Stahlia, Ten Years Old, Ninth Month of 947
I woke up feeling refreshed. It had been a fairly long night with my family following dinner, but it had been fun. More important than it being fun though, I had been able to reconnect with my parents and little brother. Once Rosin had been put to bed, I had wound up staying up late and talking more with my parents.
That conversation had been hard; they were reminiscing about Rosial, my mother even went as far as stating how she didn’t want to lose her other daughter. Of course, knowing that Rosial was in fact alive made the conversation a bit awkward for me. There was no way I could tell them this, so I sort of just nodded along. At one point, my father even insinuated we try and find a way to break of my engagement.
That had really come as a shock, considering how big he had been on the idea of fulfilling our duty to the country as nobles and all that, having even gone so far as to say exactly that to me when I had questioned the engagement two years ago. And canceling the engagement like that would be counter-productive. I do want out of it, but I need to set up a smooth landing for myself. I had gently led my father to believe that, while I still had misgivings, I had no desire to see the engagement canceled at this time.
I looked down at my sides, on my right, Felicity was still clinging to my arm in her sleep. Rosin was on my left; he had demanded to sleep with me after learning that Felicity was going to. I might not have formed a proper bond with him in the two years after his birth, but it’s a good thing it isn’t too late, and he’s still open to me.
Eventually, my mother had caved in towards Rosin’s demands and, with my permission, put him to bed in my room. I wasn’t particularly against letting him sleep with me, considering I had been letting Felicity do it for over half a year, though hopefully he wouldn’t grow quite as attached as she had.
I extricated myself from between the two, being very careful so as not to wake them. I had various plans today. People I hadn’t seen in a while that I wanted to greet, and one conversation I, well regretted wasn’t the right word, but one conversation I should have had two years ago but was too frightened by what I might hear to do so.
Jacqueline and Lucy both knew about my plans, so they were ready for me. I wasn’t taking either of them with me for this outing, but I still needed their help getting ready to go out. By the time I was dressed and my hair was brushed and styled, Felicity was just starting to stir. I watched her stretch before calling out, “Good morning, Felicity.”
She looked over at me lazily through eyes still evidently filled with sleep, “Ohayo, Stahlia Nee-San.” Right, if Claire ever gets her own body, I’ve got to remember to give her a good smack for what she did to Felicity. I smiled ruefully at the sleepy kitten and rose to my feet. Heading downstairs, I ate a quick breakfast and set out towards my first stop.
Exiting my home into the early morning light, I was met with a rush of cold mountain air. Of course, Ris was never exactly warm, but this late in the year you could tell winter was coming. I filled my lungs with the crisp air and nodded to myself before heading down and out the front gate.
As I walked down the streets, quite a few people heading out for the day stopped to greet me. Parents of the kids in my year, friends of my mother, people who I had helped through my connection to Sven. I waved back and greeted them all, but after a little while, it began to grow tedious. Eventually, I ducked off the street and began slipping through backyards. It wasn’t that I disliked being greeted, I simply had places I needed to be.
As I moved through people’s yards I couldn’t help but overhear traces of people’s morning conversations. One lady was chiding her daughter for feeding stray cats. An old man was cooing to his wife about their new grandson. A hunter was complaining about the recent scarcity of game and how the animals he could find were a bit thinner than normal. Just idle chatter about mundane things, no high-tension scenarios, no noble conspiracies. This is bliss. Before long, I arrived at my first stop for the day.
I slipped into Sieg’s, formerly Sven’s, alchemy shop and sucked in a lungful of musty air thick with the scent of herbs. Of course, I could smell something similar at any shop in the capital, or even in the Academy workshop. But something about this one was special. Technically, the shop wasn’t open yet but Sieg had been informed I was coming by a runner yesterday, so he had opened the door early.
The man in question was presently hunched over a cauldron brewing something I couldn’t quite make out the exact identity of from where I was standing. But based on the color of the steam though, it was likely a medicine for illness. I stepped up a bit closer behind him and verified the contents of the pot.
