Starkenberg Madiswil was a very prideful man. Having been born with the name of a wealthy, ambitious noble family, Starkenberg’s wants were constantly catered to by his family’s servants, who were ordered to give him nothing but praise. When he discovered his latent ability for fire and earth magic, this only served to further strengthen his ego and self-entitlement.
His family acquired the greatest of magic tutors that would not only give him a head start in developing magic, but also butter him up whenever he succeeded in even the most trivial of accomplishments. It was no wonder that Starkenberg prided himself as being superior amongst peers the same age as him.
In fact, his high level and stats at a glance were something that made any typical person think, ‘He would be a powerful knight.’ However, the secret to his high level had been due to a fair amount of hunting monsters that had been weakened by his family’s guards, who purposefully allowed him to dish out the final attack. Starkenberg himself thought nothing of it, as it was, of course, a master’s right to be superior to his servants. Power leveling wasn’t discouraged by anyone, so there was no fault in doing it. As such, many of the kingdom’s high-level knights were concentrated from a pool of nobility that had spent time and resources getting ahead.
However, when he started taking on the official duties of a magic knight, things began to go bad. Jobs that were easily cleared by his peers were not going so well for him. Lower level monsters gave him more trouble than he expected. His magic spells would get in the way of other people and sometimes hit his allies. When put on the spot, his poor decision-making led to bad outcomes that could have otherwise been averted had another taken his place. Indeed, having everything handed to him on a platter for so long had made the reality of his competency tough to swallow. Yet, he still refused to acknowledge the very thought of his own shortcomings. Instead, he blamed them on bad luck or dirty tricks that people used to make him look bad.
Not only were his lower ranking peers outperforming him, but those of lower class had also started to look at him with disdain.
‘Know your place, you bottom of the barrel nobility!’ Starkenberg would think with a scowl. ‘How dare they mock those in a higher position than themselves!’
Up until now, he could tolerate the occasional rudeness of his fellow nobility when they snickered and jeered behind his back. He could still take pride that his level and his magic stats were superior compared to them.
What he wouldn’t allow was the audacity of a no-name servant to lead the charge and clean up after one of his mistakes. The thought of a mere commoner chef succeeding when he had failed was enough to make his blood boil and wish for his head to be his personal kick toy while his wolf familiar snacks on the rest of his body. Not to mention that the bastard served under a low-class tramp who barely qualified as nobility. ‘A woman’s place in society was the bedroom’, he would often think as he was groomed to treat his female servants in such a manner. It sickened him to see her act as someone of equal standing as him, especially as a magic knight of the kingdom.
Holding that sense of self-superiority in his heart, Starkenberg schemed for ways to elevate his standing. He hired people to ‘set-up’ disturbances for him to solve. He flaunted his power during his jobs for everyone to see. With the power of money, he would plant the seeds of discord and have people spread the news of his incredible self.
Yet, things did not go as planned.
The bandits that he hired to steal magic ore had been taken out, interrupting his plans to unveil a fake ploy at disrupting the economy between a neighboring lordship. And it had been undone by THOSE two. Even after he took steps to trap them elsewhere, they had managed to break out and recover the ore. Luckily, he had disguised himself, so the captured bandits were not able to reveal his connection to the job.
Afterwards, it seemed like someone would always beat him to the chase with whatever plan that he would come up with. As his position continued to grow stagnant, he instead turned to hindering others by hiring bandits to attack people traveling along the main roads. To his surprise, even this had barely caused a ripple of trouble among the others.
‘You think a large team of grunts would be enough to take down one magic knight!’ he was truly annoyed that he had wasted a lot of gold on a fruitless venture.
Unbeknownst to him, Starkenberg had based his estimations on his own ability to handle a group of thugs. However, he had wrongly assumed that the Faulkner girl’s abilities had been restricted to solely magic, what most nobility specialize in. In fact, his physical talents were subpar, leading him to greatly misjudge the girl’s ability to handle a crowd with solely her sword. Furthermore, he had not taken into account the capability of a certain chef. Having barely seen the outcome of his fight with the ore bandits, all he saw was a cowardly man who would run away and chuck knives. Starkenberg only considered him as a mere non-combatant.
The servants around him could only sigh at his ineptitude, secretly harboring disdain for the unreasonable and immoral things they were ordered to do. Due to Viscount Madiswil’s connections, they would have a rough time if they dared to disobey orders or escape from their servitude.
Desperate for some results, Starkenberg would bet everything on his next venture. Having recently come upon a new good from the southern isles, he had happened to overhear the ill side effects of consuming too much of it, as told by sailors who had traveled there.
