too many preconceived notions about the way these things should or shouldn’t work.

From the sound of it, though, it seemed like Roman wouldn’t agree with that sentiment. “Anyway, the royalists are mostly a bunch of a small-minded pricks trying to get in the way of progress.”

Hector couldn’t help laughing. “Your objectivity impresses me,” he said dryly.

Roman gave a shrug. “Look, I’m not your history teacher.”

Yeah, that’s my job,’ said Garovel. ‘Don’t try to teach him your biased version of events. Only I’m allowed to do that.

Roman looked to Voreese. “It’s the truth, isn’t it?”

Of course not, you ignorant douche. The royalists are about all about protecting the system--you know, the one that’s been in place for over three hundred years now and that seems to doing pretty well for the people of this country?

“You mean the system that’s currently threatening to collapse and plunge the nation into poverty? THAT system?”

YES, that system! The solution is to preserve what works and fix what doesn’t! Not to shit on everything, you barbaric fuck!

“Oh, here we go...”

Shut up,’ said Voreese. ‘I’m not saying the current system is perfect, or that I agree with royalists all the time, but there’s definitely something to be said for the importance that they place upon traditionalism.

That is the absolute last argument I ever expected to hear from you,’ said Garovel.

Really?’ said Voreese. ‘Garovel, I’ll have you know, I am very old-fashioned kinda gal, deep down.

“Horseshit,” said Roman. “You’re always yappin’ to me about shit that you wanna change.”

Yeah, but it’s gotta be the CORRECT shit!

“Yeah. And it usually is.”

NO, IT USUALLY FUCKING ISN’T! That’s the whole point! You need to be really fucking careful whenever you decide to disregard conventional wisdom, dammit! Oftentimes, it’s conventional for a good fucking reason!

Alright, alright,’ said Garovel. ‘We’re getting sidetracked here. And Voreese, I’m not sure yelling is helping your case.

Bah.

Roman took a moment to put his hand on Gina’s shoulder. “Sorry. I was just arguing with Voreese again.”

“Yeah, I could tell,” she said.

Page 1848

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 1 of 3))
“...I was hoping for advice about how to conduct myself properly,” said Hector.

“I don’t think Master Roman is the right person to consult about conducting yourself properly,” said Gina.

“That is both hurtful and profoundly untrue,” said Roman. “I am a wonderful party guest. Ask anyone. Except maybe the President of Steccat. Though, I doubt he’d remember me, so that might be fine, too, now that think about it.”

“Well, then, uh... could you maybe tell me a little about the other nobles? Like, is there anyone I should be, er... wary of? Or something?”

Oh-ho!’ said Voreese. ‘Good question!

Roman bobbed his head to the side. “Yeah,” he said slowly. “I do know a fair bit about the major players in the Atreya. Your Madame Carthrace might know more, though, of course.”

With the way that Roman let his gaze linger on Hector for a moment, Hector had to wonder if he had met her. By now, he must’ve. He wanted to ask what Roman thought of her, but now probably wasn’t the best time.

“But, ah, yeah,” Roman went on. “You’ve got your straight-up royals, of course. The Belgrants and the Lumenbels. The Lumenbels took a significant hit recently, as I’m sure well know, so they’re not quite as... shall we say, “politically potent” at the moment, as they once were. The Belgrants, as far as families go, probably have more influence now than any single family has ever had before in this country.”

None of that was really news to Hector, but it was at least nice to have his current understanding of Atreyan politics reaffirmed as being correct.

“After those two, though, all of the other families can pretty much be described as either ‘royalist’ or ‘nationalist’ in nature. With maybe a couple wild cards thrown in there, for good measure.”

Which one are you?’ said Garovel.

“Me?” The question seemed to take Roman by surprise. “Mm. That’s a tough one. A year ago, I would’ve said nationalist without the slightest bit of hesitation, but now that I’m BFFs with the Queen, it’s kinda hard not to consider myself more of a royalist.” He smacked his lips. “I hate to be one of those fence-sitters, but right now, I guess that’s what I am.”