“Oh, cough syrup? Is the village expecting a hard winter?” I asked an innocent question.
“What in the gods damned!?” Sieg jumped out of his skin, causing the cauldron to rock dangerously. Hurriedly, I stuck out my hand and grabbed the edge, steadying it. It was hot of course, but I only received a very light burn. Nothing a quick dash of ointment wouldn’t fix.
“Lady Stahlia, you should know better than to sneak up on someone like that, especially when they’re working.” Sieg’s tone was admonishing but not particularly angry.
I shrugged, “Sorry, but it’s not like there was any harm done.”
Sieg gave me a hard look; clearly, he could tell I wasn’t actually sorry at all. After a moment, he sighed, “Let me see your hand.”
I held out my burned hand for Sieg to inspect. Grumbling to himself, he rummaged around one of the shop’s back shelves and came back a moment later with a small jar of ointment. From the acrid odor, I could tell that this was burn cream.
In alchemical work, small cuts, scrapes, and indeed burns were a common occurrence so shops were always sure to have some of this stuff prepared. I had used it many times myself. Sieg applied a dollop to my hand and began to rub it into the burned skin. After a moment, the pain of the burn faded away and was replaced by a pleasant tingling; a sign that the agents in the cream were beginning to work.
Sieg promptly released my hand and I took a moment to inspect his work. Satisfied, I thanked him, “I thank you ever so much Sieg Svensbrother. My hand is saved thanks to your efforts.”
It was the same over-the-top noble speak that I had used way back when in order to tease Him and his brother. Unlike back then, however, Sieg seemed a bit uncomfortable this time.
“Lady Stahlia… Perhaps… Perhaps you shouldn’t talk to me like you used to… not when we’re alone, and well not when we’re not alone either.” He was scratching his chin awkwardly while stumbling over his reply. The roundabout way of speaking caused me to take a moment to realize what he was getting at, then it hit me like a ton of bricks.
I was… I was flirting with him just now, wasn’t I? I felt my face starting to turn red, so I quickly averted my eyes. Wait, how come I can feel embarrassed at my own actions? Shouldn’t that fall under regret and remorse? “…Sorry, I wasn’t thinking.”
Sieg nodded and cleared his throat a bit awkwardly, “So, why did you stop by? Just to catch up?”
Right, moving along would be for the best. In the end, my faux pas was just another reminder about how I was changing; things that had been acceptable two years ago, and even just before I had left, no longer were. I should probably refrain from visiting alone in the future too… I’ll bring Lucy or Jacqueline if I ever have to come here again.
“No. Well, I did want to catch up. But I also had some questions for you. About your supply chain.”
Sieg nodded and asked me to wait a moment while he finished up the cough syrup. I waved him off, “I can finish it for you, why don’t you brew a pot of tea or something?”
Sieg shrugged and went off to dig through the dried herbs for one that would be suitable for a tea. I turned my attention to the cauldron. The cough Syrup seemed to be brewed from honey, with a few crushed plants mixed in. At first glance, it wouldn’t seem magical, however, the honey in question was from a species of bee monster.
They would not only turn nectar into honey but would also further refine any intrinsic characteristics of whatever flower they had harvested from. It was considered a decently high-grade item, and its presence in a remote shop like this was a bit unusual. Then again, Sven’s shop had always had a curious selection given the location.
Regardless, the syrup was almost done. I watched it carefully, and once I saw the color begin to change from a pale green to a sort of pink, I pushed the cauldron away from the coals so that it could cool slowly. At this stage, the syrup would provide instant relief from the symptoms of a winter cold for a few hours with just a sip.
There were a couple of things I could do to improve the effect, but I didn’t want to step on Sieg’s toes, so I left it alone. A moment later, Sieg came up and handed me a cup. I sniffed the aroma and recognized Snake Grass. I raised an eyebrow; this was one of the herbs I had worked with Sana to make tea from a long time ago. If not handled right, the resulting brew would be sweet to the point of toxicity.
