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I ride into the Capital on my white stallion, the wonderful Alexander, and I carry with me not a single thing but my ambition. Another vicious war has ensnared the Nation, and it was a mere thirty years ago that the First Great War reached its conclusion, none too soon, with the capitulation of the opposing power. I enter the gates of the Capital looking for an old hero, a walking mystery.
Little of him is known to me, but I know enough. I visited my cousins in a city no long distance from the Capital, and I met Terentius, a soothsayer my cousins recommended to me. The old man told me I would “meet something life-crushingly terrible” no large amount of time after my visit to him. He also remarked on my striking resemblance to a young man he met long ago, not elaborating on what the resemblance was, but I surmise my well-shaped face is what he was referring to. I inquired about the gentleman the soothsayer spoke of, and he said the young man was a hero of noble birth who earned his fame during the First Great War as a watchman of the Capital. Terentius mentioned a group called The Knights of Clairvoyance, but he told me nothing of who they were, only that this hero lead them and that they were incredibly heroic watchmen of the Capital during an arduous time of seemingly uncontrollable thievery. The soothsayer revealed nothing more other than that the hero lived in Custus Manor in the great Capital.
It all struck me as unlikely at the time, but I consulted the elder members of my family. They reluctantly confirmed Terentius’s ramblings, making sure to discourage me from chasing after the hero for any reason. “He is old and withered by now; he never appeared in public after retirement, and his story is not particularly magnificent,” my great-grandfather said. Now that the snake of conflict again begins to choke the Nation, I have decided to go against the will of my elders and to seek out this hero. My family was surely attempting to deter me from gallantry, but my destiny is entirely my own. Listening is for those who are too weak for experimentation. I am sure the hero is not as withered as they say, for all great men age slowly. My new teacher calmly resides in Custus Manor in the care of Count Custus, waiting for me to arrive. I am sure news of this war has altered his views on the matter of taking on students.
Today, I will obtain from the leader of the Clairvoyant the details of his accomplishments, and to understand how he and his followers served the Nation so well. Nothing this hero can do, I cannot. I am the young Lord of Lashivia, and I too am ready to toss aside my wealth and stride confidently into life’s worst gauntlets. This hero will give to me all his secrets and train me that I may become a great fighter before even enlisting in the army, and that I may perhaps restore the Clairvoyant. The Nation craves a second hero for its second war, and a hero it shall have. That hero will be none other than I, Lord Lashivia.
The Capital is a massive city of connected buildings of varying color, conveying both order and individuality. The stones of the streets are dark and sullen and uneven. I approach the mansion of Count Custus. I will admit it does strike me as strange that a great legend should live in a baron’s manor during his twilight years. This building is white, oddly enough, as though pale. A watchman halts me as I approach the steps to the doors of the manor. “What is your business?” he asks.
Before I have a chance to respond, the bronze doors of the mansion open, and the old Count Custus appears. “Stand aside, guard. Let the young man speak with me,” he tells me. The guard stands aside, and I speak.
“I am Lord Lashivia. I have come to your manor, Count Custus, for I seek audience with the great watchman,” I say. He gestures for me to enter. “Please enter, Lord Lashivia. No stranger has wanted audience with the man in... nearly thirty years now, but he notified me several days ago that he would accept the next visitor. I thought nothing of it, but here you are, a lord seeking his audience.” His tone is not as surprised as his phrasing. I follow him into the dim hall of Custus Manor as sunset draws near.
“Count Custus, who is this hero, exactly? Why has he not taken on any students or passed down his techniques?” I ask. I receive no answer.
“Count Custus, where is it you are taking me?” I ask as we descend a staircase.
“Silence yourself, young man! You will have your answers later,” he says. He opens the heavy door to his cellar and leads me to the center where he tells me to sit on the couch. Before me there is a small table on which there are candles and an incredibly old book.
“Read aloud, Lord Lashivia. It is wonderful to listen to.”
“What is this? Why should I read aloud when—”
“Do as you are told, young—”
“Why may I not meet—”
“These are his instructions I am following! You will do as he asks, or not receive audience!” I acquiesce and lift the book from the table. The title is Commentaries on the Life of Myself, Narcissus Aurelius Seneca, Watchman of the Capital, Clairvoyant, and Former Lord. It strikes me in countless ways, but I quickly begin to read. The handwriting is eloquent, large, and loud.
