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Stahlia Ten Years Old, Seventh Month of 947

I arrived home from the lunch date and was met with the sight of Elienor combing out Pet’s hair. After getting over her initial shock and fear, partially thanks to Elienor’s persistence, Pet had warmed up to Elienor quite nicely, and  I would often find them together. Whenever Elienor was able to escape her mother Margeritte, that is. Watching the two of them behaving so innocently does wonders for my mental state, especially after how stressful lunch was.

Sitting with Dominic in the private booth at the play had been one thing. At least there I could focus my attention elsewhere. But sitting across from him at the table for lunch had been immensely stressful. Right, I’ve been acting a lot more careful with my secrets… for the most part. He most likely doesn’t know or suspect I’m a reincarnation as well.

After giving it some thought, I had decided how I would treat him, at least for now. I was going to have to play things safe. I could recall a few instances where my actions might have hinted at my status to someone else like me, such as the origins of a lot of my alchemical processes and the whole calculus incident. But Dominic was giving no indication that he knew or suspected. Unless taking me to that restaurant was meant to gauge how I reacted to the food, but there’s nothing I can do about that now.

Going forward, I would have to be more cautious about employing my otherworld knowledge, I had been flying free under the pretext that “My enemies already know I have Prodigy”. My plan had been to blame any and all of my discovered developments on that talent, which so far had been working. But now that I had to contend with the existence of other reincarnations, I couldn’t be so risky until I knew more.

I had considered telling him I was a reincarnation straight out, but almost immediately rejected that idea. It was too dangerous. Even if we came from the same world with the same original values, Dominic had clearly been affected by the values of this world in a bad way; I only had to look at Pet to see that. She was still terrified of him striking her and would hide the moment she caught his scent approaching my chambers.

I can only be glad that she doesn’t associate me with that memory even though I was there too. It would help if I knew what his abilities were like. All I know is his level of swordsmanship, though he could be faking that. My Blood Magic Appraisal is too easily noticed, and I don’t know the chants for regular appraisal magic. Asking to learn it would be a bit… yea it would make people suspicious, plus everybody who knows those chants is on a register, something I would rather avoid. For now, I’ll ask Jacqueline to-

Speaking of catching someone’s scent, as I stood at the doorway in thought, Pet looked up and sniffed the air a moment. A happy smile spread across her face and she tugged herself free of Elienor, much to the latter’s chagrin if her facial expression was any indication. “Stahlia nee-san!” I quickly cut off my train of thought and took a half step back to absorb the impact as I caught the flying kitten.

I glanced back at Elienor, who was looking on with an expression of abject despair as she clutched ruefully at her hairbrush. Grinning, I addressed Pet. “Pet, I think you owe Elienor an apology, but what do you think?”

Pet paused where she had been rubbing her face into my stomach. After seriously considering the subject, she nodded and turned to Elienor and lifted the hem of her skirt in a curtsy. “Pet apologizes Elienor Ojou-sama!”

Elienor nodded, quickly adopting an expression of faux outrage. “You should be sorry! I spent so long fixing your hair, and you went and messed it up! We’re going to have to start over now I think.” Elienor then preceded to lunge towards Pet, who let out an excited shriek and darted away.

I watched them with a gentle smile. Edith and Sarala are fun to spend time with, but this is nice too. Pet calls me “nee-san” which means something like “older sister” if I remember correctly, but doesn’t she behave more like a daughter? This begged the question of what role Elienor played in my pseudo-family, but I decided not to think too hard about it. Pet calls her “Ojou-sama”, even if “Ohime-sama” might be more appropriate, given the actual noble status involved… I guess that makes her like an aunt or something? Wait, I said I wasn’t going to think about this!

I shook my head to clear away the lingering thoughts and turned my attention away from the cavorting pair to the book I had borrowed from Kell. It was a grimoire of Ice Magic chants. Under the school of Blue Magic, there was the main focus, Water Magic, but there were also other elements known as “variants”. Every school had at least one variant, and in the case of Blue Magic there were two; Ice Magic and Sanguimancy.