Not that it would actually hurt you, but you would swear it did. I moved to a seat at the counter and eyed Sieg while taking a tentative sip of the tea; he and Sana had always struggled to brew it right. As the tea passed my lips, I widened my eyes in surprise, “It’s delicious.” Indeed, it seemed that Sieg had managed to conquer his own tea-related demons.
He chuckled, “Glad to hear it, it took me a while to get it right.” We sat in silence just drinking the tea for a few minutes before he set his cup down.
“Right, I’m sure you didn’t come to just sip tea and finish batches of cough syrup.”
I set my own cup down and nodded, “As I said, I want to ask about your supply chain. You see…” I quickly summarized the encounter with Sitri while keeping the details vague, the only thing that was really important was that he knew about her missing arm.
“So, that’s what I wanted to ask about; the possibility that one of your vendors could supply a mythic grade restoration aspected ingredient.” As I finished my spiel, I picked up my cup and took another sip to wet my throat.
Sieg stroked his chin thoughtfully, “…That’s a tall order. I can put the word out, but do you have the kind of money for that? Even assuming that Count Francois would be willing to assist you, you still might come up short. For a maid’s arm… I really don’t see you getting his help anyways.”
I nodded, “Of course, I know that. I do have a plan though. It’s a bit risky… but I feel responsible for what happened… I think.”
Sieg cocked an eyebrow but didn’t comment on the fact that I had stated I only thought I felt responsible. Instead, he latched onto me saying that I had a plan to pay for the ingredient.
“And what would your plan be? The amount of money you’re talking about… Lady Stahlia, you might have grown desensitized to money. Ingredients like that are worth small countries. Brewing a single regrowth potion from one… most people would consider that a waste.”
I nodded again and waved for him to bring his ear close. While he was doing that, I quickly chanted a wind spell. Jacqueline’s talent could handle this for her, but my own wind magic was too low for that.
“Oh Wind, wrap me in your ###### touch, with your #### block my ##### from those who ##### from afar. [Silence]”
Sieg gave a brief start at my flagrant use of magic, but he didn’t pull away. If anything, he pushed a little closer, “Well, I take it that was an area silencing spell? And if you’re going to talk directly into my ear anyways… What in the world are you trying to drag me into Stahlia?”
I nodded, “I’m sure you’ll agree my precautions are necessary. I’m not going to brew a regeneration potion. My plan is to brew a Goddess’ Draught.”
Sieg blinked slowly and sat back in a way that was closer to giving up than leaning back. I continued, now that I had said that bit, I didn’t need to be as careful, “Once I’ve taken a dose for Jacqueline, and one more dose for my own purposes, the remainder of the brew can be given to the vendor. Of course, they’ll have to pay for it, but the cost of the ingredients can be deducted from that sum. I’ll even give a discount as a show of gratitude.”
Sieg eyed me carefully. He no longer wore the face of a friend, he was now looking at me with the face of a businessman. I can count myself lucky that he’s actually taking me seriously. If I didn’t have an existing track record of doing crazy shit with alchemy, as well as our friendship, he would have laughed me off. Hell, he’s probably just a little crazy himself, even those two things shouldn’t make him willing to entertain my proposal.
Goddess’ Draught. It was a mythical tier of restorative potion. It had the same effect as a Phoenix Down combo'd with an Elixir, then washed down by a Remedy. In short, it was the ultimate panacea. Typically, anyone claiming to be able to brew one would be laughed out of whatever venue they were in. Finding a Goddess’ Draught in their travels would turn an Adventurer into a lord of whatever kingdom they took it to.