“I write this first entry on the day before I leave my castle for the Capital forever. I will surely experience an exhilarating and dangerous life, and surely someone will one day present themselves before me and want to know my story. I write this so that I may never forget my life, and that the seekers of knowledge who read this will receive the complete story with each entry produced no more than one day after the events described in the entry occur. I ask that you, reader, forgive me for any linguistic errors found in this book, and for any vague, cumbersome, or hard-to-discern passages found in it.
“I will begin describing my early life. As a young boy, I would remember my dreams always, and none of their details ever escaped me. At around the age of ten, I recall dreaming of the horrible, sickly death of a rugged-looking peasant. The next day, I overheard my father saying that one of our serfs had finally succumb to his illness. In my dreams, destiny revealed to me all future tragedies that pertained to me in anyway way. I will write no more examples, as I am sure you understand my meaning.
“I write this second entry in an inn located in a city not far from the Capital. I failed to mention both of my parents long ago passed away, and only I and my younger brother remain. This war seems endless, and you see, I am a born fighter. Although my father disapproved of it, I often went to where his knights were quartered, and the knights taught me their martial arts. This began when I was hardly fourteen, and I was a good a fighter as any one of them by age eighteen and had surpassed my own father in fencing prowess around that same age.”
I stop reading and look at Count Custus. “How much longer must I read? Where are his secrets?” I receive no answer, only a frustrated sigh from the count. I continue reading before he has time to scold me once more.
“I want not to become a soldier, but to help the innocent people of the Capital. My relatives send me long passages outlining the maladies of the Capital. The snake of thievery has wrapped around the body of the Capital and is slowly killing it. There is at least one robbery every night, and the watch has become small and disorganized. Many watchmen joined the military after the first several months of war. A nobleman such as myself of course has no business being a watchman, so before I abandoned the estate, I bestowed my title onto my brother as a parting gift, along with my entire name. I had already spoken of my plan to leave the family before, so he understood my meaning and nodded solemnly as I told him I was departing. (He and I look incredibly similar; no one shall notice the difference, and I am sure he will fabricate as much as necessary.) I will miss my beloved brother. He is a virtuous man, and I am sure he will enjoy aristocracy. My friendly knights and I got into simple clothing and set off for the Capital on horseback. We will arrive tomorrow and bolster the ranks of the watch. I have had no dreams of misfortune, so I am calm.
“I have taken on the name of Narcissus Aurelius Seneca. Aurelius was the last name of an idol of mine, a true legend, a knight who fought and died in First Great War. Seneca was the last name of his squire, a man who saved his life more times than he could number, and that died alongside him in the final deciding battle of the war. Narcissus I have taken on as my first name because I do feel I suffer from a case of arrogance that I wish to combat. I must sleep now.
“I write this third entry in my new watchman’s chamber at night. The furniture is too simplistic, too imperfect. It will take time for me to accept it. My companions and I abandoned our horses on the way to the Capital so as not to seem suspicious. We were all accepted into the watch and were each given equipment and a room immediately. There was no training, no captain to greet us or to give us instruction. We entered the Blue-White Palace and spoke with a political man that recruited the eleven of us immediately. I will end this entry somewhat prematurely, as I am eager to dream.
“I write this fourth entry in my watchman’s chamber at night, once more. As suspected, I dreamt of robbery. XIII Aurum Street was the location, and the robber would strike in the dead of night. Due to there being no chain of command in the watch, us watchmen were free to patrol the Capital in whatever way we saw fit. There were no schedules or routes or anything of the sort, as the watch is so shorthanded that the older pattern is not possible to replicate. These were the words of a more experienced watchmen, and outraged, I demanded that there be more organization. He gave me a map of the Capital, outlining the old routes and times, and a blank map of the Capital, and told me that if I adore routes so much, I had ought to draft them myself. So, I did exactly as the gentleman told me. Within only a few hours, I had adopted a plan incredibly similar to the plan in effect before the war. The old plan had three watchmen patrolling every set of three streets, whereas my plan had only one watchmen patrolling two streets in a circular fashion so that he was on the middle street at least part of the time. The time schedule I modified accordingly. I placed my plan down on the table in the central room of the barracks and left.
“With the upcoming robbery in mind, I found two of my old knights and went to XIII Aurum Street at around sundown. It was a collapsing shack with a roof evidently so damaged, a thick tarp was placed overtop it. The wood was rotten and the grass around the home was tall enough for a snake from distant lands to hide in. I have heard stories of the colossal snakes found in the lush forests of the territory of the enemy, snakes large enough to swallow small children. I digress.