You’re kinda making it sound like Hector and I are royalists,’ said Garovel.

Roman just returned a flat look. “Sayin’ you aren’t?”

Heh. Maybe.

Roman glance at Hector, who had no idea what to say. “Whatever,” said Roman. “The royalists and the nationalist aren’t terribly different from one another, anyway. They definitely agree with each other more than they disagree. The main point of controversy between them, as you might expect, is their support of the royal family.”

Specifically, it’s about whether or not they believe the royal family is appointed by divine will,’ said Voreese.

Page 1847

You might be right about that,’ said Mevox. ‘At least with regard to the larger houses. I doubt Zeff or Joana will want to do this.

Hector very much doubted that as well.

That’s fine,’ said Garovel. ‘Their numbers are few enough that it shouldn’t be a problem. Same goes for Evangelina and Diego, of course.

The other reapers merely nodded, as did their servants.

In the meantime,’ said Garovel, ‘I would suggest ensuring all of the men involved in the fight are given plenty to do over the next few weeks.

Way ahead of you there,’ said Mevox. ‘We have a very old saying in Deynos. Haven’t gotten to use it in, oh, seven hundred years or so, but now seems like a good time to bust it out again. “Idle hands will be put in chains.”

There was a brief quiet.

Ah--well, you may not need go quite THAT far,’ said Garovel.

Why not?’ said Mevox.

Because you’re essentially talking about slavery?’ said Garovel.

Eh, what’s a little slavery among family? Builds character and establishes discipline, if you ask me. Besides, it worked pretty well in the past.

I seem to recall a slave revolt taking place in Roth,’ said Yovess. ‘Which, funnily enough, also happened around seven hundred years ago, I think.

Yeah, but up UNTIL then, it was working great.

The conversation lasted a little longer, and they discussed what sort of work would be assigned to the offenders. They ultimately decided on breaking down rocks and laying brick. There was certainly enough of that that still needed doing. After the two lords and their reapers left, there wasn’t much time left before Hector would have to depart for Sescoria.

While he was getting ready, Roman paid him a visit, accompanied by Voreese and Gina, as usual.

I still think it’s bullshit that we weren’t invited,’ said Voreese.

“You know there’s no way that I could show my face at such an event,” said Roman. “And the Queen knows that, too.”

I’m not saying I think we should go. I’m just saying it would’ve been nice to be invited.

“Shut up, Voreese.”

No, you shut up.

As he was adjusting his black tie, which he’d finally managed to get right after nearly half an hour of trying, Hector thought of a question for his billionaire friend. “You’ve been to lots of parties like this before, haven’t you?”

Roman gave a shrug. “Sure.”

“Any advice for me?” said Hector.

“Oh. Hmm. Well, now, let me think...” Roman scratched his nose and sucked on his teeth for a moment. “Find the richest girl in the room, turn on the old charm faucet, leave her wanting for more, and THEN go and impress her father.”

Hector just gave the man a look.

“Not that I’ve. Ever. Done that before. Or anything.”

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Page 1846

((Triple Monday -- Page 3 of 3))
Both men returned a solemn nod, still looking rather defeated.

Aw, geez. Even after saying all that, how exactly was he supposed to help these people?

We need more information,’ said Garovel privately.

All of their reapers were also present. Hector had invited everyone to discuss the matter in his bedroom. There was a conference chamber one floor above that he had been using pretty frequently, but Hector hadn’t wanted this meeting to feel quite as formal as the ones in that chamber had begun to feel.

It didn’t seem to be helping, though.

Garovel’s next words were public. ‘We would like you both to provide us with twice-weekly assessments of your houses’ interpersonal affairs.

Hector’s eyes widened a little.

Mevox, Salvador’s reaper, was the first to respond. ‘Say what?

I know it might be a hassle or even a bit controversial,’ said Garovel, ‘but I assure you that you can trust Hector and I to keep any sensitive information you share with us to ourselves. And this is a very important matter. Above all, Hector and I want Warrenhold to be a place where everyone who comes here can have a reasonable expectation of safety. You must understand. Anything which might jeopardize that... well, that’s just not something we can ignore, even if it inconveniences you for a while.

