Before I left Nurha territory, a rumor set the town square abuzz.
-The Jaison Knights have been pushed back by an orc army!
The Jaison Knights were such a formidable force that finding a match for them in the region was a tall order.
While orcs had a reputation as born fighters, their heyday was a thing of the past, mentioned only in history books. This dated back to the downfall of the orc kingdom during the formation of the Xenon Kingdom. The surviving orcs took refuge in less populated areas, forming small tribes of no more than 50 members each.
'Shouldn't the Marquis of Jaison have Lord Ambroad? Didn't he join the fight?'
Even I knew of Lord Ambroad.
He was the younger brother of the Marquis of Jaison, a warrior who stood out in a noble house. Even Duke Braio had considered bringing Ambroad on board.
'A mark was etched on the orc's forehead...?'
Something seemed off.
I resolved to dig deeper.
I initiated an investigation with the Serpens leadership.
Ten days later, the Lord of Serpens paid me a visit.
He arrived with two carriages, a hundred slaves, and fifty guards.
"I'm surprised. The goblin seed had withered."
The Lord of Serpens appeared skeptical of my claim.
I appreciated that. A gullible trader would only spell trouble.
The lord brought the slaves. The hundred slaves he arranged on the training field seemed half out of it.
"Did you drug them?"
"Yes, we administered a small dose of Bemincho for control."
It was a type of narcotic.
It was a dangerous substance that could scramble your mind in high doses, but it wasn't addictive. Bemincho was banned by law, but its use on slaves was permitted.
"Is Baron Hebron occupied?"
"My father delegated the fief's affairs to me."
As evidence, I wore the family's signet ring on my pointer finger.
The Lord of Serpens remained expressionless. It seemed he had anticipated this.
After my visit to Nurha, my father was occupied.
He busied himself tailoring clothes in the latest style I had shared with him.
My mother became my father's muse, and they spent every night together.
I turned to the Lord of Serpens.
"Do you have news for me?"
"I couldn't find everything due to the limited time, but the mark you mentioned is identical to the one discovered on the orc's forehead.
How did you learn about that mark?"
Just as I suspected.
It was evident that the mark sent the monster into a frenzy.
"I found a tattoo on the forehead of a goblin I trapped in the eastern forest."
"It was tougher to defeat than the rest. I barely killed it."
"What became of it?"
The Lord of Serpens' voice quivered slightly. He came close enough for me to see his Adam's apple and blinked.
A potent herbal aroma wafted from the 48-year-old man.
"That's an odd question. As I mentioned, I killed the goblin a while back."
"What did you do with the goblin's body?"
"I collected the goblin bodies, burned them, and buried the ashes. It was to stop disease from spreading."
Serpens appeared disappointed.
"I dissected the one with the mark and preserved its parts. I used herbs to slow decay as much as possible. Why? Are you curious?"
"I am! No, I'm very interested! Where's the body now?"
"Calm down. First, explain why a merchant cares about a worthless monster's corpse."
"I put our traders to work to verify the details you asked about. I sent them to the Marquisate of Jaison with your sketch of the mark, and they encountered a magician."
The merchant verified the mark's shape with the magician from the Marquisate of Jaison. During this, the magician asked the merchant how he knew the mark's shape, and the merchant told him he was just running an errand.
Hearing this, the magician promised a reward for anyone who could decipher this symbol and urged the merchant to notify him.
'Well, they say magicians are content only when they've figured out even the things you'd think they wouldn't need to know.'
I myself couldn't discern what the mark was.
It wasn't a magic circle or a spell.
It seemed likely that it had something to do with the trickster.
"After all, since I didn't need to examine it further, it would be more profitable to hand over the goblin's body."
"Oh! Can I take a look at it?"
I led the Serpens merchant group leader to my study.
While I called it a study, it was just a place where I reviewed my existing knowledge and experimented with spirit magic and training techniques. The only furniture was a desk, a chair, and a bookshelf.
In one corner, a jar sat. When I lifted the lid, the goblin's corpse stared upwards, eyes bulging.
Upon seeing this, the head of the Serpens merchant group jumped.
"How much do you think the Jaison magician would pay for this body?"
"At least 200 gold."
"Even though it's this well-preserved? What if I give them the results of my diligent dissection and research?"
I handed my personal research notes to the Serpens merchant group leader. I had detailed the battle situation and the corpse's condition.
"You could get at least 400 gold."
"Do your best. You get 20%."
I kept the fact that this mark was a symbol of the trickster to myself.
This warranted further exploration.
'After all, there are almost no existing records. The trickster is a forgotten deity.'
I had browsed all the hefty books of the Duke of Vreio, but only two mentioned the trickster. Both were ancient texts. One was the 'Book of Granted Wishes,' which had given me another life, and the other was the 'Glorious Throne,' which depicted ancient gods.
Even within the 'Glorious Throne,' the trickster was merely a side character, not a protagonist.