Immediately, Starkenberg thought he could take advantage of this situation and scoured his father’s connections to acquire means to obtain and transfer a large supply of it. He would create a disturbance so grand that the entire kingdom would notice, and he would be at the frontlines diffusing it. An evil smirk stretched across his face as he thought of how much recognition he could get. As a bonus, he would throw those two annoyances into the mess and ensure that they get blamed for it.
Setting up his main base in the port town of Gibraltar, he commissioned a ship captain to travel to the southern isles and acquire as much of the material as he could. He paid off the local lord to turn a blind eye to his activities as the drug was tested on the trash living in the slums. Turning to his shadier connections, the drug was spread among the populace, eventually leading to it being named ‘GateDown.’
As the drug trade was noticed by the guild, Starkenberg had set up a number of dummy sites, having his servants spread word of their existence. The guild dispatched its members to these fake locations ensuring that they would be busy, until finally, one Eryn Faulkner had returned from her latest task. At that point, the guild received a tip concerning a GateDown shipment being picked up in Gibraltar. Having sent Faulkner and her servant there, Starkenberg and his servants followed behind them in secret.
As the two scapegoats tracked down the source of the drug supply, Starkenberg stayed one step ahead, taking measures to push the two to act on their own to take down the operation. As he spotted the two acting out their plan to take down the agents he had hired to make GateDown, his plan was ready to start its final act.
He had his servants locate Faulkner’s cart and stash a few barrels of GateDown onto it, for some local officials to happen upon. He caught the chef in the act of purchasing a vial of GateDown and recorded the moment with a recently upgraded version of the Light Box tool.
As Faulkner and her familiar fought the cloaked men, Starkenberg had sent one of his own men dressed in the same outfit with a fire gem, hoping to take out the troublesome knight in an explosion. As the building rocked from a shockwave, Starkenberg and his men swooped in to assess the situation. The Faulkner girl was down, so he immediately pretended to be the hero arriving to save the wounded. He relished the look of shock on the chef’s face as he announced the false charges. Starkenberg couldn’t help but smile as everything had seemingly fallen into place.
As I sat in the bed of a wagon with my hands tied in front of me with magical rope, I looked over at Eryn who was sleeping soundly. The effects of the drug would probably still be in her system, so it was best to keep her sedated for the meantime. It wouldn’t look good for her to start acting crazy, which would worsen our already bad situation.
After Stark Mad had laid out the charges against us, I objected to his accusations. He then brought out his ‘evidence,’ making me feel that we had been set up somehow. Catching me buy the vial of GateDown and finding more of it on our belongings was too much of a coincidence. At that point, I suspected that it had all been a ploy by Stark Mad himself, but I had no way of resisting his arrest.
Plus, I had to take care of Eryn who appeared to be suffering from the effects of GateDown. During the wagon ride, Eryn would occasionally jerk in her sleep as if she was having nightmares. With my hands bound, it was a bit awkward, but I was able to tap some points to calm her down. In the meantime, I racked my brain for ways to handle the coming situation.
Half a day already went by as I contemplated under the watch of Stark’s guards. The pressure of the situation and impending dread I felt made it seem like an eternity. The only thing that made time move in my eyes was the fact that Eryn’s condition seemed to slowly be getting better as her body purged the toxins from her system. Having heard what happened to people that were affected by this drug, it would be best for her to rest for a few days.
The cart made a sudden stop at that point. And one of the guards poked his head in.
“We’re here. Up and out.” The guard pointed his thumb back, signaling me to exit.
As I hopped off the wagon, I saw the guild building in front of me, along with Cornelius waiting in front. We had returned to the capital.
“And Knight Faulkner?” He looked at me.
“In there, but not in good shape.” I pointed to the wagon.
Cornelius motioned for some knights to lift her out of the wagon and take her somewhere to recover.
“Since Knight Faulkner is not in any shape to give a report, I will have you cover for her.”
As Cornelius spoke to me, I caught him making a quick sign tapping his head with a finger, as if signaling me to think quickly for a way out of this. Given his position as leader of the knights, he wasn’t at liberties to side with the accused party. It would be up to me to defend Eryn and fight back those accusations.
Several guards led me into the guild and straight to the Director’s office, where I came face-to-face with Castia Arnstorf for only the second time ever. Unlike last time, she was not in the middle of doing paperwork, but not as if she had finished it all. If anything, it looked like there was more than before. She stared straight at me with a conflicted expression. Cornelius and Stark followed into the room and stood on either side of her desk before the guards closed the door.
“I think we know why you are here. Purchasing and possessing a dangerous drug, aiding the distribution of said drug, being caught at the scene of its production, inciting the residents into a violent and dangerous situation – these are some serious charges that Knight Madiswil has put up against you and Knight Faulkner, especially given your positions.”