And for good reason; there was no known recipe for the item. Scholars could only theorize as to what was required to make one, and every attempt to do so had failed. I had arrived at a working theory over the past few days. Of course, I had no way of knowing if I would be able to succeed in brewing the Goddess’ Draught, but whatever I produced would likely still be able to serve my purposes. After all, I was really planning to brew the best conventional restorative potion I could, and then infuse the result with the divine element via blood magic. Considering that one of the prevailing theories is that Goddess’ Draught is Vitae of the twelves fucking bathwater, I think my method should stand chance at working.
Sieg started laughing at that moment, “Ha! You’re serious, aren’t you? Man, I wish Sven was here, he’d have a fit. Alright Stahlia, I’ll ask around. Quietly. But don’t get your hopes up to high. You’re still asking for something fucking huge, alright?”
I nodded my thanks, and after giving Sieg a moment to compose himself, I cut my spell and we could once again hear the quiet bustle from the street outside. We made some more idle conversation, I was telling him about the alchemy work I was doing at the Academy, while Sieg told me some simple stories about various “emergencies” that had occurred in my absence. Things like when one of the village mothers had brought her child in, hysterically claiming they had been bitten by a “baby basilisk or something” and needed an antivenom immediately, only for it to turn out to have been a harmless garden snake.
After a while, when the sun had climbed up to just before its zenith, I said my goodbyes and departed with a handshake. I had two more stops to make today. I moved quickly along through the town. This time I was actively avoiding people from the beginning; I didn’t have anything against being welcomed back, but when you were the chief’s daughter and everyone seemingly wanted to greet you, well it made it hard to keep appointments.
I decided to detour around the edge of the village. This would take me by the Ris branch of the adventurers guild and bypass the market square, thus avoiding the most people. The Adventurer’s guild was just as tiny as I remembered it, and all of the usual faces were lounging around day drinking. Though there seemed to be an air of grimness about them today. Probably a death, based on the way they’re all acting. It’s a dangerous profession after all. Still, that had nothing to do with me, so after stopping for just a brief moment and giving a nod of solidarity, I powered on towards my next appointment.
I quickly arrived at my destination. Looking at it from the outside brought memories to the surface of my mind; this was where I had originally dueled and beaten Dominic. I was here now at Giogi’s request, mostly to see the other village boys I hadn’t seen for a while. But now that I was here, looking at the building, I was a bit hesitant to go in.
It’s like with Sieg earlier… stuff I used to get away with… I can’t really do that anymore. I looked down at my skirt; without even questioning it, I had worn a half shin-length skirt that Jacqueline had prepared for me. It was designed in such a way that I should be able to fight in it, similar to my school uniform. But it didn’t really look like anything like what I used to wear when coming here.
Well, just once more for old time’s sake, but I’ll have to make sure that they know I can’t come back anymore… That’ll be a hard conversation. Steeling myself, I moved into the empty storage building. I saw Giogi running the boys through a series of drills. After blinking for a moment, and taking in the sight, I realized that these drills were the same ones used in the knight training at the Academy.
Somehow, seeing him striving to train the “knights” brought a smile to my face and I let out a bit of a giggle. This was what announced my presence, as I had not yet been noticed by that point. Giogi turned around and greeted me by taking a knee and bowing his head. That was technically the correct way to greet me when he returned to service from a leave of absence, seeing as I was actually his Lady now.
But the fact that you’re doing it in front of all the other boys… Stop. Just stop it! Combined with my earlier giggle, I now wanted nothing more than to crawl into a hole and curl up into a ball of safety. I couldn’t do that though, so I bit my tongue to help push down the embarrassment, and said my line so that he would stop.
“Thank you for your loyalty, Giogi. You may rise.” After a moment, I added, “Please, rise.” He got to his feet and bowed at me. I grimaced a bit, but it went unnoticed. After a moment, Giogi waved his hand and two of the boys dragged over a series of large boxes and laid some cloth on them. Around this, the others set up a series of chairs. In the end, they had created an impromptu long table.
