Chapter 76. The Plotful Thickening
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This is one of the topics I'm not particularly experienced in, but based on the duration and the general... slapshoddiness of the whole thing, I am inclined to conclude that the crying jag right now was the "I'm genuinely confused and despondent", not the "I'm presenting a polite fiction of distress". Duke is kind of torn between the obvious necessity of not angering someone holding incredibly damning blackmail over his head and equally obvious desire to be irate at someone who made his beloved daughter cry. I would argue that Elaine was the one who actually made herself cry, but I have a feeling duke would not consider that a valid argument. So I'm quietly thankful he directs his efforts into hugging his daughter instead of anything... more undiplomatic.

I decide to be tactful and permit some time for Elaine to collect herself properly. Pushing her while she's still sobbing would be... yeah, no. Just. No. I actually want to resolve this in some sort of amiable fashion, not make an enemy out of duke in perpetuity. So I wait. And I wait. And I wait some more. Annoying. Maybe it would be more expeditious to just bow out now, come back in the evening and eat their heads?... Wait. No. Bad shoggoth. Not getting in the habit of eating heads for petty convenience. This way lies a marriage proposal from Vallah. I'm NOT going to become senseless murderer like Vlad, that's not how I build myself all the modern amenities. I mean... I could theoretically just eat the whole continent and then I could just build as I... No, no wait, focus. If I eat the continent, I'm going to upset my girls. They're really nice about me being an eldritch abomination, but that acceptance is going to be overstretched if I eat their relatives. Who also have relatives. And friends. And business partners. And reservations about letting their precious/distant/vaguely familiar female relatives engage with personalized omnicide. Grrr...

I think my ruminations are finding some reflection in my expression. Actually, I'm pretty fucking certain they are, because... Shit. Ok, enough. Stop. Chill. STOP with omnicidal daydreaming, it's apparently showing enough to make my unfortunate hosts abandon their own emotional distress in favor of being distressed by... Actually, just what the hell is that they're starting at? I turn back one of the eyespiders that's observing the corridor and... Oh. Oh. OOOOH! I need to reassure them. A nice smile should do the trick! ...Wait, no, shit, damn it. OK, plan B - return the features to proper shape, then smile.

"My apologies. I tend to express bodymorphing magic while distracted." - I tell them with somewhat fake contriteness. Don't get me wrong, I am a little bit upset I just scared the shit out of them accidentally. But mostly not because I did, but because it happened without me actually meaning to. They shuffle further away on the couch. Darn. Time to spin the story, then.

"And this is why I'm not exactly keen on establishing superficial social links." - I continue, stretching out and surreptitiously showing off that I'm entirely human-shaped again. No claws, no teeth, no scales. Why did I start shifting into some kind of... dragonoid, anyways? Subconscious reaction on "why don't I eat everything" or something? Weird. They're clearly not going to contribute to conversation, so I continue my monologue - "Power comes at a cost. In my particular case, it means magic gets away from me when I am not paying enough attention. Things become randomly enchanted, or I shift shape myself, or something else happens. It takes but a moment of inattention sometimes. Which is why people I choose to associate with are... relatively few. Very few, if you consider my actual station in life. Business partners and very important people, whom I interact with sparingly and on business, keeping meticulous control over myself, and my own coterie, which is comprised solely out of girls I implicitly trust not to become alarmed if I'm suddenly covered in scales or have an inkpot floating around my head."

Duke clears his throat awkwardly. "Far it be from me to tell you how to live your life, lady Gillespie, but wouldn't it be easiest simply to stop wearing any facsimiles to prevent accidental magic?" - he suggests remarkably mundane solution. Which isn't going to work for obvious to me reasons, but I need to deflect it somehow.

"For one, I do not feel secure if I can't cast at a moment's notice." - I object - "I've had people make attempts at my life as early as when I was eight years old. For two, I have no idea what is going to happen if I intentionally deny myself the easy channel for magic to express itself. There is a reason why suppressing magic is a crime, duke, and I'm not keen on experimenting on myself to find out the limits of tolerance. For all I know, I might be already exceeding them and not even know it."

He wilts away. I can see the apprehension becoming a third participant in tug of war for his emotions. Gah. This is a complete clusterfuck of a visit. Now all I need is... Elaine to pipe up. Of fucking course.

"...I think I understand better now." - she suddenly offers, surprisingly composed for someone who was just bawling her eyes out - "This is a mess." Ok, this is surprisingly straightforward and candid. Either she's too exhausted from crying to bother putting mask on, or this is another mask because she decided to switch things up. No obvious lies so far, at least.

"Astute observation. The question is, what should be done with this mess." - I toss back at her - "I believe you have a good idea WHY I'm so protective of my coterie, and why I won't tolerate any action against them."

"Your harem, you mean." - she objects.

