"Ahh, that was amazing!"
The four of them were sitting back, resting after finishing off an entire wolf's worth of meat. There was still a second wolf's portion left, but there was no way for them to continue eating. I continued to cook it all as I placed the finished meat to a serving plate.
When it was all cooked, I cleaned everything up and put the remaining food into my bag for later.
But there was something that was bothering me quite a bit.
As these guys ate, the sauce dripped all over the place. While they managed to keep most of it from getting onto their clothes, their hands and faces were covered in it. Even worse, they acted like kids and wiped their mouths with their dirty hands and licked the sauce off of their fingers.
I couldn't help but wonder how these guys kept from getting sick as they haven't even washed their hands before eating. I didn't think much of it at first as they were eating using utensils, but that quickly proved to be naive of me.
Cleaning everything up without saying anything in regards to it brought me to my limit and made me acutely aware how I hadn't cleaned myself in the last two days either.
"Alright then, is everyone ready to get a move on?"
"Wait a sec!"
Before anyone could say anything, I piped up.
"You're not thinking of hitting the road without at least cleaning yourselves up first, are you?"
Everyone's expression clearly told me that they were. More than that, that they didn't even consider any alternative.
"Can we hold up a bit and at least wash up a bit before starting? Aren't you guys sticky with all that sauce on your hands and faces?"
"It'll stop being sticky after a bit, right?"
"I've got most of it off already anyways."
Once again I've been reminded the difference in hygiene from Earth compared to here. And all the while, Claret completely ignored everything and continued to hang off of me like a living cloak.
"Look, it won't take long, but let's take a quick bath, alright?"
"A bath? I think the stream's a bit too shallow for that."
"No, I mean..."
I suppose that would've been the first thought most people would have. Rather than taking the time to explain, I simply worked my literal magic and made a simple clay open topped room rise up from the ground.
"Let's go. If we don't hurry, it'll be noon by the time we set off."
I quickly grabbed the girl's wrist while avoiding her sticky hand and pulled her through the entrance which I promptly filled in with more clay. The inside of the room was little more than just an open space with a large bath tub filled with steaming water taking up half of it.
"Wow, this is..."
The girl looked at the bath in surprise as I let go of her.
"This, isn't it like those you hear about in nobles' mansions?!"
(I guess so? I have one in my home and there's an even bigger multi-part one at the orphanage's now. Ah, I hope they learn magic soon so that they can fill it the easy way.)
Without time to waste, I stripped off my robes. Glancing back at the girl, she was still standing stunned.
"There's no point in getting in without taking your clothes off."
As she quickly removed her equipment, I finished taking everything off, then extended some clothes racks out of the walls and hung my clothes off of one of them. Finally, I took out a piece of cloth from my bag to wash my body with.
Without waiting for my delayed companion, I stepped into the bath without first washing up. I had learned my lesson already regarding the rarity of soap. Bringing it out here was likely to be a bad idea, even if these guys were people Mint trusted. Rather than letting information about it leak, it was better to just suck up a proper cleaning and simply rinse my body and enjoy a short soak.
"Wow, this is a bath?"
Still clinging to my neck, Claret moved to my side and poked at the hot water playfully. Ripple came out from the point she touched.
As realization slowly dawned on me, my eyes grew as round as saucers.
"Wh, wait! You can't...!"
"Is something wron...g?"
To my side, the adventurer girl stood there, her face red as she covered her bare self with her hands. Except they were slipping a bit and I could clearly see what was supposed to be covered. Now that she wasn't wearing that long sleeved and skirted dress, I could see how toned her muscles were. It wasn't like she looked like a body builder, but rather like a proper athlete. Rather than her well defined muscles bulging, they were sleek and tight. There was hardly any fat obscuring any of the muscles that looked almost like tightly wound springs.
She lacked a bit of the curves of a proper woman, but she was young enough that she probably still had good prospects if she ate properly.
"Ah no, umm..."
"Master, if you want to talk to me without anyone hearing, you can just focus your thoughts at me while thinking something." <Just like this.>
As my eyes flicked back to Claret, the last bit resounded in my head without first going through my ears.
