Some six hundred men carrying heavy rucksacks just got off some smuggling boats. They took a spin around the docks before heading for the stone building which was called the sea checkpoint with frustration. That was the checkpoint all smugglers had to pass through after arriving in Port Cobius.
"Names?" a checkpoint officer in blue and black asked the six men.
"I am Gruya Feldi and the rest here are my companions. He's Mordani Jharlas, that's..."
The leader introduced his other comrades to the checkpoint officer.
However, the officer seemed most disinterested in their introduction. He only wrote down the leader's name in the form. "Where are you from and what's the name of your ship?"
"We're from Krusuya and we sailed here on the Silver Eel," Gruya said.
Krusuya was the colony of a southern Freian kingdom, Lesnia. It was among the earliest colonies to be developed and was about three to four times the size of Tyrrsim. There were three million Lesnians living there. The colony produced quality wool and camel-leather products and was also rich with wood and mineral resources.
Upon hearing that they came from Krusuya on the Silver Eel, the officer was certain they were smugglers and didn't ask anything else. He quickly noted the replies of the leader on the form and handed it to his colleague. The colleague copied the contents onto another form and stamped both the forms where the name was written before handing the copy to the first officer.
After checking that the copy was devoid of mistakes, the officer signed his name and put his own stamp on it before giving it to the leader. "The fee to cross is one riyas each. Keep the form well. If you run into any patrols, you can use it to prove your identity. Also, your form is only valid for three months. If you can't finish your business within that time, you'll have to request an extension at the constabulary and the civil office. However, the procedure is even more complicated and expensive."
The man put a silver coin on the counter. "Thanks. I don't need any change."
"Wait..." The officer checked the coin before getting his colleague to write them a receipt. He opened the drawer, put the coin in, and put four paper notes on the counter. "This is your change, take it. We're checkpoint officers of the region, not barmaids at the taverns. We don't need your tip. It's a slight to our position!"
"Alright, sorry. Still, thanks again, you guys," the leader apologised with an embarrassed nod. He picked the notes up and looked at them curiously. There were two types of notes among those he took -- three coloured dark silver with the words 'one riyas' on them, and one coloured greenish bronze, representing five sunars.
"These are paper notes issued by our region. They can be used like normal coins. If any merchant in the region refuses to take your paper notes, congratulations. You've just hit the jackpot. If you have proof that he refused to accept these notes in a transaction, you can sue him for a tenth of his property. It's a shame no fool like that has ever appeared in the region yet."
The checkpoint officer teased the leader of the troupe casually. He had seen his fair share of doubtful merchants that hadn't seen paper notes before. But normally, most smugglers took the notes with the mindset that they would take it back as souvenirs if they ended up unusable. After all, the printing was quite detailed and beautiful and they weren't worth much.
But once they realised how useful and convenient those paper notes were, the smugglers would be willing to go to the bank to have their coins exchanged for a stack of notes. Even as they were leaving, they would be hesitant to exchange them back for coins. It was said that the paper notes were usable now even in the colonies at the western coast that also faced a lack of low-value coins.
The leader stuffed the four notes in his pocket and nodded to the officer once more before preparing to leave with his group. Perhaps it was his sincerity that caused the officer to warn the man. "Here's a tip. It's best you put your weapon in the inn instead of carrying it around. Our region is really safe. If you have weapons on you, you'll draw the attention of constables easily."
The leader turned back to thank him once more before finally leaving.
"Not carrying weapons? What a joke! What if we meet enemies or that vile woman? Wouldn't we be nothing but defanged dogs by then? How would we fight back against them then?" the burly man beside the leader complained.
"You and your big mouth!" The leader glared at the man. "That officer is right. If it's safe there, we'll only draw attention by carrying weapons around. Don't forget what happened to squad three. They were mistaken as bandits by the garrison troops because of their loadout. The situation broke down into a firefight and they ended up all dead on the streets! Is that lesson not impactful enough?
