After our short discussion, Cherry expressed the desire to sleep some more until morning, which I allowed her to do. I personally opted for staying up overnight, hoping to learn more about her predicament.
Going down to my library, I was surprised to find Ashen there, seeming to be wistfully observing the spines of my book as if in recollection. I kept my observation to myself, preferring a more innocent line of enquiry. “Looking for something, lady Ashen?”
She seemed mostly unfazed by my arrival, beyond her gaze shifting to something more cautious as she turned her head towards me. “Nah, nothing in particular. Was just thinking about the warlock. How’d a dainty flower like you take care of him exactly?”
I took just a moment to try to come up with a deflection on the spot, but was unable to find anything. Guiltily, I twiddled my fingers, avoiding her gaze. “I’m afraid I can’t give you the answer to this question.”
Ashen raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms, contemplating how to reply. “See, this is what I don’t get about you, little lass. You’re hiding something, but you’re being completely honest about it. Boggles my mind, it does.”
“Well, can’t a person have their secrets?” I said, attempting to de-escalate the situation. “Surely you have some too.”
The knight quickly grimaced. Apparently, more than just speaking a general truth, I’d hit a nerve. “...Touché. Alrighty then, I won’t press you on it, but it better by gods not spell the death of me.” She turned her gaze back to the room, another question seeming to be on her mind. “Say, do you at least know what professor Lucius was cooking up in this here middle of nowhere?”
My eyes went wide at the name. She knew him? She knew the old me!? Or knew of him at least…! Gods, how unpleasant that name felt now. I wanted to never hear it again. I shook myself out of that bout of panic before she noticed. “From what I understand,” I pressed the words as if to make my lie more believable, “he… was looking to crack the code of immortality.”
“...What for?” she inquired worriedly.
“Well, obviously, because death should be done with. The amount of suffering it brings is terrifying. It doesn’t have to be one of the laws of life that it has to end.” I couldn’t help but let some of my zeal slip out. My identity, my self, might’ve taken a direction I hadn’t expected, but my ambitions had stayed the same. Though, I did technically lie - I gave her my reasons, rather than my old self’s. He was just in it for the challenge, attempting to prove his ridiculous theory that relationships were crutches for lesser people. In essence, a power trip I was more than happy to leave behind, keeping only the core idea of bettering our world.
“Huh. I was expecting something more…” Ashen snapped her fingers a few times, trying to find the word at the tip of the tongue.
“Nefarious?” I finished her sentence in her stead, prompting her to let out a grimace communicating that the word had been close enough to the one she was looking for. “I can’t say I blame you. While I believe he sought to do good, he didn’t quite communicate that to the rest of the world, and he certainly wasn’t helped by some of his… misconceptions.”
She slowly slipped her arm back under her other one, crossing them once more. “...I didn’t quite expect nuance either. Didn’t think he was the kind to deserve it. What’s he to you, exactly?”
I tilted my head to the side, looking away. “That is a tricky question to answer without saying what I don’t wish to reveal.”
Ashen simply shook her head, a mix of exasperation and bemusement apparent on her face. “Yeah, sure, play riddles with an agent of the law, little lass, I’m sure it’ll work out for you.”
“Yet you’re not stopping me,” I replied with a sly smile, a bit of a blush creeping onto my cheeks for a reason that eluded me. Was that what flirting was? Had I used the appropriate tone of voice? And had I even meant to do that?
“You’re right again.” She grinned. Gods, what a pretty grin. “Maybe I should be less clement, like my colleagues.”
My smile disappeared, replaced with a neutral expression. “Why? Do you think their method would be more effective at getting me to fess up?”
She let out a roaracious laugh. “Gods, no! You’d be proper uncrackable if we tried to use brute force.”
My head tilted slightly. “Then why keep the brute method around?”
She paused for a second, her gaze settling back onto my face and growing confused. “...Huh?”
My brows furrowed. “Why keep using it if it’s ineffective?”
All she offered as a reply was an avoidant shrug. “Well, you know, because it works better on the riff-raff…”
My upper body inched forward. “Does it even? Wouldn’t kindness still be preferable?”
By now, Ashen looked deeply uncomfortable, reflexively taking a step back. “I mean, I guess I don’t disagree with you per se, but not everyone has your point of view, especially in the royal guard...”
“So the people tasked with the safety of the kingdom know no method of dealing with people but roughhandling, or in the event they know other ones, are encouraged to use this one as their primary method,” I stated as plain as day.
She took another step back, her hand moving down towards the handle of her sword. “Come now, you’re not being fair.”
My gaze drilled holes into her face as I approached her for every step backwards she took. “Do you think the way they’re doing this is right? Do you think it is fair on the populace?”
Ashen’s hand relaxed, hovering motionless a dozen centimeters away from her sword. “...Are you Lucius’ apprentice? I swear you’re speaking just like him right now.”
And just like that, my focus evaporated, and I found myself confused as to how I’d gotten into such a proselytic state in the first place. I looked for a moment at our surroundings, as if I’d forgotten where I even was.
As an uncomfortable silence settled for a dozen seconds, Ashen relaxed her stance, and decided to speak again. “Look, that was a lot of questions you just made me ask myself, but I don’t want to have that on my mind right now. I’ll just… think on what you said another time, okay?”
I replied with a meek nod, words refusing to come out of my mouth.
“Was nice talking to you, Pepper.” She patted me on the shoulder before turning away towards the stairs. “Take care, interesting little lass. Hug your familiar tight tonight.”
This… event behind me, I focused back on my task of searching books for the explanation of Cherry’s situation.