Mevox opened his skeletal mouth but no words came out.

And I do apologize for the imposition,’ Garovel went on, ‘but it is my hope that these reports will help us come to grips with this problem before it gets out of hand. It’s imperative that we identify the cause of all this before taking any other kind of action which might make things worse.

With the way Garovel was talking, it didn’t sound like he was leaving much room for discussion. It sounded like he was issuing an order, Hector thought. And he didn’t think the Rainlords would appreciate that.

There arrived an intermission of silence, presumably in which the other reapers and servants were discussing the matter privately.

Hector used the opportunity to ask Garovel a question of his own. ‘This is a little much, don’t you think? What if they say no?

They won’t.

But what if they do.

Then I guess you’ll have to show them who’s boss.

Hector’s jaw clenched. ‘Garovel! I’m not their boss!

You’re the Lord of Warrenhold, Hector. We’re in Warrenhold. You’re the boss.

Argh. He wanted to argue, but there wasn’t time, because Mevox spoke up again.

We understand,’ the reaper said. ‘Assessments sound like a reasonable step to take.

Yes,’ said Yovess. ‘We think so as well. Obviously, we know what the overall cause of these tensions is, given what happened in Sair, but I do think a closer look at the finer details with an objective third party such as yourselves might prove helpful. I would even go so far as to recommend this as something all of the houses should begin doing.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Page 1845

((Triple Monday -- Page 2 of 3))
That was just like them, though. Even now, with all they’d been through, the Rainlords were still concerned about not being a bother or a burden to their host. They made that pretty clear. Repeatedly, even.

“Yeah, but the thing is,” said Hector, “you doing that is being a bother to me.”

Horatio Blackburn and Salvador Delaguna just sat there, looking back at him. The last mention of a heated argument breaking out had been between members of their two houses, though they refused to acknowledge it, much to Hector’s growing annoyance.

Hector frowned at their silence. “While I’m gone, Warrenhold and even Gray Rock is under the Rainlords’ protection. If you guys can’t even tell me what’s wrong, then how am I supposed to trust you to take care of all these people in my absence?” This was something he’d given a lot of thought to already, and he was trying not to sound too irritated with them.

Horatio just cast his eyes to the floor, still not saying anything.

Salvador, however, kept his gaze locked on Hector.

Hector had a hard time looking back at the man, though. Not because he was embarrassed, but rather because the man’s recent losses were so painfully visible on his face. The Lord Delaguna was one of the largest men Hector had ever seen, but that shrunken posture and those big brown eyes full of remorse made him seem somehow smaller.

Hector knew only too well how much grief the man was still coping with, how many family members he’d lost at Dunehall. It seemed wrong to be doing anything but trying to accommodate him, but after consulting Garovel a couple of times on the matter, he’d come to believe that treating Salvador any differently would just make things worse.

The man needs many things right now,’ Garovel had said, ‘but from us, he needs only normalcy and respect. We need to treat him like a companion. Not a child or a victim.

And though a part of him didn’t want to, Hector agreed. Remembering his own, personal experiences with such things, he felt like Garovel was right on the money with that assessment.

So it was hard to look back at him, but Hector did it, nonetheless. Looking away would have been disrespectful in its own way, Hector felt.

“...You are right,” Salvador eventually said, sighing. “My house is not in order...”

“Nor is mine,” said Horatio, glancing over at the man before sighing as well. “I don’t know how my uncle was able to make everyone feel so united and... I...”

“H-hold on,” said Hector, feeling abruptly like he’d just slapped both of these poor men across the face. “I mean... look, all I’m saying is that you should let me help. It’s, ah... it’s okay if things aren’t exactly stable for you, right now. It would be weird if they were. But you can’t shut me out like you’ve been doing. You can’t just... you can’t just pretend like there’s no problem when there obviously is, okay?”

Page 1844

((Triple Monday -- Page 1 of 3))
Hector’s irritation was only growing. “I told you, already. She’s not telling me anything about her situation. Probably because she’s worried you’ll try to rescue her and get yourself killed by Gohvis.”