I shrug - "That too. But oijan concept of harem is a too limited for my tastes, so I don't use it much. I have no doubt oijans would think what I have is far from what the proper harem should look like."

She pinks heavily. "...I did not expect you to just admit it out loud." - she offers, while her father casts confused looks from me to her to me again.

"Why not? It's not the usual kind of relationship, but it is mine. I feel neither shame nor fear in recognizing it." - I retort - "If anything, that should make it eminently clear why I'm willing to go to considerable extremes to put an end to any ill-conceived demarches against my wives. Well, future wives, we have all agreed to postpone the officiation of the whole thing until things are more settled. Maybe on winter solstice, it's an auspicious day for new endeavors."

Elaine purses her lips, looking pensive. "I admit that situation looks much less favorable to me in that light." - she finally offers - "Still, that does not explain everything. I can accept that you had good reasons to avoid too many acquaintances, and I can see how inviting everyone on the airship is not feasible. That still does not explain the snubbing of invitations to assorted gatherings. I have sent no less then three personally and neither of them had been answered, much less heeded. I know others send their own, and I am aware you've responded to at least one of them. How do you explain this?"

"What invitations?" - I return, frowning - "If you sent anything... better doublecheck whoever it is you used to send them. I've made a point to make token appearances or give a polite declination to every invitation I actually receive."

Now it is her turn to frown. She picks up a bell, walks over to the door, pushes it open and starts shaking the bell vigorously. "Fetch me Madeleine." - she orders the servant that pops up at the sound of the bell - "I need her assistance." He breaks off in a run, and she returns to the table, setting the bell on it. "There must be some explanation for it. Madeleine had been my maid ever since I was a toddler. I trust her like a member of family." - she continues slowly - "There must be some kind of breakage after her. Could... No, I shall not speculate needlessly when the answers are just around the corner."

I think it's wise of her, because the only person she could accuse next would be Bridgit. Who, she should realize, is in much the same position with me as she is with Madeleine... not to mention one of my waifus. I guess Elaine can think on her feet when she's not blinded by misattributed slight. But then again.... "Per any chance, is either of you skilled with light magic?" - I suggest, frowning when both of them shake their heads. It would be easier if they had lie detection available... Actually, why not? I conjure a stone and slap a quickly devised seal on top of it. It's almost primitively simple, when you think about it. Just a bit of stone infused with light magic without aim and a trigger that makes the stone flash green or red depending on if the magic blooms or recoils. Simple.

"Lie something, please." - I request. Duke's face is utter confusion, but Elaine catches up on the idea quicker.

"Grass is green!" - she says cheerfully, and the stone lights up in green. She nods and continues - "I'm a walrus!" and the stone obediently lights up in red. Duke's face brightens as he grasps the implications.

"Astonishing." - he says, and the stone lights up green again, making him doubletake and chuckle - "Can this be enchanted more permanently?"

I chew my lip. "Ostensibly, yes, but... Hm. Actually... Yes, that can work, but... Hm." - I muse - "I'll have to experiment and see the exact details, but there is no reason why this same formula couldn't be etched into a stone pot and a light-aligned flower planted in to provide the power."

"I would like to commission a dozen if you work it out." - duke says immediately. I can see where he's coming from, so I nod. It is deceptively simple, when you really think about it, and a whole lot of people not well versed in light magic or magic in general would pay well for portable lie detectors. It's just as well that the topic peters out, though, as the door creaks open.

"Mistress? How can I serve?" - a newly coming maid asks, curtsying. In the next moment she notices me and... No, she does not make any obvious reaction, but to my senses... It's rather clear she just suppressed a fearful flinch. I guess she DOES have something to hide, then.

"Madeleine." - Elaine offers seriously - "I have sent you to deliver invitations to lady Gillespie several times before. Have you been delivering them?"

She glances at me and curtsies again, replying - "Yes, of course, mistress, I have brought each of the invitations to lady Gillespie's doors personally." The stone is green as she says, and she does not seem to pay any attention to it. Not really relevant to situation to her assessment, I guess.

But, this is not going to work. Elaine is asking too vaguely, Madeleine can dodge the actual question and still sound truthful. So I venture one of my own. "Have you been ensuring I do not receive them?" - I ask and now she flinches.

"Mistress, this... why!? I have served you faithfully for years, why am I treated with such suspicion?" - she yelps, the stone still being green, as she is entirely genuine with this.

"Yes or no. Have you, or have you not been ensuring I do NOT receive any invitations from lady Braltar?" - I tell her, and she shoots me a defiant glance, remaining silent.

"Madeleine. Please answer the question. Yes or no. If you do not say something, I will assume the answer is yes." - Elaine tells her, and... the wind leaves the sails momentarily, but then returns two-fold. She probably thinks I'm the one who'd be claiming if she's lying or not.

"No, mistress." - she says, and the stone changes the glow to sullen red. Gotcha.

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