Stahlia 10 Years Old, Eighth Month of 947
Our carriage was moving along at a decent pace. Unlike when I was first traveling to the royal capital, this was not some rented carriage, but rather my own. It had been given to me by Count Francois for use while I was in the capital, and following the decision to commence my winter break early, I had been permitted to use it to travel back home to Ris.
Along with me, I was bringing Jacqueline, for obvious reasons, as well as the Dark Elf Lucy. Count Francois had insisted that I bring Lucy back home with me as a show of support from his house. I had tried to get out of it, but he had not budged. I was also bringing Pet since, now that my old teacher Claire was operating her senses, there was much less risk of [Envious] activating. There was still the ominous-sounding bit about “progresses user towards demonization”, however that should be a non-issue so long as the skill wasn’t used. After all, the immediate threat was her death and that had now been circumvented. I had asked Sana if she would like to come back, however the church had not granted her a similar early leave as they had me, so she had to refrain.
In terms of guards, I technically had Giogi with me, as well as Stil. There were a pair of fully trained knights as well, but those would return to the capital after delivering me to Ris. Rowell had once again attempted to assign himself to me, however, a quick appeal towards Count Francois nipped that in the bud. I was willing to play the role of the dutifully engaged daughter-in-law if it meant I could avoid having any extra shadows around. At the thought of that engagement, I let out a sigh and turned my attention out the window. The past few days had been eventful, to say the least.
Thanks to Claire cluing me in on a fact of Beast-kin physiology I had been unaware of, I was now fairly certain that Dominic had done something to me. Thankfully, whatever it was, it seemed to no longer work. However, my confused feelings seemed to stem from some sort of mental influence I had been placed under in the past. The only time that came to mind when this might have happened was back when we first met, shortly before Rosial was kidnapped.
The thought that it was his mind-controlling ability that had caused me not to notice my sister’s dwindling condition was as infuriating as ever, however, I forced those feelings away. Dwelling on the past would not do me any good; I had about five months of time now in which I would be relatively free to act as I pleased. In order to make sure it didn’t go to waste; I had come up with a small list of goals to achieve during my break. The thought occurs to me, that I’ve been playing fast and loose for a while now… Ever since the first time I met a god for a face-to-face, I’ve been behaving obliviously. Then the next time I met a god, I got extremely cocky and almost lost everything.
I wasn’t sure exactly what was causing that, but I knew I would have to avoid acting rashly in the future. Looking out ahead of the carriage, I could see Fess coming up in the distance; this would be where we stopped for the night, and also where my first “plan” came into play. Of course, this one wasn’t much of a plan. It basically consisted of “Find Aaron.” Then, “Somehow get him talking.” The last time I had been through Fess, an adventurer by the name of Aaron had implied that my engagement was bad luck.
Jacqueline had tried investigating him but actually come up empty-handed. Considering her talents that was quite the feat on his part and made me think he might be a bit more than just an average adventurer. Still, he presumably knew something about Dominic, or perhaps the Francois, and I would very much like to know what that was. Granted, he was ostensibly an adventurer, so he might not even be in Fess anymore. If that was the case, then I would see if there was anybody who knew where he had gone and try and arrange a meeting.
That was only a side goal though; it would be nice if it panned out, but I wasn’t going to count on it. My primary goal for these next few months was to level up and unlock the next slots for my custom class. This would let me browse the talents and skills list again, and it was my hope that I would be able to find what Dominic was doing or at least a way to counter it. Once that was finished, I needed to come up with better fighting strategies. In theory, I would have been able to kill Sitri, this world didn’t have anything like health bars or meters. One decisive blow would fall even the strongest warrior. I had a few ideas, but it wasn’t likely something I could achieve over just one winter.
For more long-term goals, Sitri had been a massive walkup call. I had assumed, quite arrogantly, that Jacqueline and I would be able to accomplish my mission by ourselves, a two-woman army. That encounter had made blindingly obvious how naïve I was. I would need to get allies. Not just friends, but people I could count on and maneuver. Surely, there are some nobles that dislike the way the kingdom operates. My first thought was of the eternally neutral Duke Claurence house; despite Edith’s actions at the school social, to my knowledge, there had been no further moves on their part towards aligning themselves with the third prince’s faction.