Variants were not officially taught until the second year, but I had leveraged some of the privileges afforded by my position as a special student to get Kell to lend me a book of Ice Magic. I had to admit I was curious about Sanguimancy, as the name implied it was the control of blood as a medium. But it was extremely heavily regulated to the point where it may as well be illegal. I might have been able to use the Francois or Claurence name to acquire some material, but it would definitely invite some very undesirable questions.

I could always have Jacqueline acquire a Sanguimancy grimoire or compendium via some back channels, but it wasn’t something I desperately needed. Learning Ice Magic would serve me much better as a trump card, given the full scope of my blessing made me outright immune to that element. I read for about two hours while Pet and Elienor continued to play.

“Stali, Imma spend the night ‘kay?” I looked up from my book to see Elienor had finally caught Pet, and was presently holding her tightly in a hug of sorts.

“As long as Lady Margeritte gives her permission, I do not have a problem with that.” Elienor had spent the night in my chambers a couple of times, after wearing down her mother and extracting her begrudging permission, a feat that I was still unsure how she managed to accomplish.

“Yep, I’ve already got that!” Pet looked up at Elienor.

“Elienor Ojou-sama is going to spend the night?” Elienor nodded her affirmation.

“Elienor, you did get her permission, right?” I narrowed my eyes and fixedly met Elienor’s gaze.

After a moment, Elienor broke off our unofficial staring contest. “I-I’ll get it tomorrow!”

I raised my eyebrow, causing Elienor to splutter out another excuse. “I-it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission, right?”

Somehow, I always end up with a headache when Elienor is involved… While trying to come up with an argument that would get Elienor not to commit suicide by proxy, I was caught by Pet’s puppy dog eyes. Ugh. What’s with you? Aren’t you a cat-kin…? Fine. If Elienor wants to die so badly, it’s her life! I wash my hands of this. “Fine, but when your mother asks me, I will tell her that you informed me you had permission.”

Elienor’s face blanched, but she was mature enough in her immaturity to own her own fate. “I-it’ll be f-fine right? Yea, p-probably.”

For her part, the majority of the silent war between Elienor and common sense had gone over Pet’s head. “Yay! Elienor Ojou-sama is going to sleep with Pet!”

Another hour later, and I found myself lying down on one side of my bed, with Pet in the middle, and Elienor on the far side. My bed was large enough to where this wasn’t too much of an issue, but after the events of the day I was finding it hard to sleep even though I was both mentally and physically exhausted. As I lay awake, a rogue thought floated across my restless tired mind.

This really is like a sort of pseudo-family… Pet is the adopted daughter, Elienor is like an irresponsible aunt who dotes on their niece too much, and I’m like the working mother who has to put up with their antics… because the dad is… Finally, I drifted off to sleep, where I had an extremely awkward dream. The details of which I swore to myself I would never remember, even if my talents made that a literal impossibility.

★★★★★★

The next morning, instead of my usual classes, I found myself standing in Percius’ office alongside Dominic and Asten. I had seen Asten before and knew he was also a Special Student, however, we did not share any classes. To my knowledge, he was studying Black Magic and was in the fourth-year course. As Dominic knew both of us, he performed the introductions in Percius’ stead. As it turned out, Asten was a Baron’s child like me. His house was located in the capital, where his father served as a Knight Commander.

I wonder what his dad’s opinion of his son studying Black Magic instead of swordsmanship is? I took the seat indicated by Percius, and waited for Percius to start explaining himself. After waiting for a maid to finish passing out tea, Percius motioned for everyone other than the three of us and himself to leave the room. Dominic’s guard gave a light bow and complied immediately, and he was soon followed by Asten’s guard. Rowell, my guard, and suspected Shadow scowled and looked like he might protest, but after a moment he likewise left.

Percius was handed a box by the maid before she took her own leave. Placing the box on the table, Percius rested his hand on it and mumbled a quick word I couldn’t catch. The box began to glow, and sounds from outside the room grew faint before they disappeared entirely. So this is a sound-blocking magic tool. It’s surprising that he would use something so expensive instead of just having one of the magic instructors do it, or learning the spell himself.

Supposedly, the Yellow Magic spell used for blocking out sound had a few weaknesses that tools like this somehow were able to overcome. But are we really about to be discussing something so important it would require going that far to protect the secret? I thought back to what Dominic had said about Percius tending to be eccentric in his own way. I hadn’t noticed anything the last few times I interacted with him… maybe he was putting on a façade and this is his true self?