"Our main priority now is to locate that vile woman. She's been out of our sights for half a month. We've been chasing her for almost three years from Freia all the way to the western coast. We have to kill her to avenge His Majesty! We won't stop chasing her to the ends of the world to kill her unless all of us are dead!"
The leader's expression grimmed. He could never forget that bloody night. Back then, these bodyguards relaxed their guard because their liege wanted to have a nice time with a woman of incredible visage. So, they widened the defence perimeter, only for that vile woman to take that chance to assassinate their liege! By the time they noticed something was off, they found that the woman was actually a secret magus! She managed to escape the heavy encirclement.
That was their biggest failure as personal bodyguards from the Watch. Nobody forgave them for their mistake. They were trained specifically to counter magical agents, yet their carelessness caused their liege to be killed.
As they knelt before his grave, the other frustrated officers balked.
"Why are you useless pieces of shit still alive?! If I were you I'd kill myself out of humiliation!"
But they didn't want to commit suicide; that was the easy way out. They wanted to hunt the woman down as well as the mastermind that directed her to kill their liege. They would cut their heads off to offer it to their dead liege at his grave before committing suicide themselves. However, that woman was far too cunning. After three years and a few confrontations, they still weren't able to achieve their goals. Instead, more than half of the forty of them were lost from all sorts of accidents. Now, only around twenty remained.
"Chief, don't get emotional," a kind-looking man advised, "That vile woman escaped to the western coast of Nubissia because she could no longer hide on Freia. While we suffered considerable losses, we managed to force her out of her hiding hole to here. This should be the last place she can hide. Once we find her, she'll have nowhere else to escape to. We'll definitely catch her and find out who the mastermind behind the assassination is..."
The leader took a deep breath and calmed down. His expression softened. "Thanks, Ike. It's my bad. You know me... When I think about that night... about His Majesty's corpse right in front of me... I just start to lose control... Let's go find a place to rest first. Go leave a mark for the comrades following behind.
"By the way, Ike, I recall that we also had informants from the Watch in the colonies. I wonder if they're still active. Take two people with you to try to establish contact. I wonder if they've been reinstated by the Watch back on the mainland. If we can reach them, they might be a huge help to us."
The round-faced man nodded. "Alright. Once we find a place, I'll take the others to go look around. Chief, look at the constables there eyeing us. If we're not standing at the checkpoint door, they would've come for us already. Let's settle down first before we--"
"It'll be fine. Watch me." The leader recovered his sharp wit and smiled as he walked towards the constables, the form from the checkpoint officer in hand. He bowed and handed the form to them as he joked and laughed before waving them goodbye as he thanked them for the work.
"Oh, Chief, how did you do it? They've gone back to ignoring us!" the round-faced man exclaimed.
The leader sighed. "The checkpoint officers were right. This place is indeed safe. The constables paid attention to us because of our large backpacks. It's obvious we have weapons inside, so I showed them the form and told them we're first-timers here. That came as no surprise to them. They merely warned us to not carry any ranged or heavy weapons in the cities to prevent being hurt unnecessarily by the constables in a commotion."
"Then, does that mean we can carry daggers?"
The leader nodded. "Arming swords and daggers are allowed. Just don't carry muskets or crossbows around. Just look at this form. We're registered as smugglers. Nobody cares about the firearms and crossbows on our ships, but we'd instantly be suspected for trying to start a conspiracy if we bring them into the cities. Just don't bring your custom muskets out. Your arming sword should be enough to defend yourself."
"Got it." The other five men nodded.
"Alright. Let's hail a carriage. The constables recommended Redstone Flower. It's a large inn in the south of the city. They said the food there tastes wonderful and the maidservants are really attentive. The price is also rather decent. Let's wait there for our other comrades to come."
The round-faced man left Redstone Flower with two others and hailed a carriage to an area near the city gates. He got off, paid, and started circling the buildings in the area. Half an hour later, he finally found two intersecting triangles on the base stone of a shop along the street. It looked like a child drew on the stone, but it was actually engraved into it upon closer inspection.