“We knocked on the door, and a half-drunk, shirtless bloke opened it. He clearly had not groomed himself since he was born, and had an odd smell of fish and liquor. He was a gentleman, however, and he asked us how he could be of service. I told him bluntly that someone shall rob him at night and that I and my two companions wish to hide inside his home and surprise the thief as he enters. He said, and I shall never forget his hilarity: ‘Oi! Sounds like great fun, friends! You rough the thief up!’ He asked no questions and allowed us to enter.
“The smelly gentleman locked the door behind us and went downstairs to sleep. I sat down in a chair in the corner that was not visible when one immediately entered the shack. One of my old knights crouched under a table, and the other hid in a closet. Like bandits ourselves, we all had our swords ready, and as expected, the thief quietly opened the door and stepped in. I creeped up close to him, and kicked the door shut as the other watchmen seemed to materialize like wraiths, one from the floor and one from the wall. We each jabbed the thief once before he even realized how horrible of a mistake it was to attempt to rob the friendly, foul-smelling resident of this shack.
“We hauled his gangly, bloody self off to Sanguine Prison, and told the jailer he attempted to steal something. He informed us that the thief was a truly wicked criminal, a man wanted for many accounts of breaking and entering, stealing, pickpocketing, counterfeiting, conspiring to commit crime, committing grand larceny, evading taxes, brawling, escaping prison, resisting authority, and ‘generally being a dirty cur.’
“Needless to say, I and my companions received much praise from the jailer and the watchmen, though the politicians and secretaries of the Blue-White Palace were nowhere to be seen. I and my two old knights fabricated a nonsensical story that we were ambling along Aurum Street at night when we saw the thief appear from the entrance of a house, proceeded to give chase, caught him, and jabbed his audacity out of him. My patrol plan was also viewed by the other members of the watch, and they said although it was clearly not as efficient as the old plan, they would abide by it.”
Count Custus tells me to skip to the page marked with the blue playing card. The next several pages, he tells me, are more of Seneca’s adventures, and they differ little from one another. He tells me this entry has something more interesting. Excited inexpressibly, I remove the blue card and continue reading.
“I write this twelfth entry in my watchman’s chamber at night, as usual. I have turned into a considerably well-known persona due to how I have stopped a robbery or murder or other crime every night since my enlistment in the watch. My ten old knights have also become considerably famous, as I called on at least two of them for every one of my endeavors. As I have mentioned in previous entries, in order to prevent crime most effectively, it is necessary that I and my old knights disobey the very patrol plan that I created. However, since we are so successful as watchmen, this is entirely overlooked. When asked about how we seem to always be present where thieves are, I simply say that I have a special instinct and my fellow watchmen trust it as much as I do. I am no liar, it is only that I am masterfully vague. We have been dubbed the ‘Knights of Clairvoyance’ by the citizens. I can say I enjoy this life greatly, and I find the name a beautiful compliment. My brother had ought to be jealous, in all honesty.”
Count Custus tells me to skip to the page marked with the red playing card. That, he says, is the final entry I will need to read.
“I write this seventeenth entry in my watchman’s chamber at night, as always. I prevented a robbery in the wealthier district of the Capital today. This thief was armed with a sword, as has been the trend as of late. He seemed to have some degree of proficiency in combat, but he could not defeat four assailants at once. I have come to believe that these thieves are all connected in some way. The jailer tells me that he sometimes hears vague whispers coming and quiet laughs coming from the jail cells, as though the thieves feel quite at home in prison. Each new arrival receives a rather warm welcome from the prisoners. It is a hospitality my instincts tell me is not common among cutthroats. Tomorrow, I shall let the next robber rob the house he wishes to rob, and follow him to where he goes. I suspect he will lead my companions and I to a secluded location in the slums.
“I write this last entry... in the... room that... I cannot read the remainder of this sentence, Count Custus. I will skip it. I am sorry if the... hand... handwriting is hard to discern. I am writing with my... left hand, and am not very... proficient at it.”
Count Custus stops me and tells me to place the book down on the table. “It is time for you to meet him, Lord Lashivia. He will tell you the remainder of his final entry,” he says. He leads me upstairs, and I follow him, very excited. It is twilight outside. Count Custus opens a large door and tells me to enter the room. He shuts the door behind me. I see the sun through the window on the opposite end of the room, and the sunlight hits the back of a man sitting on a rug. I hear his voice.