Finally, Percius started speaking. “I suppose you are all wondering why I have gathered you here today.” Oh for fuck’s sake. Next to me, I caught sight of Dominic scowling, though he didn’t go so far as to speak out against Percius’ antics. I groaned inwardly and swore not to play along, effecting a blank expression. “There is a great danger brewing in-”

“Cut the crap Percius.” I looked up, startled at the language being spoken to a Duke. Asten was rubbing his forehead. Wait, did a Baron’s son just say that!? Asten continued, ignoring the look on Percius’ face. "There’s an issue in a nearby frontier village, citizens are disappearing from their homes.” My face blanched at the mention of a “nearby frontier village”, by all accounts, Ris was one such village.

As if reacting to my sudden worry, Asten continued. “The Village is located due west of the capital, about a week by carriage.” Phew, since Ris is to the east I know it isn’t my village. “The three of us are being sent along with a group of knights to investigate the disappearances and deal with the problem. We are just there to observe, the knights will do most of the work.” As he said the last bit, he fired a reassuring smile in my direction. He probably noticed my face getting pale. But what does he mean by “observe”? Percius led me to believe I would be expected to fight.

I decided to ask. “Lord Asten, if I may, Lord Percius…” I was going to say that Percius had originally told me I should expect to have to fight monsters, but I couldn’t think of a polite way to phrase it without implying that Percius, a Duke, was a liar.

Asten filled in the blank in his own way and “answered” my question. “Ah, do not worry about it, Percius is technically my Grandfather, I get special treatment when it comes to calling him out.” I swung my head around to look at Percius in surprise. He nodded, confirming Asten’s statement. Responding to my visible confusion over how a Baron’s son had a Duke for a Grandfather, I was given a brief explanation. This was apparently an open secret in noble society, I just hadn’t been aware of.

Asten’s father was actually the son of Percius’ favorite whore. As he was a bastard child, he could not inherit Percius’ noble peerage. As luck would have it, the son in question wound up possessing a fairly rare martial class, and Percius leaped at the chance excuse to grant him a peerage, elevating him to the rank of Baron and arranging him a posting within the knight’s order. Now that Asten was a student at the Academy, Percius had proven himself to be something of a doting grandparent. I’m not sure how I should feel about that. On one hand, Percius seems to be something of a family man. On the other, he’s cheating on his wife with a whore and making bastards.

Whatever, it isn’t my position to say anything, nor do I have any reason to do so. As long as Percius does his job and doesn’t get in my way. Outwardly, I clenched my fists and nodded. “When do we depart?”

As it turned out, we would be departing in two days. Combined with the week-long journey, it would take nine days for us to reach the village one way. Assuming three to five days of investigation, then seven days back and I would be gone for nearly a month. Accompanying us would be a squad of six knights, who would be traveling on horseback. It wasn’t as though going by carriage would needlessly slow our pace though; the knights always traveled with a provisions wagon.

Though they could requisition supplies from towns and villages we passed through, it was their policy not to do so unless the Kingdom was in a state of emergency or at war. Unfortunately for the victims, some villagers disappearing did not constitute either of those scenarios. We Special Students would be traveling in two carriages. Dominic and Asten would be taking one large carriage with eight seats, whereas I would be taking a smaller one with four.

This was due to my gender; it would be considered improper for me to travel for such a length of time with a male of similar age to me, even though or especially so if said male was my fiancé. For some reason, nobody said anything about me traveling to the capital from Ris with Giogi though… I was, however, left with a bit of a dilemma; I needed to choose who I would be bringing along. Thankfully, likely as oversight from the Order, Rowell would not be coming with me. His assignment only covered the Academy, and the knights travelling with us would also be serving as guards.

This allowed me to conveniently avoid having an Order spy watching my moves. Actually, doesn’t that mean I’ll have a bit of freedom on this trip? Even if I am stuck with Dominic, I can at least keep up with my magic experiments. I should see if they’ll let me draft Sarala. Jacqueline was a no-brainer, I would be drawing far too much attention to myself as a young noble girl by not bringing a maid. This left me with one seat, assuming I was allowed to kidnap Sarala.