Surprisingly, the Lord Elroy did not get angry at that response. Which was perhaps even more unsettling, somehow. Instead, he merely returned a flat, dead-eyed stare for a moment.

“...Fine,” said Zeff. “In any event, I suppose we can end our session a bit early today. We wouldn’t want you to be too exhausted to attend your royal dinner tonight.” The man turned and started walking away. “You’re free to go, whenever you like.”

“Wha? How do--? I’m still--!” Hector stopped himself. Obviously, Zeff knew what he was doing, that Hector was still trapped inside the soul-strengthened ice.

Maybe he was mistaken, but in that moment, Hector felt like Zeff wanted him to say something in desperation. To beg the man to let him out.

And Hector didn’t want to do that.

Why, though? Was this pride? Or just stubbornness? It was weird, whatever it was, and Hector didn’t like it much. It was putting strange thoughts in his head. In all likelihood, Zeff was just messing with him to mess with him. Or to teach him something, maybe. Not to humiliate him or assert dominance.

Probably.

Regardless, Hector held his tongue as he watched the Lord Elroy walk away. And much like the man had said, it took about half an hour to finally free himself. He was freezing his ass off and hardly able to move after he was out, but he was out.

He materialized himself a fresh suit of warm armor before heading back.

After that, the rest of the day went by way too quickly for Hector’s liking. But then, most days were like that, recently. With so much he wanted to check up on and so many people he wanted to talk to, he was genuinely starting to feel like there were simply not enough hours in the day anymore. It sucked to always be in a rush.

He had a couple of interviews with more of the people Madame Carthrace was planning to hire. He had the reconstruction to help with. He had people coming up to him constantly, wanting to discuss one thing or another.

Independent though they were, the Rainlords sure had a lot of concerns. The tension between House Blackburn and the others worried him most, though. He’d heard about a few heated arguments that had taken place--so heated that they’d nearly come to blows.

The last thing Hector needed right now was the Rainlords fighting amongst themselves again, so he’d been trying to figure out what to do abuot it, but they weren’t making it easy for him. Most of them didn’t even want to talk about it. They seemed to find it embarrassing. Unbecoming of “lords,” perhaps. And whenever Hector was around, everyone appeared to be very polite with one another.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Page 1843

The storm of water around Hector subsided, giving him some room to breathe, but he knew it wouldn’t last long. Zeff would no doubt get mad if he didn’t seize the opening and attack.

He rushed in from the front and decided to flank Zeff with a trio of materialized lances, all bearing a velocity state.

A small castle of ice froze everything in place, including Hector.

He struggled, but without the undead vigor, the ice was way too strong to break through. Hell, it might’ve been too strong even with the vigor.

Well, shit.

Zeff opened a hole in the ice so that Hector could hear him. “That was better,” he said. “You almost managed to hit me that time.”

Hector just kind of sighed.

“It was impressive that you could materialize something under my feet without even looking in my direction. I suppose that, too, is thanks to that scarf of yours?”

Hector didn’t answer him. Zeff probably knew that he wouldn’t. Everything that the man knew about the Scarf had come from the past few days of observing Hector wearing it. Hector hadn’t even told him its name.

“You have very good agility and spatial awareness, even for a materialization user, but neither of that really matters if your opponent is able to seal your movement, now does it? Preventing precisely this situation should be one of your top priorities.”

“...I’ll try to keep that in mind,” said Hector. Damn, this ice was cold. His teeth were chattering, and he was already losing sensation in his extremities.

“Good.” Zeff his just folded his arms and stood there. “Now. Try and get out of it.”

Hector could barely even move his neck. “...How, exactly?”

“There are only two choices. Force or heat.” A rare smile found the Lord Elroy’s face. “Hmph. Or you could try to talk me into undoing it, I suppose.”

Heat it was, then. Hector focused on his armor. It was stuck in the ice just as thoroughly as he was. But he could still dematerialize it and remake it from scratch, hotter.

So that was what he did.

It didn’t do much.