“Sit on the carpet, Lord Lashivia.” I do as he says, and he lights three candles between us on the carpet. I see an old man with long hair and an unkempt beard. He has an utterly unathletic body, and what horrifies me most are his hands. One is wrinkly and looks as though it has talons, and the other, his right hand, appears to be in a black glove.
“Sir?” I say.
“That is I, yes. You want the last entry of the Commentaries, true?” He has a low, unassuming voice.
“Yes,” I say, uncomfortably.
“As you may already know, I followed a thief to his hideaway with my entire posse of eleven... It was this very manor that he lead us to, lord. After he entered the door, we waited no longer than one minute. The Knights of Clairvoyance all stormed into Custus Manor at once. We saw an open door, and it lead us to a large cellar, the very cellar in which you read my Commentaries. There, a group of around twelve or so thieves were gathered, awaiting the arrival of the thirteenth. They were all armed with weapons, and so, a terrible fight ensued. The whole Capital must have felt its reverberations. Within several minutes, almost every man had hit the floor either dead or bleeding horribly. I remained the last one still on his feet in the cellar, and saw the entrance to a tunnel in the cellar that was not open before.
“I assumed a wounded thief was trying to escape, so I gave chase despite my own wounds. I caught up to the fleeing thief, and with him was Count Custus. Not the Count Custus you know of, but his father, Cicero. The generally accepted viewpoint is that he was in charge of a sort of Dark Project, if you are familiar with that old expression. He was the leader and recruiter of nearly every thief in the Capital. They all stole for his wealth. With Cicero was a masked man who was later identified as Erasmus Havel, a thief who put on the mask of the Crow of the Capital, a legendary thief who died in prison five years prior. It is generally accepted that Cicero recruited thieves as soon as they were released from prison and had the Crow of the Capital properly teach them evil practices such as breaking and entering. Truly despicable creatures, Erasmus and Cicero and all of his lowlives.
“Erasmus and I exchanged several parries.” Narcissus raises his left arm up and I see that he has no glove on his hand. To my horror... this man’s hand is missing. There is but empty space beyond his wrist.
“He cut off my hand. The pain was horrible. I leaned my body against the wall of the tunnel. He was about to end my life when Cicero cut his throat from behind. I suspect he had some sort of revelation. I saw Erasmus fall to the floor and the black fabric of Cicero’s robes flail as he ran down the tunnel. No one saw him again. It was later discovered that the tunnel lead to a riverside shack outside the walls of the Capital. In any case, the clashing of swords from the earlier battle likely awoke the neighbors, and the rest of the watchmen entered Custus Manor to find a red lake in the basement with around twenty-five bodies in it, and Erasmus and me on the floor of the tunnel. I scarcely survived.” My eye begins to twitch.
“The Lord Custus familiar to you was around twenty when this transpired. He was not found guilty of any involvement in his father’s conspiracy, so he immediately inherited all of his wealth. A good man, he took my crippled self in and gave me a room and took care of me when my government could not. I never returned to the watch, even though the watchmen begged me to. After my hand was taken off, I could not bring myself to. For months I was pestered by watchmen and citizens, either asking me to rejoin the watch or asking me to teach them my skills. Ungrateful narcissists. I tried to explain to them I could not teach clairvoyance. I could not teach my combat skills either; they were the result of natural talent and practice. They kept asking for months. I finally understood modesty after experiencing the generosity of Count Custus who was able to see me as a hero and look past the fact I separated him from his father, and after experiencing the demanding nature of the people who once took their hats off to me as they passed by. I was forgotten after a year or so. I stopped having my dreams after another few. However, my clairvoyance seems to have reawoken. I had a dream several days ago that I would be receiving another visitor, a Lord Lashivia looking to fight in the war.” One of the three candles goes out.
“This brings us to the present, Lord Lascivia. Knowing these things, what will you do?”
My eyes tear up. What is this? What horror has this man been pouring into my ear? Surely it must be false! At least half of this must be fabricated! I’m dreaming! What kind of legend ends up like this? Legends look nothing like this man! It must all be a lie! I lean my head forward and stifle a cry, but I accidentally blow out the second candle regardless. I grip the carpet fiercely and look at Seneca’s disappointed face. As the sun sets and he blows out the final candle, I cry miserably. I cry and cry until Count Custus enters the room and leads me out of his manor. I lean up against the wall of his manor and place my hand over my face. I sob quietly:
“Who am I? What I am doing in this place? Where should I be?”