He was sealed away by both benevolent and malevolent gods. The cause was his propensity for inciting chaos. From the viewpoint of gods who desired a world delineated into good and evil, the trickster, who was neutral, would have been an unsettling entity blurring moral distinctions.
"Shall we shift to the topic of ancient magic circles?"
The head of the Serpens merchant group approached me.
I could feel his breath.
Despite being a prosperous merchant, the Serpens merchant group's leader was lean. He didn't appear to have studied swordsmanship but seemed to have increased his physical strength.
I pulled out a funnel from the drawer.
Carved out of wood, it resembled the top of a funnel, rendering it semi-permanent.
Wind whistled from the broader opening of the funnel.
On a chilly day like this, it was enough to raise goosebumps.
"Here, take this."
Serpens accepted the funnel, posture stiff.
The wind was as frosty as ever. Serpens explored the inside of the funnel, the wind whirling against him, then observed the ancient magic circle etched inside.
There were historical accounts of such methods being used for cooling in ancient times. Regrettably, this was the only magic circle I found feasible to manifest from the ancient texts I browsed.
Other magic circles were identified, but for some inexplicable reason, they failed to function. This was a result confirmed by the tower's grand magician.
The grand magician overlooked the wind magic circle. He didn't even regard it as a method for verifying magical aptitude. They had precise methods of confirmation, and they also possessed magic to generate powerful winds, not just an uncertain breeze.
Although it was imprecise, the ancient wind magic circle did a commendable job of recognizing magical talent.
"It appears you lack magical aptitude."
"You tested my aptitude with this?"
Serpens regarded me skeptically.
"We'll delve into that later. Regardless, you would have checked on your own. Alternatively, nothing would be more wasteful than verifying the magical talent of each slave, so perhaps you slipped in one or two with potential? Anyway, pay close attention."
A hundred slaves were assembled on the training ground. Before long, townsfolk began to gather, whispering among themselves. In the humble Hebron, the hundred slaves brought by the leader were an extraordinary spectacle.
The Baron and Baroness of Hebron were among the spectators.
The Baron of Hebron was a bundle of nerves. Perhaps the murmurs of the surrounding crowd had affected him.
The Baron's domain lacked discipline and decorum.
The townsfolk were as ill-educated as the nobility. In Vreio, townsfolk regularly convened in the square to learn the regulations of the territory, but in Hebron, even such rudimentary education was absent.
"Son, Hebron does not tolerate slavery."
The Baroness supported her husband's speech.
"Yes, son. Listen to your father. Let's return these unfortunate souls back home."
The parents referred to the slaves as 'unfortunate souls.'
That was an improper term. They were legitimate commodities, traded while dutifully paying taxes to the Xenon royal family. There was no need for emotionally charged assessments, such as pity.
If there was any cause for concern, it was merely the funds that the House of Hebron's Baron would have to give.
"You need not fret over finances."
"Son, this isn't a question of money. Hebron has never condoned slavery, not even in our most prosperous times."
"Then we must revise that tradition. Hebron can prosper because of them."
My father appeared taken aback. It was to be expected.
Hebron was deteriorating day by day.
Someone had to interrupt that trend.
"Please respect my perspective. I will transform Hebron."
"Would that make you happy?"
My father's question was unexpected.
His peculiar question pierced not my mind, but my heart.
My father closed his eyes.
He exhaled deeply, as though he were in deep contemplation.
My father opened his eyes.
As if he had journeyed through a taxing period, he seemed to have aged in an instant.
"I trust you. You've never let me down since your childhood."
I still retained the memories of Lewis de Hebron. His conduct was chaotic. Had he been born into the Ducal house of Vreio, he would have been cast out before he reached five.
And yet, my father claimed he had never been disappointed in such a life.
'I'm sorry. I may disappoint you from this point forward.'
Vreio and Hebron held different principles. The reason the Duke of Vreio belittled the Baron of Hebron, I realized it bitterly when I became a part of Hebron.
It was frail. Not just the territory, but even the lord's thinking was frail. In a world where the mighty prey upon the weak, Hebron was destined to be devoured by the powerful.
My father remained silent.
As he retreated, all eyes turned to me.
The warden of Serpens commanded the guards to fetch the funnel. He passed it to a slave.
Until I declared it was over, the slave held the funnel, passing it to the next person.
I marked three slaves with red ink.
"These individuals marked with red ink tried their hardest. It's unusual to find three slaves with magical talent. It's not an impressive talent, but it's fair to sell them for 20 gold each, isn't it?"
Serpens glanced back at the merchant standing beside him. The man acted as a secretary. As he nodded, a spark lit up in Serpens' expression.
"Remarkable. A magical device that both generates wind and discerns magical aptitude!"
"They say it was used to drive away heat in old times... but mainly, it merely emits a gentle breeze. Should someone blessed with magical talent touch it, the wind intensifies, just as we witnessed earlier."
"Indeed, it's quite remarkable."