Of course, I had very little to offer as collateral towards any potential alliances. Well, there was one thing I could offer that would probably be viewed as quite valuable, but I wasn’t sure exactly how I felt about going down that road. After all, I still fully intended on breaking off my current engagement. On that note, I also needed to start working towards that much sooner than I originally intended.
Originally, I had been planning to ride their coattails for as long as possible, however, given what I now knew about Dominic, I had to guess that actually getting away from them would be exceedingly difficult. Dominic did not strike me as the kind of person who would give up easily, given what I had seen of him so far.
There was also the case of Jacqueline’s arm; restoring it should be possible, but it would prove to be a massive resource investment. Of course, I wanted to restore it if I could; she would obviously be better served by having two arms than one, and if I was able to repair it, then it might ease the last long-term goal I had, but just thinking about that one made me queasy, so I usually opted not to.
I’ll deal with that one later tonight… I could already feel the bile trying to come up in my throat. We arrived in Fess and were let into the city without much hassle. The carriage proceeded down the main street before letting us off at the same inn as I had stayed in last time; count Francois had wanted to put me into a fancier lodging; however, I had rejected that. Considering I was now actively looking for a way to separate from his house, I ought to avoid accruing debts wherever possible. Taking this carriage was already bad enough, but I lacked a legitimate excuse not to do so, seeing as I didn’t actually own one of my own.
The same receptionist and mini receptionist waitress were there to greet me once we entered; the mini receptionist waitress evidently remembered me fondly, as she positively beamed at the sight of me. I gave her a half-bow of my head as I passed the two of them, and she scampered off somewhere with a stupid grin on her face. This time, owing primarily to Pet being with us, we would be eating in our rooms rather than the dining hall. The fact that I was allowed to bring her into the inn at all was due only to my status.
Even with my status, that didn’t change the fact that Pet was a beast-kin. She gathered no small number of stares and mutterings as we made our way up to the room. Once we were behind closed doors and removed from prying eyes, Pet’s ears perked back up almost immediately. Given that it was actually Claire who was controlling those, I could no longer use them to gauge Pet’s own mood, but it probably wasn’t much higher than Claire’s. Thankfully, Ris was remote enough that a lot of the racism and restrictions shouldn’t be an issue. Rather, I imagined Pet might be more of a minor celebrity, as most of the people there would have never had reason to see a beast-kin before.
I haven’t brought this up yet, but it honestly might be safer for me to leave them in Ris instead of bringing them back with me. Still, that was something I could broach at a later time. There was also the fact that Pet apparently had a name. The thing was, she refused to tell me what it was, and Claire hadn’t taken control to actually tell me. So, all I knew was that apparently, she did still remember her original name. Not much I can do about it, if she won’t tell me what it is I can only assume that she’s grown attached to “Pet” for whatever reason. For now, I had a little bit of time to kill until dinner.
“Pet, what do you think about the trip so far? Are you glad to finally be out of the estate?” The cat-kin stopped her investigations of the room, mostly the bed, and nodded. After taking several moments to consider her answers, she spoke up.
“Pet thinks everything is amazing! She doesn’t like the stares much though.” Right, and by “she” you mean “Claire”.
It had taken us a few days, but eventually, we had settled on a way for Pet to refer to Claire in public; by playing off of Pet’s unique manner of speech. When Pet wanted to refer to herself, she typically used her name. when she needed to refer to Claire, she would use a gendered pronoun. So something Pet came up with was “Pet’s idea.” But if Claire had been the originator, it was “her idea.”
For better or worse, Claire refused to actually communicate directly by taking control of Pet’s speech. On one hand, I found that to be extremely irritating and roundabout, requiring us to jump through unnecessary hoops. On the other, I could see where Claire was coming from.