Some sizzling and cracking noises permeated the ice, but that was about it. No breaking free, and certainly no melting.

“Mm. Wow. Another thirty minutes, and you might be out of there. Assuming I don’t just make more, of course.”

Hector didn’t want to spoil one of Zeff’s anomalous good moods, but he was getting annoyed. “Yeah, you’re stronger than I am.”

“Yes, I am,” said Zeff, frowning again. “Why don’t you do something about it, then?”

Hector squinted with one eye. What was this supposed to accomplish? Was Zeff trying to make him achieve emergence? Because there was no fucking way that was going to happen.

“Alternatively,” said Zeff, “you could tell me what you’ve been hiding from me with regard to Emiliana. I might be persuaded to let you out, then.”

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Page 1842

((Triple Saturday -- Page 3 of 3))
As had quickly become the norm, Hector started the next day early by training with Zeff. That may have been another reason for his persistent exhaustion, actually. The Lord Elroy did not hold back. At times, their sparring grew to have such ground-shaking intensity that Hector worried they might wake up everyone in Warrenhold despite the increasingly long distances they traveled from it.

A sudden surge of ice water knocked Hector off his feet, and the shield in his hand went flying from his grasp. He clattered to the ground like a sack of iron potatoes. Half of his armor was cracked or crumbling off of him already.

“Not good enough,” said Zeff. “If you plan to keep using that shield, then you had better learn to keep it in front of you.”

Hector appreciated all the effort the man was going through for him, teaching him personally. Truth be told, tough, he was getting a little tired of the condescending lectures. “I’m trying,” he said as he climbed back onto his feet and reformed his armor.

“Try harder, then.”

Something in the man’s inflection made Hector immediately think that another attack was already coming at him from behind. Zeff had also made a habit of doing that, attacking him before he was actually ready to keep going.

Sure enough, he sensed something there with the Scarf of Amordiin, but even by then, he was already moving, having predicted what Zeff was going to do.

However, the attack did not arrive, and Hector ended up dodging out of the way of nothing at all.

Then a block of ice clobbered him from the front, and put him right back on his ass.

“Where are you trying to dodge?” said Zeff. “You face opponent who is familiar with your capabilities. You can try to predict my actions, but I can predict yours as well, you know. Maintain your awareness at all moments and react accordingly. And keep your shield up, for god’s sake.”

Hector exhaled and just lay there for a moment longer.

“This is not the ferocity I witnessed when you were fighting that worm,” said Zeff.

Yeah, because this was just practice. Why would he--?

Oh shit.

Hector shoved himself out of the way of a half-dozen frozen spikes and was back on his feet again. More were coming, though, and he had to keep dodging, just barely skating out of the way and occasionally losing chunks of armor to them.

“Better, but not perfect,” said Zeff, raising his voice as the distance between them grew. “Are you ever going to get around to counterattacking, I wonder? Or do you plan to keep on like this forever?”

The swirls of water were only growing faster, Hector noticed, and some had the sharpness of blades in addition to their speed. Everywhere around him. So much to keep track of.

He split his focus and materialized a thin, moving layer of iron beneath Zeff’s feet while simultaneously launching a boulder down on the man from above.

Perhaps the Lord Elroy hadn’t been expecting a two-pronged attack, because the man lost his footing for a moment, and the boulder nearly hit him before being slapped away by a tower of ice.

Page 1841

((Triple Saturday -- Page 2 of 3))
Well, firstly, the time and place are incredibly strange for someone trying to commit suicide,’ said Garovel. ‘Out in the middle of the street? And after a vaguely clandestine meeting with someone?

Yeah, I guess that would be a hell of a coincidence...

And secondly, the method. Cyanide? That would be a profoundly strange choice.

Why? Is it super painful or something?

I don’t think it’s very pleasant, but then again, I can’t really attest to that, personally. Accessibility would be an issue, though. Getting your hands on cyanide, while certainly not impossible, would be inconvenient. So why choose that over something more widely available? Or something painless, perhaps?

That was another good point, Hector thought. But he couldn’t help relating everything the reaper was saying back to his own death. He was a little surprised that Garovel hadn’t brought it up yet.