I opened my mouth to object “But I-“
“Before you go off saying that you didn’t do it, I have a report here with evidence collected by Madiswil and his men showing that you had barrels of GateDown on your cart and were caught in the act of buying some yourself. Plus, there’s this notebook recovered at the scene. I take it looks familiar?”
Castia flipped through the notebook and showed me a few pages. It was the notebook that I carried around to jot down various details. The details of shipments and buyers that I had written down while listening in on the workers were shown to me. Upon closer inspection, I also noticed a few notes that weren’t there before, adding much more detail than what I had overheard. The handwriting was slightly off from mine, suggesting that someone had forged it after picking it up. It had been made to appear that I possessed insider knowledge that coincided with only those who were involved in the drug trade.
“What do you have to say for yourself, Mr. Evers?”
Someone had pre-emptively set all this up, mixing in fake evidence and half-truths in order to paint the words ‘guilty’ all around me. Denial of the situation and any attempt at trying to disprove the claims before me would be futile. I could see a hint of conflict in Cornelius’s face as he tried his best not to chime in. Unless I gave him an opportunity, there would be no way for him to act on behalf of me while appearing neutral.
I hated situations like these.
Situations when someone grabbed the advantage by accusing another and making you appear to be the guilty party despite doing no wrong. Situations, where you were ostracized for no reason, other than the fact that a person’s lies had given people reason to suspect you. Situations, where one gained by driving another to fall.
The so-called bully that crafted a wall of lies that you had to expend tremendous effort climbing over, just because he made the claim first. It would be no use to say, ‘I didn’t do it!’ or “He’s lying!’ as no one would believe the one being put under the spotlight.
The only thing I could do…
The only thing I could do was to come up with something so absurd that they would have no choice but to listen carefully!
I smiled to myself as I collected my thoughts. There would be no turning back after I started speaking. Gotta see it through!
“Yes…that stash of GateDown is undoubtedly mine.”
“So you confess?”
I raised my voice with a confident tone. “No, as a chef and as a servant of a merchant family, I couldn’t help but be drawn by the re-discovery of a special ingredient, one that dominated the menu of the masses in my previous world!”
“What?” The three looked at me like I was crazy.
“I suppose you don’t know, but in my world, this thing you call ‘GateDown’ is not used as a drug, but as a spice that is essential in the culinary arts, such as baking sweets and enriching the flavor of food and wine. How could I not become excited upon the aspect of being able to cook with it again?”
Ever since I took a whiff of the vial that I had bought, the scent of it had lingered in the back of my mind. Initially, I was surprised by the familiar scent, but my mind had rejected this familiarity due to it being a drug. During the chaos in the warehouse, I couldn’t deny the nostalgic memories of that mildly spicy and sweet taste that clung to my mouth. I also recalled a few cases where people had overdosed on it, but this had been the first time I had seen the side effects in person. As these suspicions led me to have a small taste of the vial that I possessed, the flavor fell in line with something that I saw everywhere in my old world. I no longer had any doubt in my mind.
“In my world, it is called Nutmeg. Through this, I had planned to revolutionize the world of cooking!”
Castia stared blankly for a moment, letting the new information sink in. “Then, what about the drug trade?”
“Oh, that? I have no part in it. I only acquired the spice to further my cooking repertoire.”
Having made a bold, almost outlandish declaration beforehand, Castia was more inclined to believe the more straightforward, latter statement.
“I see…then can you give us your side of the story as to why you were at the production site?”
Before I was able to say anything else, Stark jumped in loudly with disapproval.
“What!? You’re going to just believe what a commoner says over that of nobility? That’s preposterous! He must have dreamt up that entire scenario in order to save his skin!”
At this moment, Cornelius seized his chance.
“Why yes? How do we validate Mr. Evers’ statements? We have no way of knowing what the norm in his world is… Oh! How about we have him demonstrate his claims by having an exhibition of the so-called Nutmeg enriched foods to show everyone its proper use?” Cornelius ended his statement with a wink to me.
“Fine by me. That’s what I had planned for in the first place,” I fibbed.
It wasn’t in the original plan, but I had an inkling that I would have had to back up my statement with some actual cuisine. Strangely, the prospect of it had me raring to go.
“Then it’s settled. Mr. Evers will work with the Faulkner family to hold an exhibition of cuisine that will be sampled by the town to demonstrate that GateDown is not meant to be a drug. If we are satisfied by the outcome as described by your statements, then we will consider it as truth.” Castia proclaimed as she stood up from her desk. “In the meantime, we will have you guarded as you work to prevent any escape, but I highly doubt a true chef would run away from the kitchen. You have 3 days!”
I gave a bow in response. Things were going to get very busy. As I turned to leave, I saw Cornelius give me a faint smile.
With my back turned as I was walking away, I couldn’t see the scowl that Stark had on his face, as I had apparently started unraveling yet another one of his schemes.