<Can you hear me?>
<I can hear you Master!>
With a big grin, the dark spirit threw herself at me and hugged my head. I had to wrest her off of me so I could turn my attention at the other person in the room.
"Aren't you coming in?"
From the corner of my eye, the overly fondle obsessed spirit looked at the girl in annoyance. A quick glance confirmed that there weren't any ripple forming from where she was touching, or rather phasing through, the water anymore.
Her words were quietly mumbled, but were loud enough to evoke some bitter thoughts in me and I quickly turned away from her. Despite that, my cheeks felt a bit warm. I wasn't used to being called beautiful at all.
"Of course you're beautiful! You're the most beautiful person in the whole world Master! Nobody else could compare to you before, but now nobody can even get close you're so beautiful!"
My cheeks grew as red as my name suggested at the absurd flattery Claret excitedly threw out without hesitation. All around us the little fluffballs danced around like they were cheering and agreeing with her words. I sunk down into the bath until everything but the top of my head was submerged in an attempt to hide how embarrassed I felt.
Not like it was any use. The water was so clear that I could clearly see everyone hovering above.
Eventually though, I reached my limit in holding my breath and I raised my head out of the water with a small splash. The adventurer girl jerked her head towards me and her cheeks quickly grew even more rosy than the what the hot water had been doing. The fact that she refused to avert her eyes made me even more conscious about her impression of me.
Trying to ignore her stare, I looked away and started to rub my skin with the cloth under the water, removing as much dirt as I could without the aid of any soap. It wasn't wholly satisfying, but better than nothing.
The sound of splashing reached my ears as the water level in the large bath tub rose. When I raised my face, the girl quickly averted her head, but not-so-subtly kept glancing at me while she scrubbed her on skin with a cloth of her own.
I did my best to ignore it and continued to rub myself clean before combing my hair with my wet fingers in an attempt to wash it. Once I squeezed out as much water from my hair as I could, I got out of the tub and dried myself by evaporating all the water from my body before making my way over to my things and dressed myself.
"Are you almost done, or do you want me to let the others join you?"
As I flipped my hood down to protect my face, I let out a stupid joke as a bit of revenge for how she was staring at me.
Taking my joke seriously, the girl practically jumped out of the water, forgetting to cover herself before rushing over to her clothes. As it was the result of my little joke, I applied the evaporation spell to her body before she got her clothes wet.
But she quickly turned back and got clothed as fast as she could.
As she was finishing up strapping her armour and weapon on, I opened up a hole in the wall and stepped through.
"Alright, your turn."
The three guys all turned from around the dead campfire. The human adventurer had the cat boi in an arm lock. I didn't want to know why they were in that position, nor why the sharp eared one suddenly looked so devastated after seeing me.
"Did you really make a bath in there?"
Rather than answering Mint, I directed a hand towards the hole as the adventurer girl stepped out.
"If you don't hurry, we won't make much progress today."
They all quickly filed through the hole. There were some exclamations from inside as I made my way to my personal spot on the wagon.
The girl stepped up behind me. She was looking down and fidgeting as she gathered her courage.
"Umm, why do you cover yourself?"
"I mean, you're so pretty, and your curves are so amazing. If you didn't cover yourself so much, you might even be able to attract a noble's attention."
I shivered at her words. The memories of a certain noble being completely too recent and fresh.
The spirit pretending to be my cape circled around to my front and dipped down to look up at my downcast face. The genuine worry in her eyes brought me back and I pulled her against my body, ignoring how strange my actions must look for someone who couldn't see her.
"I've got a skin condition where I burn quite easily in the sun. I wouldn't last very long during the day if I didn't cover myself like this."
Lying about it grew easier each time I did it, especially since it was so close to the actual truth.
The girl's face filled with sympathy as she quietly turned and went to check her things.