Pet will be fine with Elienor, especially since Dominic is coming and given the risks of Envious activating. I could bring Lucy or Frieda as well, having an extra maid wouldn’t be seen as suspicious, and might even be expected. But Jacqueline will be sufficient for that role, and neither Lucy nor Frieda would add anything else to the party other than their maid abilities. After considering our party composition, I realized a role that was missing.

I’ll send a letter to the church and see if I can borrow Sana, having a healer might prove beneficial. Technically I was capable of healing as well, but as I had not officially begun studying White Magic I didn’t want to let that fact out, as it would raise questions about where I was learning the chants, given the excessively relegated nature of Magic in the kingdom. It wasn’t like I had broken any laws, technically. I simply listened in on the White Magic classes during their practical lessons and Eidetic Memory picked them up for me. It was actually getting fairly close to leveling up.

With Stil taking the floor, that fills my carriage. Though I still need permission to bring two of my members. Now, how to go about this in the most efficient way possible?

“So, you want me to send a letter in your name to Lord Percius, Lord Claurence, and to the capital’s Cardinal?” Nikolaus looked down at me with a raised eyebrow. Following my decision to try and get Sana and Sarala I had debated the most effective way of getting what I wanted and arrived at the solution of “throw it all at father”. Borrowing the Francois name by using my engagement as a launchpad would ensure that my letters actually arrived.

I could get ahold of Percius easily enough, my position at the school afforded me that. But contacting a Duke and a Cardinal within two days was a tall order for a lowly Baron’s daughter. Hence, I requested a meeting from Nikolaus, so as to ask him to send the letters in my name. This would ensure that the latter two would reach their intended destinations.

I had clarified with Asten earlier that, despite Percius’ mannerisms, this was not actually a “top secret mission” and the fact that we were going out on it would become public knowledge at the Academy the day of our departure. Not that there was a departure parade or anything, we simply would be absent from classes, and it didn’t take a genius to piece together why a group of special students was all absent at the same time.

“Yes, if I were to send the letters, the latter two would not arrive on time. As you know, I am being sent out on an investigation mission within my capacity as a Special Student. I realized that out of the party assembled, I am the only mage. As such, I would like to inquire Lord Claurence about the possibility of allowing Sarala to accompany us. She is not a Special Student, but I can attest to her magical talent. Likewise, in case anything should happen, I wish to leverage my personal connection with Apprentice Priestess Sana to arrange a healer for our party. The letter to Percius explains these same circumstances, and requests his permission for Sarala to be placed on leave from her classes.” I tapped each of the three letters Jacqueline had placed on the desk in turn.

Nikolaus nodded thoughtfully. His facial expression didn’t change otherwise, but he seemed to at least be considering my proposal. After a moment, he tapped his fingers on two of the letters. “Lord Claurence and Lord Percius are not an issue. I expect they will release Sarala into your custody for the duration of the assignment without too much trouble.” “Into my custody”? Ah, she’s a commoner and a regular student. This is a state-sponsored assignment, so in this case, I imagine she would be treated as a civilian contractor of sorts. Her being in my custody must mean I’m her babysitter. That won’t be an issue. I nodded.

“But the request for Apprentice Sana, I have my reservations.” Nikolaus fixed me with a level stare, waiting for me to speak.

“…And what might those be, may I ask?” I met his gaze. It was mildly impolite for me to do so, but I got the feeling he was testing my backbone… or something.

He smiled faintly and started drumming his fingers on the desk. Looks like I made the right call. I think that’s the first time I’ve seen him smile… “Apprentice Sana is the one who provided the late Lady Rosial with her blessing… was she not? I merely question the skill of a priestess, when her blessing could not even protect its target for three years.” You. Fucking. Bastard.

I felt a wave of cold anger wash over me at his words, and my hands started shaking. I clenched my hands in my lap under the desk, willing them to stop. Carefully, I lifted my eyes and met his gaze. He was looking down at me, no longer smiling still drumming his fingers on the desk. Something about his demeanor just pissed me off even more. Right. This is going nowhere. I took a deep breath and mentally invoked Cold Hearted to erase my ability to feel anger.