“Well, it was either wear that or be stuck in the carriage overnight. Do not worry too much, once we get to Ris most of the discrimination should die down.” I mean, I don’t remember any discrimination, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t exist… Still, she’s technically owned by the lord’s daughter. So even if there is something, I can probably crush it.
I made idle conversation with Pet for a few more minutes, until Lucy announced the arrival of the miniature receptionist waitress. Despite being a few years younger than myself, the girl had pushed a trolley all the way to our room, laden with food for everyone. I shot Lucy a look, and the maid quickly moved to help the girl. Internally, I celebrated a small success; I was getting better at correctly guessing when to act guilty little by little. I made sure to have Jacqueline tip the girl a couple of Drakas Small Silvers, and we ate.
Following dinner, I quietly excused myself from everyone. The sun was setting soon, and I had business to do at night. As always, Lucy tried to follow me, but I would only take Jacqueline with me for this. Pet followed me with sad eyes; other than Jacqueline Pet and Claire knew the most about what I was going out to do. This was because Pet’s keen senses made it exceedingly hard to hide the aftermath from her. If I could, I would rather nobody knows about this, but I can’t get away alone because of my station so I need to bring Jacqueline. And Pet has her nose, considering she can smell mana, no amount of washing would remove be able to rid me of the smell that comes after.
Jacqueline and I left the inn and quickly made our way to an abandoned building. Well, Jacqueline made her way there; I followed with half-hearted leaden footsteps. I really am not looking forward to this. That fucking bitch knew exactly what was going to happen, I should have picked up on it based on how open to my suggestion she was.
We got to the building, and I took a seat in the middle of a large room, as I had done in other locations the past three nights before this. Ostensibly, Jacqueline and I were going out to do some “therapy exercises” to help me overcome the trauma I had been inflicted in Ang. That explanation was half correct. I was trying to overcome trauma, but it was hardly therapeutic. I breathed in deeply and exhaled as Jacqueline unfastened the back of my evening dress.
“[Silence]”, as if Jacqueline’s spell was the starting signal, I sucked in air one last time and then enabled my remorse. Immediately, I was assaulted by extreme feelings of guilt. It wasn’t so bad at first; I was forced to confront all the minor things I should have felt guilty over from the previous day. It wasn’t until I had gotten through those and back to the events of Ang that it got bad.
I felt like I had been punched in the stomach, all I could do was fight to try and keep down the very little dinner I had eaten; knowing I was likely going to be throwing up later, I had eaten accordingly. My stomach twisted up and contorted, while my head began to pound. I could hear Asten’s voice asking me “why?”, and the image of Jacqueline’s face, contorted with pain as her arm melted away was forcibly seared into my mind’s eye.
Finally, I could take it no longer, and with a gasp, I disabled remorse again. I collapsed forwards weakly, covered in a cold sweat. Jacqueline, seeing that I was done for the night, came up and began to wipe me down with a towel. It doesn’t get easier. It’s been three days, but I still can’t get through it. Honestly, I didn’t know if I was even making progress. For all I knew, I had to fully clear my punishment before turning off remorse or it wouldn’t count.
Of course, I knew it wouldn’t be easy; there was no way Sitri would have agreed so easily if this was something I could overcome in a day. It was a sure bet that she assumed it would be crippling. Still, by forcing myself to confront my guilt daily, it at least seemed that it wasn’t stacking up; once I cleared the events of a day, they no longer showed up the next time.
I had to wonder what the gods were thinking, making the ability they gave to their so-called champions have such a cost. It also made me wonder what the other champions had to deal with. Gradually, my heart rate slowed and my breathing steadied. Jacqueline provided me with a chunk of bread and cheese she had sequestered during dinner. Glancing at the puddle a little way away from me, I grimaced and forced myself to eat what was offered.
Once I was finished, I had a bit to drink as Jacqueline tied up the back of my evening dress again. I stood up but stumbled. If not for Jacqueline promptly catching me I would have wound up falling. God damnit! I could only blame myself for putting myself in this situation of course, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t frustrating. Jacqueline supported my weight until I was able to stand on my own, though it took a few minutes longer for my knees to stop shaking.