Plus, it’s all just a little too shady,’ the reaper went on. ‘Poison in the drink? If you were going to knowingly ingest poison, why would you bother mixing it with something?

Er. Maybe he was worried about the taste?

Yeah, sure he was. As far as I’m concerned, the presence of the drink really suggests murderous intent by some as yet unknown third party.

Well, uh... okay. What should we do about it?

We can probably just let the police handle it for now.

Wait, what? Really?

Sure. As far as we know, no one is immediate danger now. There’s an attempted murderer out there who still needs to be brought to justice, of course, but that’s what the police are for. I’ll be keeping an eye on their investigation, though.

What happened to all that shit about this being our second case together?

The reaper laughed. ‘Are you disappointed?

Well, you kinda built it up like it was a big deal...

I was just screwing around, Hector. Having fun. You know what that is, right?

Garovel...

Relax. And you should actually be hoping that I don’t ask you to do anything else on this case. Because if I do, then that’ll mean that the police can’t handle it on their own.

Ah...

You’re like a fire extinguisher, Hector. We only want to break you out for emergencies.

I... uh... hmm.

You did good work tonight, though. You should be proud of yourself.

Pride wasn’t a feeling that Hector was particularly familiar with, but he appreciated Garovel saying so, at least. ‘Thanks...

How does it feel to go around protecting normal people again?

It’s, uh. It’s pretty nice, actually.

How does it compare to fighting giant worms in Hell?

...I like it a lot better.

Me, too.

Soon, they made it back to Warrenhold, and Hector went straight to his room. He’d been getting good sleep the past few days, but he was still feeling consistently exhausted. Eight hours never quite seemed like enough, but Garovel said that feeling would go away in a week or so, as long as he kept to a healthy schedule.

Page 1840

((Triple Saturday -- Page 1 of 3))
“Once upon a time, I, too, harbored such thoughts,” Madame Carthrace had told him. “That it was just a chance for my peers to flaunt their wealth and indulge in all manner of debauched excess, but I’ve long since changed my mind about that, and I think you will, too.”

Hector was trying to keep an open mind.

He still wasn’t exactly looking forward to it, though. With as much as he’d been in the news recently, he was a little afraid of how much attention he would be getting--both from the other lords and from the camera crews.

Ugh.

It was gonna be an absolute shit show.

He really would’ve liked to just not go, but that would probably make matters even worse. Plus, he did need to talk to the Queen.

And of course, there was also Lynn to be worried about. Garovel had been trying to get him to call her for some inexplicable reason, and with so much on his plate, Hector had been able to ignore him relatively easily. But not tomorrow. She was almost definitely going to be there. She was the White Sword of Atreya, after all. The Queen’s personal bodyguard.

Hector knew he was being irrational, though. This was such a strange feeling. He was dreading seeing her. Obviously. And yet, just as much as he was dreading it, he was looking forward to it, too.

What sense did that make? What sense did he make?

It would’ve been a lot easier if he was just scared of her. Crazy as that seemed. He could deal with fear. He knew he could. But there was so much more to it.

Wanting to be liked. Not wanting to be humiliated. Or hated. Or pitied.

It reminded him so much of his school days. The endless anxiety.

However, between worrying about all of that again and simply discussing Mr. Lang’s “case” with Garovel, Hector knew which one he wanted to do, right now. He’d already gotten his fill of agonizing over tomorrow night’s dinner and didn’t feel like getting into it again.

Why don’t you just save us both some time and tell me what YOU think of the case?’ said Hector.

No, no. You first. Like I said, I’ve gotta evaluate your critical thinking progress, my dear boy.

He thought about arguing, but... oh, whatever. ‘Okay, well, uh... I don’t really know what to make of it yet, I guess.

Stunning. You’ve floored me with your observational brilliance.

Are you telling me you’ve already got it all figured out?

Well. Obviously, no case is too mysterious for my ferociously sharp mind. But y’know. For purely academic reasons, I think you should put a little more thought into it before asking me for help.