Out of all the emotions, I could kill, Anger was the least dangerous. In the absence Empathy tended to make me incredibly sick after I turned it back on, to say nothing of how I acted when it was off. Fear was integral to the self-preservation instinct, and turning it off tended to make me do some really stupid things. Anger had the fewest repercussions, mostly it just left me feeling generally apathetic when something normally anger-inducing occurred. That sense of apathy could kill motivation or generally breed laziness. In this instance though, there shouldn’t be too much of a downside.

I felt my head clear and blinked a couple of times to clear away any lingering foggy vestiges. “That may be so, however when that happened she was incredibly broken up about it, and threw herself into her studies with a passion. I highly doubt she still lacks the ability. Besides which, my late sister received a blessing. Apprentice Sana would be coming with us to offer healing.” Not to mention that a blessing failing wouldn’t be Sana’s fault, it would be the fault or will of the god who gave it. And besides that, Rosial isn’t dead, not that you would know.

Nikolaus waited a moment, studying me. Then he nodded. “You make a good case, I will send the letter to the Cardinal.” Just like that? That feels a bit… anticlimactic. He didn’t even offer a counter-argument. “I am quite pleased, you came up with a decent argument for your case while being glared at by me. Not many nobles could manage that, let alone children.” Ah, so it was a test. Why though? I’m already engaged to your son… and despite saying you’re pleased, you aren’t showing it at all! You smiled earlier, why not now?!

I stood and curtsied, thanking Nikolaus for his time. Not until I was back in my room did I risk turning back on my Anger. As soon as it came back on, I started shaking. Not from fear, but from a cold rage. Normally the blowback isn’t like this… I was right to consider that Rosial being the source of my anger might make it worse. Pet was peaking out from around a corner, her ears pressed flat on her head. They say some cats and dogs can smell their owner’s emotion… I hope I’m not scaring her.

The sight of Pet, who looked even more like Rosial with her ears flat and her tail hidden behind the corner, was as usual quite calming. I was able to calm myself before long, which caused her to smile relievedly. “Welcome back Stahlia Nee-san!”

“Right, I’m back… where’s Elienor?” As I pet Pet, she purred softly. Between purrs, she told me Elienor hadn’t come to my room today. She purrs, calls me Nee-san, and says a bunch of other weeb stuff, but not once has she gone “Nyah!” I wasn’t even that big into anime before I died, and I somehow feel cheated…

“Right, well I have something I need to tell you. I’ll need to go on a trip for a while, I’ll probably be gone for around a month.” Pet instantly clamped her hands around my arm. Figures…

“Noooo! Take Pet with you!” I grimaced, she was looking up at me with tears starting to form in the corners of her eyes. Damnit, she’s learned how to tug at my heartstrings, but this time I can’t give in!

“No Pet, you don’t… No, you probably don’t want to come.” I bit my lip to try and distract myself from her wide-eyed begging.

“No! Pet want’s to go with Nee-san!” I’d love to take you with me too, but for one, it’s probably going to be dangerous, secondly, Envious is a thing. And Thirdly, Dominic will be there… ah, that should do it.

“No, you really don’t. Dominic is going to be coming too.” Pet instantly recoiled at the mention of his name. On one hand, I feel kind of bad for using him like this… wait, why do I feel bad? Like, I actually feel guilty using his name..? What the hell! No, I feel guilty for using him to scare Pet, not for using him. Yea, that’s it.

“I have no choice but to go, you don’t have to come with me though, I was planning to leave you here and ask Elienor to look after you.” Pet still looked upset but was now visibly weighing her options, not that she had any. I just couldn’t risk the dangers that would come with bringing her along. If worse came to worst, I would invoke our contract and order her to stay, even if that wound up destroying our trust.

After a lot of pondering, which was accompanied by her tail flicking back and forth restlessly, she sighed and nodded. “Pet will stay with Elienor Ojou-sama.” I nodded and rubbed her head affectionately, she glared at me with a pout but didn’t pull away.

“Thank you, Pet. Now I need to find Elienor and let her know.” As could be expected, Elienor, upon being told she would have Pet all to herself for nearly a month, took far less convincing.

★★★★★★

It was the morning of the second day, and I was sitting in a carriage with Sarala, Jacqueline, and Stil. We would be making a stop at the temple to pick up Sana on the way out of the city. Sarala as it turned out, had actually been quite pleased that I had thought of her when I decided I wanted a second mage. Despite her shyness and general weakness to having her talents praised, she was still human. Edith had been markedly less happy.