"Let's go inside to see if it's the one we're supposed to contact." The man took his companions into the shop and left after ten minutes. It was apparent that neither the owner nor the workers were his contacts.
"Let's go around and ask around about the shop for the landlord." The only thing he was certain about was the owner rented the shop rather than bought it. The landlord seemed to have another residence in the city.
In the evening, they went to an alley in the west part of the city and knocked on a small door.
"Who is it?" a voice rang.
"Does Mister Mybrom live here?" the man asked.
The voice didn't respond. What followed was the sound of rushed footsteps. A man in his fifties pushed the door opened and eyed the three. "Mister Mybrom doesn't live here, but his cousin, Dunbilus, lives here with his family."
The round-faced man smiled. "I wonder if Mister Dunbilus also has a younger brother called Kenriak who serves as Viscount Mulliot's butler?"
The old man breathed a sigh of relief. "That's right. He lives in the barony's castle, Whitefallsburg. You're here to deliver his letter, right? Come in for now."
The three entered a rather large yard on which three double-storey stone buildings were built.
The old man shut the door and turned to the three. "You're from the royal capital? Has the Watch been reformed?"
The leader shook his head, causing the old man to tense up. "Then who are you? How do you know about my orders from ten years ago?"
"We... we haven't been back to the royal capital for years... We aren't sure what's going on there." The round-faced man took out a hefty, black metal plate and handed it to the old man. "This is our identification. The other two have them too. We're members of the Watch."
The old man could tell their positions with one glance. "You're reserve Watchers. Official Watchers carry silver identification plates. What happened to cause reserve members to have to go on the field?"
"Let's talk inside. We've spent the whole afternoon looking for you and we're too worn out. I need some water... Why did an informant like you leave your contact point and moved here? Has the magus you were watching died?"
The old man sighed as he led them in. "I don't know if he's dead or not. The problem is that I don't even know where he is. A few years ago, there was an assassination incident caused by Greytower from Siklos here. After that, there was a huge investigation in the colonies. All magi living in seclusion were captured and taken away.
"That included the magus I was tasked to observe. He never returned. I tried to make a missing-persons report as a concerned neighbour, only to be rebuked for poking into top-secret business and warned to not look into it. If I went snooping, I was worried I would be captured, so I sent a report to the royal capital. However, I got no response at all.
"After that, the civil war broke out and the mainland cut off contact with the colonies. In the years I spent here, the colonies eventually declared self-governance. Some rich and powerful man took note of my house in the city and I had no choice but to rent it to him as a shop. You are the first of the Watch to contact me with the method we used ten years ago. I thought you were from the royal capital and came to set up another informant network here..."
The man wore an expression of melancholic nostalgia. "Back when Prince Hansbach retreated from the royal capital, more than half of the Watch chose to follow him. When the first prince returned to attack the royal capital from the sea and took it back, we found that the Watch was almost no more. The ones that remained were either hired as bodyguards or completely missing. Our warehouses were ransacked. We have no idea who did it.
"We lost a lot of members during the civil war, mostly from protecting the first prince from assassination attempts. When the prince ascended to the throne at the royal capital, we only had less than 60 left. Once His Majesty lost the battle and retreated from Whitestag, he got assassinated. There are only 20 plus of us now."
"Then what are you trying to achieve here? Don't tell me you want to assassinate the generals of the autonomous region? That's not something you're capable of. I don't want to get involved in that," the old man cautiously said.
"No..." The man shook his head and took out a small portrait. "While the generals here betrayed His Majesty, we have no intention of causing trouble. We're here to look for this woman. She should've arrived some half a month ago. Her whereabouts are still unknown.
"She's His Majesty's killer. We've been looking for her for the past three years. She's always managed to evade us and finally came here. We must definitely find her and avenge His Majesty. By the way... she has a small black dog with her..."