Right...

So? C’mon. Put some brain mass into it, Detective Goffe.

He sighed and tried to think. ‘Alright, uh... I guess... there’s a chance that he just...’ He hesitated, but this was the only thing coming to mind. ‘Er... is it possible that he tried to kill himself?

Mm. Not likely.

Why do you say that?

Friday, June 22, 2018

Page 1839

So,’ said Garovel after a while of silence. Instead of attaching himself to Hector, he was flying on his own and keeping pace with him as they soared through the night sky together. ‘Got any idea why someone tried to kill that guy?

You’re asking ME?’ said Hector.

I’m just curious about where your mind’s at. I’m trying to keep track of how your critical thinking skills are developing. This is our second mysterious case we’re working on, after all.

Second? What was the first?

The mystery at Dunehall. You remember. When it looked like Ibai Blackburn had killed Fuad Saqqaf.

Oh, yeah.

Shame, too. I was getting really invested in trying to crack that case wide open. Then everything started exploding, and nobody really cared, anymore. I never got a chance to show everyone my unfathomable intellect.

...Unfathomable even to yourself, you mean?

Heh. Yes. Even I don’t fully grasp the enormity of my brain.

Your brain which technically doesn’t exist.

Oh, don’t start down that road. We’ll be busy for hours.

Hey, why does Dunehall count as the first case? Why not the, uh... all that shit with Colt and Rofal? That was a case, wasn’t it?

Eh, not REALLY. I mean, where was the mystery, huh?

YOU were the mystery, I think.

Hmm. I’m not sure whether to be flattered or offended. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. This is our official second case. I’m calling it now. Everything else was just build up to this.

Hector snorted a laugh. ‘Everything, huh? Even though we have no reason to believe that Mr. Lang is in any way related to anything we’ve seen or been through so far?

That doesn’t matter. Chronologically, everything has been building to this.

Oh, okay. Then I guess everything has been building toward breakfast tomorrow morning, too.

Heh. Well, maybe not breakfast but definitely dinner.

Hector knew what the reaper was referring to. He would be having dinner tomorrow in Sescoria. With the Queen and about a hundred other lords and ladies of Atreya.

The invitation had been delivered to him two days ago--in person, no less, by a sharply dressed officer of the royal court.

The Atreyan Gala of Royal Associates was an annual occurrence--one that Hector had heard about since he was a kid and had certainly never expected to be invited to. It was being held a month early this year, possibly because of the economic crisis, though Hector didn’t really know what the Queen was thinking in that regard. The news certainly wasn’t making light of the timing. With so much concern over money in the public consciousness, it seemed to him like a bad idea to have all of the wealthiest people in Atreya show off in front of a bunch of cameras.

According to Madame Carthrace, though, the Gala was more than just a fancy gathering for the nobility. It was an unparalleled opportunity for the nation’s most influential people to discuss policy and make decisions that could affect their own communities for many years to come.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Page 1838

Hector was glad to see that the man could laugh in these circumstances. Then again, doctors were probably pretty accustomed to stress, he figured.

I like this guy,’ said Garovel. ‘Ask him if he wants to come work for you.

Hector had to consciously keep his face still. ‘What?!

What, you can ask Leo to work for you, but this doctor is a bridge too far?

He JUST said that he likes his current job.

You could still ASK.

No, Garovel.’

Bah.

“Ah, well, I suppose I should be going now,” said Dr. Carlyle. “Is there anything else I can do for you before I go? Questions? Concerns?”

“Oh. Um. I’d like to take a look at Mr. Lang’s belongings, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Mm. Given everything else that I’m not supposed to be doing for you, I guess one more thing wouldn’t hurt. This way.”

The doctor led Hector to Mr. Lang’s room, which was different from the one that they had originally taken the man to. This one looked a bit more comfortable, and that had him hooked up to all sorts of different machines.

Mr. Lang’s clothes were in a folded pile on the chair in the corner. Before sorting through them, Hector materialized some coatings for his fingertips so as not to contaminate any potential evidence with his fingerprints. The last thing he needed was the police making him a suspect.