When I had gone to pick up Sarala, she had fixed me with an angry glare and sternly warned me that I was not to allow any harm to come to our mutual friend. Of course, I had not been planning to allow that in the first place, so I agreed immediately, which caused Edith to cool off a bit. She even managed to see us off with a cramped smile. One of these days, I’m going to have to find out what makes these two so close, considering the difference in their stations.

As we approached the temple, I realized that Sana had never met Sarala. Even though Sana and I had been meeting each other for tea once a month, and I had told her about Sarala and Edith, they had never actually met. Inadvertently, I had wound up keeping my two friend groups separate. Though in Sana’s case, can I really call it a friend “group”? As I pondered such important questions, we arrived at the temple entrance where Sana was waiting for us with a trunk containing her clothes for the trip.

Jacqueline opened the door and assisted Sana to enter the carriage. I was about to introduce Sarala when Sana beat me to the punch. “You must be Sarala! I’m ever so glad to finally meet you. Stahlia has told me so much about the time she spends together with you and Lady Edith!” Aww shit, here we go again. Predictably, Sarala retreated in the face of Sana’s unrelenting extrovertism. The sight of Sarala glancing around nervously cooled Sana slightly, and she apologized. “Sorry… Stahlia told me to be careful because you could be shy, but I was so excited to finally meet you that I got a bit carried away…”

We rode in awkward silence for a bit, before Sarala mumbled something, instantly drawing Sana’s attention back to herself. “…es”

“Miss Sarala…? Did you say something?”

“n..mes” Sana furrowed her brow.

“Names? What do you mean?”

Sarala grimaced, but in the end, managed to get a full sentence out. “We have the same names. Stahlia, Sana, Sarala. S-A-A.” I facepalmed. Of all the things, she noticed that? Then again, as aspiring mages, we spend a lot of time pouring over words to memorize spells, and pronunciation is important for chants.

After blinking a few times and digesting what she had been told, Sana broke out into a giggle.

“I suppose we do, don’t we? I wonder if we will have trouble keeping track of each other on this mission.” At that, the two of them quickly managed to overcome Sarala’s shyness and began discussing a variety of topics. Though, uncomfortably, a lot of those topics happened to be Sarala asking Sana something about me, and then listening to the story that would result.

I decided to do my best to tune them out, acting embarrassed and trying to stop them from talking about those events would do me no good. In fact, it would likely just goad them further. Instead, I focused inwards. I was hoping to level up again during this outing. Even if we didn’t encounter anything substantial in the investigations, I had every intention of finding an excuse to do some clandestine hunting. If the previous trends continued, I would need three more levels to unlock another pair of slots.

Although I could not currently browse the Talent or Skills menu, I could still theorize and plan for what types of abilities I wanted. Strangely enough, the contents of my menus did not seem to be compatible with the Eidetic Memory talent I had, which of course included the Skills and Talents menus. Whether this signified anything, or if it was insubstantial was beyond me.

Originally, I was planning to save for another strong skill, like Finesse Fighting. But now I had other priorities. Namely, I had been made aware of potential dangers in my surroundings. Namely, other reincarnations. A skill or talent that provides an effect similar to the appraisal spell would be a good idea. Especially if I can assure that it’s harder to detect than my Blood Magic, and doesn’t take as long to activate as reciting a chant. I should also scan through and compare all the magic talents to the list of variants I have from the Academy. If there are any not on the Academy’s list, acquiring one could serve as a good trump card.

Something like “Danger Sense” might be good as well, if it was passive. I also needed to look into Envious. Particularly I needed to search the term “Envy”, as I had a sneaking suspicion that “Progresses user towards Demonization[Demon of Envy]” would be accompanied by a skill change. “Envious” was just too specific of a word. And while I’m at it, I may as well search for Pride, Lust, Sloth, Wrath, Greed, and Gluttony too. Just for good measure and to cover all my bases, I should also try out the seven virtues as well. I don’t want any more surprises if I can help it.