Personally, her response felt pretty excessive. Not being able to let the sun's light hit my skin directly without suffering intense pain sucked, but it was a convenient excuse not to show my face at the same time. The way the girl acted the first time she got a proper glimpse at me was more proof of the effects my appearance had on people.
Even more so if it were to draw the attention of abusive people like that.
Pushing the thought to the back of my mind, I sat down on the back of the wagon. Claret had wrapped her arms around my waist when I pulled her against my body and hadn't let go. Physically feeling her warmth was comforting and I couldn't help but stroke her hair as she buried her face into my belly.
As surprising and annoying her sudden appearance and declarations were, it was nice to have someone who know a bit about who I really was. To not have to feel alone. The fluffballs were nice, but there was only so much they could do. Claret was much more proactive and predicted my mood better. Even better, the mass of her body, despite the fact that she was always floating, felt more reassuring than the nearly massless fluffballs.
(I wonder how she's doing it? Is it a feature of the familiar contract, or is she just that good at predicting that sort of thing?)
After a little while, Claret pulled back from me and gave me a full-faced grin, to which I had no choice but to return a gentle smile. Before I could say or do anything else, she pulled herself back to me, but this time burying her face into my chest.
The indentation in my clothes she made were much more prominent than before and I hurried to check where everyone else was. Turning my body so that my front was as obscured as possible, I watched as the guys made their way out of the bathing room, still wet but fully clothed.
As they approached, I erased the small building and everything inside before giving them a quick wave and laying down on the wagon's bed, covering myself with the ragged tarp. My heart was pounding in my chest as I listened to everyone else finish their preparations before I felt the jerk of the wagon as the horses started today's leg of the journey.
All the while, Claret tightened her grip around my body, pulling the rest of her body as close to mine as she could.
As we continued down the road, I payed attention to the presences around me, especially the adventurer trio, waiting for a good chance. In the meantime, I wrapped an arm around Claret's body and stroked her hair with my free hand. The dark spirit raised her face as I did so and gave me a sleepy smile, radiating pure and innocent happiness as she did.
Something about her did an amazing job of making me feel all light and fluffy on the inside, like her happiness was infectious or something. Despite a small nagging feeling in my chest, I returned a light smile, which in turn her smile grew even wider, prompting my smile to creep ever bigger like we were competing somehow as the fluffy feeling inside of me grew.
Eventually, as if a dam burst, I wasn't satisfied with just petting her and I used both arms to pull her up, closer to my face so I could rub my cheek against her head. As if she was expecting me to do that, Claret lightened her grip just long enough for the quick readjustment before tightening her hug even more than ever. Even without being able to see her expression, I knew she was feeling so happy that it threatened to burst out of her body. If she had a dog tail, it would've been wagging so furiously that it would've generated a small tornado.
Forgetting about everything, I just basked in the feeling of embracing a creature that extruded pure happiness.
It was a while later when Claret started to fidget for some reason. It didn't seem to be because she was getting tired of me hugging her, as she'd go through a round of fidgeting, then freeze for a moment before tightening her grip around me again.
Her behaviour resembled one time when I was brushing Alicia's hair while she buried her face in my chest after a long day gathering ingredients in the dungeon. She shivered a bit, but then tightened her grip around me, but on occasion her legs trembled.
At the time, I presumed Alicia would unconditionally tell me if something was wrong, so I didn't pay much attention to the strangeness of her behaviour and just continued to brush her hair to my satisfaction. When I was finally finished, I threw my arms around her lower back and jerked her against my body to surprise her a bit. But accompanying a little shriek, something warm and wet spread across my lower body and Alicia just buried her face further into my chest as she trembled.
It took me a while to get her to stop crying after that.
But as much the situation reminded me of that situation, there was a fundamental difference: Claret was a spirit, not a human. As far as I was aware, spirits didn't excrete waste just like vampires like myself. But just because I'd never seen it didn't mean it was definitely true, and it wasn't worth the risk.