We began to make our way back towards the inn, and I trusted Jacqueline to let me know of any dangers as I tuned the world out, focusing only on the cool air on my face. Honestly, it’s a bit extreme. I was responsible for the death of an innocent and maimed my retainer. I’m sure other people have done something similar before, and I’ll bet they don’t get assaulted with guilt to such a degree. As soon as the thought crossed my mind, I regrated it; not that I felt guilty for having it, rather, I knew that I would be paying for having that thought during tomorrow night’s session. Still, it did raise a good point; clearly [Cold Hearted] was exacerbating the degree to which I felt the blowback. Normally, while guilt could be crippling, it wouldn’t be to this extent.
We made good time and soon arrived back at the inn, when we got into our room, the only one still awake was Pet. Lucy had been up to greet me the first night, however, I had put a stop to that; I wanted as few people as possible to see me after I got back from wallowing in enforced self-pity. Pet padded up to me on tiptoes, then after a moment’s pause, opened her arms and embraced me in a hug. She didn’t know exactly what was happening on my now nightly outings, and I couldn’t be sure exactly how much Claire was telling her, but I could appreciate her making an effort. It was calming.
I hugged her back, then gave her a gentle push; I needed her to leave my side so I could get dressed for bed. Pet fixed me with a glare but backed off long enough for me to get out of my dress and into a nightgown. As soon as I was dressed, however, she immediately reapplied herself to my side. I laughed softly and tussled her hair, then made my way over to the bed. Pet again let go long enough for me to get in, but as soon as I had laid down, she clamped back onto my arm.
I reached my free hand over and scratched at her ears. I couldn’t be sure if she knew how calming her behaviors were, but at the very least I knew she was trying to help how she could. Before long, I could hear her breathing change into the steady rhythm of sleep, so I stopped scratching her ears and laid back myself, closing my eyes, I allowed my consciousness to fade.
I woke up with the sun the next morning. Pet had crawled out of bed at some point and was looking out the window at the street below. That was something I had noticed her doing a lot since Claire took over her senses in order to block envious; it seemed after being cooped up for nearly a year, she had developed an interest in people-watching. I got up myself and dressed quickly with Lucy’s help. Ever since Jacqueline had lost her arm, my other two maids had been stepping in here and there, taking over duties that had originally been hers.
They didn’t always do everything, and Jacqueline claimed not to mind. I wasn’t going to question it, as long as nothing ill came of the arrangement. Today we planned on stopping by the Adventurer’s Guild. The public reason for this was to send ahead a letter to my father informing him of my progress. My personal objective was, of course, to learn what I could about Aaron. Jacqueline had offered to look into it on her own, but I had declined that.
There was little chance of him actually being here, so having Jacqueline do extra work made no sense. Instead, we could simply inquire after him in the process of posting the letter. Following the brief stop at the Adventurer’s Guild, we would depart Fess and continue on towards Ris. Fess was the last stop on our way, and the next couple of days we would spend camped outside.
We arrived at the Guild Building, which looked just as dilapidated and run down as I remembered, and Lucy helped me down from the carriage. This drew a few stares; Lucy’s nature as a Dark Elf meant that the appearance at a glance was a twelve-year-old helping a ten-year-old get off the carriage. Those stares would only intensify once the fact that she was an Elf became known.
I was banking on that fact, which was why I had asked her to come inside with me rather than Jacqueline. Assuming Aaron was not here, word would spread faster that there was a noble girl looking for him if it was accompanied by “she’s got an elf for a maid.” I was doing this because I didn’t have any legitimate excuses to put out a personal request for him; the only task someone in my position might use the Guild for was letters. Anything more than that, and I would be able to access knights through my connection to the Francois.