I also needed to check on the sword fighting talent and see how close I was to acquiring it automatically; I had been training for the past seven months and still didn’t have it. I had gotten Dagger fighting automatically back when I was a toddler, and it hadn’t taken more than a couple of months of nightly training with Jacqueline. As I was wrapping up my mental checklist, I happened to glance down at Stil. Right, and he has a few skills that were pretty useful, so I should look up those names as well and see how much it would cost me to acquire them. Mana Sensing and those Enhancement ones.

I drew a line under my mental checklist and stretched. As I looked out the window, I saw that the sun was setting. In the far distance, I could still see the faint glow of the capital against the dimming sky. It seemed we would be staying out in the field for the night; I had thought we would continue on to the inn town that lay along this road, but apparently not. I was told that it was one of the measures the kingdom took to control the monster population and dissuade bandits; by having their soldiers camp outside while on a mission or patrol, they were able to increase their force projection in the countryside. I was also given an apologetic smile to accompany this explanation, a fact which I decided to not dwell on.

Stretching, I made to go towards the back of our carriage where the luggage was kept, and start unloading. An action that Sana ignored, but caused Sarala’s eyes to open wide. “Lady Stahlia, what are you doing?” I turned to face her.

“Hmm? I was just going to collect the tent and help Jacqueline set it up…” I had been so excited to be out traveling again, that I completely spaced out on the fact that there were a lot more people than last time. I need to play my role… I can’t just do what I want like I did before, especially not with Dominic here. A quick glance confirmed, to my relief, that Dominic was not paying any attention to me at the moment.

Sarala glanced at Sana and Jacqueline and observed that neither of them seemed surprised by my actions, though Jacqueline looked exasperated. “Sana… I thought you may have been exaggerating some of those stories, given how proper Lady Stahlia has always been in the presence of Lady Edith… It seems I was mistaken. My apologies.”

Sana giggled and nodded. “Yes, Stahlia can be… different… as far as nobles are concerned, but I think that is a good thing!” Sarala seemed to think deeply before answering.

“You do have a point… I could count on two fingers the number of noble children who would befriend a commoner at the Academy, after all.” Well isn’t that nice, they get along… Why is it that pointing out the ways I’m weird is what they bonded over?!

★★★★★★

“Rowell”, A Nondescript Location.

I checked over my equipment, making sure I was presentable. Tonight it was time for my monthly report. As usual, I produced the magic tool from my bag after checking that nobody was near my barracks room. Setting it on my desk, I activated it and sent my report.

Report, 30th day of the seventh month, Year 947

Today was the day Primary Target departed from the capital city to embark on their assigned mission. They were accompanied by five knights Primary Target’s betrothed and his retainers, Primary Target’s friend from their home village, Primary Target’s friend from the Academy, Secondary Target, and another Student from the Academy along with their retainers.

Primary Target was able to arrange things so that I could not accompany them, despite this nominally being a school trip. I am prepared to follow them from a discreet distance and am awaiting the order to move out. End Report.

I sat back and checked my bags. Normally I would not expect a reply but this was an abnormal situation. After all, the primary target was aware of our existence. We should be taking every precaution; it was beyond me why she was still only a target of observation and not a target of elimination.

True to my expectations, my magic tool flashed. I activated it and read the response, and then swallowed dryly.

Response, 30th day of the seventh month, Year 947

Permission to deploy for covert observation denied remain on standby until Primary Target’s return.

~Five

I stared at the signature line of my received reply. Five? He’s one of the ones at the top of the order. Why is he sending a reply personally?! I had known that my mission was a big deal; when I received my briefing it had been explained that my target had come to learn of the existence of the order, and I was to monitor her and determine what she would be doing with that information.

But I had no idea that one of the single digits was involved, let alone that they would be the one receiving my monthly reports; that was, after all, the only way he could have responded so quickly. To think that someone so important is managing my mission… Thank the twelve I don’t have to give reports in person. I do not think I would be able to manage meeting someone like five face to face, he must be terrifying.

Right, just saying this now, before someone asks me in a comment. It was not a "wet dream". It was literally what she was thinking prior to falling asleep. I originally was writing the dream as a full scene, but decided it broke the pacing of the rest of the chapter too much... It will be an Extra Chapter at some tomorrow.

Well, we made it to front page trending again, #3 this time. That's +6 places from #9 last time. Once again, a big thank you to all my readers past, present, and future.

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