Giogi pulled out the chair that had been placed at the head of the table and beckoned for me to seat myself there. I thought we were going to have a series of duels? What’s he planning…? My curiosity piqued, I took the indicated seat. Following this, the boys laid out a few baskets containing bread and cheese. I glanced around the warehouse and over the spread. It’s like a banquet of the king of rags…
Giogi raised a hand, and the idle chatter ceased. He surveyed his troops and then launched into a short speech, “Well, I’m glad to see everyone managed to make it, despite the short notice. I’m sure seeing everyone again has touched our lady’s heart, even if she won’t let it show. That being said, as time moves on things change. We had a grand time playing knights, but things are changing. I’m sure these are memories we will all hold fondly as we grow older. With that, I commence the last meeting of Stahlia’s Knights!”
The boys chuckled and performed a toast of sorts with water. Your ten, why are you talking like an old man reminiscing about his childhood…? Still, I found the sentiment of what Giogi was presumably trying to do touching. He had likely noticed how out of sorts I had been on the trip back. I could assume that with his limited information, he drew a conclusion that I was feeling out of it because of how my mission had gone. He had also learned a lot about social expectations as part of his own training, so he would have realized that I couldn’t continue like I had used to, even if that same realization had escaped me until just recently.
He put this together as a way to try and lift my spirits, by reminding me of a simpler time… Or I was massively overthinking his motives and reasoning. That was likely, it was Giogi after all. But I decided I would believe my hypothesis, it would make me feel better if that was what he had been thinking.
We ate our bread and cheese and had a grand time talking about what we had gotten up to before I had left for the Royal Academy. Well, the boys talked and reminisced. I mostly just listened. Honestly, this feels a bit like my senior graduation party in high school. Then again, me and Giogi, it’s almost like we’ve gone off to college. The others will have been taking apprenticeships or working to help their families since turning ten… in a way, it sort of is like we’ve all graduated.
In total, I only spent a few hours in the warehouse, far less than I had spent with Sieg. I said my goodbyes, and while they were unlikely to be final goodbyes, there was a sense of finality to them; it was as if both parties involved knew that this “banquet” had closed a chapter in our lives. Once I was back out on the street, I looked up at the sun; it was about 4:00 PM.
My final destination for the day did not have an appointment, however, arriving closer to late evening would be better. I thought for a bit about how to kill time. My original plan had been to briefly go and clean up while getting something to eat, but what I had assumed would be a series of duels had instead turned into lunch. I was therefore neither dirty nor hungry.
Eventually, I decided to just meander my way over to my destination along the main road, allowing people to get welcoming me back out of their systems. In this way, I arrived at the church just before 6:00 PM. I passed a pair of men on their way out of the church, they were having a conversation about something stealing crops and damaging the fences around the fields. Apparently, that conversation was engrossing in the extreme, because they nearly ran me over.
The men were a bit gruff at first, pulling the classic “watch where your going girly!”. Then they recognized me. After that, they apologized profusely and beat a hasty retreat, practically falling over each other to getaway. It wasn’t like I had a reputation for being cruel, but I was the lord’s daughter. I shrugged off the incident and let myself into the church.
The Priest was having a conversation with one of the temple attendants near the altar, so I took up a position where I knew he would be able to see me and waited for him to finish. He was either almost finished already, or the conversation wasn’t important, because I was only waiting a moment or two before he was making his way over to me.
“Lady Stahlia, I had heard you had come back from the capital early. Might I ask how young Sana is doing?” right, he did practically raise her…
“Sana is doing quite well, at least as far as I am aware. She has not spoken of any issues with me…” I left my sentence hanging. Now that I was actually here, I was beginning to feel nervous.
The priest seemed a bit concerned at my lingering words, “Lady Stahlia, is something the matter?”
Right, I might as well just come out with it. This is a conversation I should have had two years ago, but I danced around the subject because I was afraid of what I might learn. “Well Father, I feel I have lost my purpose as of late. I’m surrounded by shadows and was hoping you could provide guidance…” To punctuate my statement, I fixed the priest with a hard stare.