We went inside the guild building with one of the knights accompanying me as a guard. This was done so as to dissuade any drunkards from doing something stupid; Giogi had grown a fair bit more capable over the past half-year of training, even to the point that the school had been willing to grant him special leave to start his own break early so that he could continue working as my guard, but he was still a boy. Adventurers were looked down on in Drakas, but that didn’t mean they lacked skill. Indeed, some of them were as skilled as the knights themselves. Technically, I shouldn’t even be going in myself, but I have to show my face on the off chance he’s here. No way would he be inclined to trust some random Elf and a knight, not if he has the type of information I hope he does.
Sitting at the counter was the same older receptionist that had been there last time. It would seem the morning rush had passed, as there was no wait for us to get to the counter. As such, Lucy quickly stepped up and offered the letter, then, as I had instructed her beforehand, she requested Aaron to deliver it, if he was available.
“Excuse me, good sir. Please have this delivered to Baron Ris of Ris village in advance of my lady’s arrival. If he is available, she would like the request handled by one ‘Aaron’, who has fulfilled similar tasks for her in the past.”
The old man eyed the letter in Lucy’s hand and nodded before quoting a price, “Considering the distance, That’ll run you three Drakas Golds. And Aaron hasn’t been in Fess for a few months now…” He trailed off while rubbing his white beard. It sounded like he had something else he wanted to say, but he glanced at my knight, who had taken up a post a little ways back, and coughed. “In any case, if you have the coin, I can get one of these lads to take your letter out to Ris.”
Well, you could have made that a little bit more obvious, don’t you think? You have something you want to say but won’t say it in front of the kingdom’s knight. Pretty sure everyone here noticed that. Hopefully, I just noticed because I’ve spent so long learning from an assassin and it wasn’t really that obvious… I glanced at Lucy, who was closer to the man than I was; thankfully, it didn’t seem like she had noticed anything.
I waved for Lucy to pay the fee, and we left the Guild with as little information as we had had when we went in. Well, there was the question of what he had decided not to say in the present company. If I had a reason to stay in Fess one more day, then I could arrange to go back to the guild without an escort. Unfortunately, I had no such excuse. At least now I know that Aaron probably does know something, and whatever it is, it’s pretty damning. I’ll need to make sure to visit the guild alone when I stop in Fess on the way back to the capital this spring. The thought also occurred that if I had given Jacqueline permission to do some solo work, she might have learned what the old man hadn’t wanted to say.
But that was only an if, it was possible that the man would only have said anything to me. As I was thinking, there came a rap on the carriage’s window. This wasn’t that uncommon when leaving a city or town; occasionally one of the guards would have a question for one of the occupants. Jacqueline was the closest to the window, so she called out, “This Carriage bears the crest of Count Francois, what do you require of us?”
The response was, surprisingly, not from a guard.
“Aye, The Guild master sent me after ye, ‘e forgot to give the young lady a letter from her pa.” Accompanying this, frankly absurdly rude announcement, the person on the other side of the window presented a sealed paper letter. Why would my father set a letter to wait for me in Fess? He would either send it all the way to Count Francois or just tell me when I arrived in Ris… Ah. It’s probably that isn’t it? I motioned for Jacqueline to receive the letter. She took it from the man and then tipped him a small silver; it wasn’t much but, then again, he hadn’t gone very far.
Jacqueline glanced down at the letter and quickly skimmed its contents. Owing to the ruse that had been presented, I didn’t have a reason to read it myself. Thankfully, Jacqueline was quick on the uptake and so had not actually read it aloud. She then sealed the letter and placed it in a pocket on the inside of her apron.
“Your father wishes to inform you that he is glad to hear you and Lord Dominic both escaped with your lives, he and your mother are both ready to receive you.” Yea, I’m sure that’s what it says. I’ll have to read it for myself later, but I’ll bet that letter was hastily penned by the old man as soon as we left or something like that. Of course, I might be overthinking things, it could really just be a letter from my father, but in six months since leaving home I hadn’t received a single communique from my parents. It would feel odd to suddenly get one now.
I leaned back in my chair, I felt extremely satisfied with how my most recent visit to Fess had gone. I hadn’t been expecting to gain anything from it, and while I still didn’t know what exactly that letter said, it was something more than nothing.