Dr. Carlyle just watched. The doctor didn’t have to stay, Hector thought, but maybe he was still a little worried about leaving Hector alone with the guy.

It didn’t matter.

Hector found the financial note that Garovel had mentioned earlier, though he couldn’t really make heads or tails of it. He knew someone who might be able to, though, and decided to take a picture of it with his phone. Then he took pictures of everything else, including the unconscious Mr. Lang.

“Where’s the drink?” asked Hector at length, noticing its absence.

“It was a hazardous material, so we had to contain it,” said Dr. Carlyle. “We haven’t disposed of it yet, however, since it is evidence. I can take you to it, if you want.”

Hector took him up on that offer, but it didn’t prove particularly illuminating. He made sure to get a picture of the poisoned drink just in case, but there wasn’t much to see. It was just a simple metal canteen, featureless and pretty nondescript. Dr. Carlyle didn’t think that they would be able to trace the poison back to either the distributor or manufacturer, either.

From there, Hector’s hospital visit drew to a close, and he left. It felt a bit strange, just leaving like that, but he didn’t actually know Mr. Lang, and the hospital had placed security on his room, so Hector didn’t see much point in sticking around. According to Dr. Carlyle, Mr. Lang’s family was currently out of the country and so wouldn’t be here until tomorrow.

Hector was still trying to decide if it was worth coming back in order to talk to them. If they’d been out of the country, they made for pretty poor suspects, and he didn’t want to make things even more difficult for them, either.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Page 1837

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 3 of 3))
Hector wasn’t sure what to say say to that. Being famous sure was fucking weird.

The doctor reached into his lab coat and pulled out a folded up paper. “Here’s a copy of my preliminary assessment.”

Hector took it and looked it over, though he wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

“It’s still too early to say for sure,” said Dr. Carlyle, “but... there is unfortunately a very real possibility that the patient will never wake up.”

Hector blinked. “Why?”

“The damage done to his brain and nervous system may not have been fatal, but it would not be strange if he remains comatose. As I said, it’s still too early to tell. He may wake up. He may not.”

“...Do you know what caused this?” said Hector.

“We do,” said the doctor. “We identified the alcoholic drink in his possession as containing a lethal dose of potassium cyanide.”

Hector’s head reared back a little. “Cyanide...?” Now there was a scary word.

“It is safe to say that if you had not gotten him here as quickly as you did, he would be dead.”

Holy shit.

So someone really did try to kill the guy.

He needed information. Hector asked the doctor for details regarding the man’s identity, and the doctor obliged, producing a folder from his lab coat with everything the hospital knew about the man.

Jeremy Lang. Thirty-seven years old. Employed as an Administrative Assistant in the Human Resources Department at Lindhold & Barter.

That was was one hell of a job title, Hector thought.

“I hope you find your culprit,” said Dr. Carlyle. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.” He turned to leave.

“Will you call me if he wakes up?” said Hector, pulling out his phone. “Or if there are any other developments?”

The doctor’s expression became strained. “I... suppose I could. It wouldn’t really be proper, since you’re not with the police or listed as one of his emergency contacts, but... you are a lord. And a national hero. Conventional rules don’t really apply to you, I guess.”

Hector was speechless and embarrassed.

Dr. Carlyle smirked. “You’ll use your status to protect me if I get in trouble for this, won’t you?”

“Er. Sure.”

“That answer does not fill me with confidence, milord.” Dr. Carlyle adjusted his glasses and smiled. “Stressful as it sometimes is, I do like this job and would prefer not to lose it. It pays very well, and my wife loves spending money.”

Hector couldn’t help but breathe half a laugh. The man wanted confidence from him, huh?

Alright.

“...I promise you will have my protection,” said Hector.

“That’s better. Thank you.” The doctor pulled out his phone as well.

They exchanged numbers.

Dr. Carlyle smirked another time as he eyed his phone. “I imagine there are plenty of journalists who would love to get their hands on this, eh? How much do you think I could get for it?”

“Do that and you’re dead to me,” said Hector flatly.

The man just laughed.