To his credit, he didn’t show any surprise and met my stare head-on. After judging me for a few moments, he nodded, “I think we should speak in private, it sounds like a very serious issue.” With that, he turned and headed towards the door that I knew from visiting Sana led to the living areas for the temple staff.
I followed him at a short distance as he led me down the various hallways and towards a room I had seen a few times but never entered; his office. Once inside, he indicated a pair of couches that were facing each other with a small table between them. I took the seat on the couch that was closest to the door.
The priest took the seat opposite me and fiddled with a sound obfuscating magic tool before folding his hands. I was not offered tea, but then, given the accusation I had just leveled, I would have been leery to drink it had he done so. Besides, him going so far as to use such an expensive tool for our conversation could already be seen as him offering me the greatest of hospitalities. I held my peace, keeping track of my body language carefully so I didn’t do something like cross my arms or lean away from him. After a moment, I won the silent game and the priest spoke first, “How long have you known? Did you find out in the capital or was it since…?”
I nodded, “Since a few months after the fact.”
The priest closed his eyes and exhaled slowly, “I thought something might have happened. Your recovery from depression was too abrupt. Was it Jacqueline who told you?”
I shook my head, “She confirmed it, but I found out through another source.”
“Another source? Just who…?” he raised an eyebrow quizzically at my assertation.
“Antenora, the Twelfth Goddess.” I let my statement hang in the air, it was as if my proclamation had chilled the room.
The priest expressed emotion other than resignation for the first time, first showing shocked surprise but after a few seconds, clear understanding, “She came to you in a dream I take it? And told you Rosial was still alive…”
At the mention of my sister’s name, something we had both been avoiding saying, I felt a bit of rage rising up at the priest. I did my best to suppress it without outright turning it off, but my hands were visibly shaking and I had to clench my jaw. The priest noticed the change come over me.
“My apologies, I know I have little right to say that name. So, why are you here? To take revenge?” His voice was calm as if to say he would accept whatever I decided.
As much as I would have liked to portray myself as perfectly calm, I couldn’t keep the edge out of my voice, “As much as I would like to, no. I have other targets for that. Unless you prove incapable of keeping silent.”
The priest shook his head, “I am a man of the gods. If one of them has set you on a certain path, I would be remiss to do anything to get in the way of that.”
Based on everything I know of him he’s telling the truth. It’s a risk, but I need to start gathering allies, and while I wouldn’t be able to count on him for anything major, he has information I can’t get easily elsewhere. “Not that I’ll be letting you walk away without paying recompense; I’ll be having you teach me some things.”
The priest nodded, “Of course, it is my goal to assist the goddess’ chosen to walk their paths and achieve their purpose.”
I nodded, the rhetoric bothered me, but if that was how he was going to spin it, then whatever. Right, here goes, “Tell me about demons. How to find them, what kind of abilities they have, and how to kill them. Also, any secrets the church is hiding about the Nine.”
The priest showed surprise for the second time, “That’s a heavy topic, especially the last part. If I might ask, why do you need to know-”
“Because three of them are here in the kingdom and a fourth has recently or will soon advent. You heard about Jacqueline’s arm from my parents, I’m sure. It was in a battle against an Original Sin of Lust, Sitri.”
The priest was now looking at me suspiciously, “How would you have come to know the number of Kings currently walking the earth? Not even the ranking members of the church such as I are privy to that information.”
I folded my arms, “I had a conversation with Death.” I had already decided prior to coming here how much information to give him. Letting out this much was a bit dangerous, but it should pay dividends if I was able to learn about my enemies in detail. Besides, by leading with mentioning Antenora, it should properly scare him; as a man of the cloth, he should be familiar with what skills I would likely have. Assuming he arrived at the right answer of course.
The priest sucked in his breath and bowed his head. When he raised it, he met my eyes, his own filled with determination, “You speak of meeting the gods as if you would go for a stroll… Are you Winter’s…?”