<Hey, is something the matter?>
<What do you mean Master?>
<I mean, the way you're acting. Do you need something?>
<...I only need you Master. I don't want anything else if I can be with you.>
That wasn't the answer I wanted. Not by a long shot. She was definitely hiding something. At the time, Alicia just wanted to wait to pee until I was finished with her hair, so she bore with the need to her very limit, which I accidentally ruined. Claret was probably bearing with something while she wanted to keep hugging me like this.
But whatever it was she was bearing with, it wasn't good for her body. Her distractions were proof of it.
Claret was a greater spirit, but a spirit nonetheless. As far as I knew their needs were, most of it was entertainment. They practically craved it. But hugging me like this was probably close enough for entertainment for her, so that wasn't it. The only other need they had was to feed.
(Now that I think about it, when was the last time she ate?)
With a hypothesis formed up, I checked my surroundings with [Sense Presence] and confirmed nobody could see my little spot on the wagon. I pulled out the dummy from my bag and covered it before disengaging [Materialize], phasing through the cover and floating up above the wagon using [Float].
Claret's grip around me tightened even further as her body trembled slightly. The fluffballs gathered around us like usual.
Releasing one hand from the dark spirit, I generated a handful of mana treats and threw them to the air. As the spirits all raced around catching their meals, the one that was still hugging me started to squirm.
An evil grin rose up on my face.
Rather than repeating the same routine, I let go of Claret before generating another handful of mana treats. Unlike last time, I used the other hand to throw the concentrated balls of mana into the air one at a time, keeping the handful of treats next to the greater spirit's head.
The little fluffballs raced around competing to see who would get to eat each mana treat, all the while Claret squirmed more and more. She only settled down when my handful of treats ran out. It felt like there was a sense of relief emanating from her still form pressed in between my mounds, but I wasn't nearly done yet.
Another handful of mana treats appeared in my open hand, and the dark spirit quickly started to tremble and squirm again. I threw the treats one at a time, but as I was reaching for the third one, Claret suddenly let go of my torso and grabbed my hand with the mana treats and pressed her face to it, shoving all the mana treats into her mouth.
Staying still in that position, she chewed with cheeks puffed out like a hamster's. Her inflated cheeks slowly deflated a she swallowed, and eventually they returned to normal. Claret licked the palm of my hand like a cat before freezing and turning towards me.
"I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry!!!"
As if trying to break the sound barrier, Claret moved from my hand to hugging me and burying her face in my chest once again as she apologized.
"They're your precious mana treats for the little kids and I stole a whole bunch of them! I'm sorry! I won't do it again!"
While my little prank succeeded, the result wasn't quite what I expected and started to make me feel bad conversely.
"Umm, no, it's fine. I'm not angry."
"Yea, I'm not."
"I'm not, but I am curious. Why did you think I'd be angry?"
"The last time...the last time you gave us a whole bunch of mana treats. Quite a few of the kids came around at the time, so you were a bit tired after giving them out. It was then that..."
Claret's expression grew dark, her hands curled into fists as they trembled.
"That swamp gas filled rot weed killed you!"
Tears ran down her face as she practically screamed the sentence out. Claret wiped her face with her fists but more tears replaced those that she removed as if they were a mockery of her efforts.
"If only, if only we didn't eat so much, if only we payed more attention to our surroundings, if only I wasn't so useless..."
As if giving up on wiping away her tears, the greater dark spirit instead covered her face with her hands as she wept.
"You must be angry. It was my fault that you died. If only I didn't rely on you so much for food. If only I didn't eat so many of your mana treats. If only, if only...you wouldn't have died!"
Unable to stand it any further, I grabbed Claret's head and buried it into my chest, tightly pinning her in place as she struggled.
"I'm not angry. I'm serious. I don't really know what it is you're talking about, but I think that the Scarlet of before wouldn't be angry about this."
"Yes, really. She wouldn't want to see you crying like this. I definitely don't want to see you blame yourself like that, so I'm sure she wouldn't either."
After a moment of hesitation, Claret's arms slowly made their ways down and around my body, returning the embrace I was giving her. She continued to cry, to wail, but it was no longer of fear or sadness.
I simply stroked her head as she cried her immaterial heart out.