Chapter 4 – Magic Armor
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Chapter 4

Magic Armor

-000-

The weekend after my two encounters had ended quickly, but since it was a term break I needn’t prepare for any classes.

However, that didn’t stop me from waking up early and getting ready for a long day of work.

For all the complications getting tangled up with Rikke was going to cause me, I still had to be grateful to her for giving me a copy of her work. If I can apply some of her ideas on my own, I could make a veritable leap in progress. All thoughts of taking it easy this term break went out the window the moment I got my hands on her research notes. Not working on this would be a major missed opportunity!

My enthusiasm was unfortunately not shared by my roommate. All the rustling about to get ready must have disturbed Theo, who was still wrapped in his blankets in his own bed. He shifted and groaned a bit, but didn’t make any serious attempt at telling me off. I simply took it as a sign to get on with the day’s preparations as quickly as I could so that I could leave him to sleep.

I dressed in my casual clothing, consisting of a plain shirt and matching pants. The shirt itself was of a light gray color, and was sown from thicker materials. These were the kind that I usually wore when I worked on the estate. My pants were a plain dark brown, the sown from fabrics that were sturdy and tough, with various pockets for me to carry my stuff. I also had an old leather sling bag with me, to carry whatever I couldn't fit into my pockets. It was far from extravagant, and perhaps some of the more royal students would even view my outfit as too simple for nobles… but I didn’t really care. It does what I need it to, and that’s really all that matters to me.

I left my shared dorm room and locked it behind me. I started walking towards the exit, and from there I’d be going straight for the wagon terminal by the campus entrance. The ride to Ehren Town was uneventful. Being fairly early in the morning, not a lot of activity was going on. Plus, it was the term break, so the hustle and bustle that the Academy's students usually did around this time was nowhere to be seen. It was a nice change of pace, not having to rush around between classes. It was almost as nice as being back at the estate.

Almost.

The powered wagon reached the outskirts of town within half an hour. Had I walked, I might have arrived by mid morning, but thankfully that wasn't necessary. My destination wasn't far from the wagon terminal, since it was at the town's outskirts. After all, a machine workshop needed the space to store all the machines being worked on. There wasn't a lot of clearing in the middle of town, so the outskirts were the only realistic choice available.

The walk to the workshop was as uneventful as the ride to town, though it was a bit cramped. People were still getting ready for the day, they were leaving their homes as they headed off to work and the streets were filled with people headed into the heart of town. It was a bit tricky maneuvering myself around the foot traffic headed the opposite way, but I managed to get through without incident. After a bit, I finally reached the Brekkener workshop.

The main building was quite large, though it's construction was very, very utilitarian. I hesitate to call it an eyesore, but after months living in the Academy, this workshop definitely seemed… less beautiful. Everything on said building had a purpose, and was made to fulfill that purpose first and foremost. The scaffolding around the armor stations were crude, but efficient in their design. Same goes to the strategic placement of toolboxes and access ramps for carts all around the exterior.

A line of inactive Magi-Armors were outside, and it seemed that the workers were only recently starting to work on them. They were old Jager models, and all of them were colored in white and dark blue, which was the standard colors of the Kingdom's police force. I noticed a handful of modifications made to the unit. The arms and legs were thicker, no doubt because its internal systems were upgraded. The shape of its torso also was different. A Jager fresh from the factory had a bit of a narrower waist. These Jagers sitting in front of the machine shop had a more stocky silhouette. It seemed like their reactors had been upgraded, which required an expansion to the waist and gut section of the machine in order to fit the bigger reactors. A large, thick shield was mounted on each Jager's left forearm. Off on the scaffolding to their immediate right were their weapons: a simple giant revolver, and a mace.

I was somewhat surprised to see revolvers being issued to the town's police force. They weren't as rare as they were back during the war, but they're still expensive and complex compared to something like a bolt action carbine. I'll have to ask Sir Thaddeus or Judau about it later. These machines were impressive, and imposingly large.

It wasn't until one of the more modern Grenzers passed behind the line that I realized how much smaller the Jagers were. The modified older machines stood at around 14 meters tall. The Grenzer that was passing by was 18 meters tall. Its crystal reactor was 50 percent larger than the older types, but provided over double the power. Bigger, sturdier frames were needed to properly use all that extra energy, which combined together to make the Grenzer's massive size.

As I appreciated the machines, I heard a familiar voice call out to me.

"Hey, Morgan! Fancy seeing you here!" Judau greeted me from behind.

I heard him jog up to where I was, and I turned around just as he closed the distance.

"Hey, good morning Judau." I returned the greeting.

We shook hands before my friend started leading me towards the main building.

"So what brings you here this morning?" He asked me. "Shouldn't you be taking a break?"

"I could say the same to you." He responded to him. "I know you live here and all, but we're both supposed to be on holiday, you know?"

"Touché," Judau said, shaking his head. "So, what are you here for?"

I opened my sling bag and pulled out a folder. Inside it were schematics and such that I worked on over the weekend. With some inspiration from Rikke's research notes, I believed I was ready to start prototyping. The biggest hurdle now is to convince Sir Thaddeus to let me borrow his workshop.

"I've actually got a favor to ask to Sir Thaddeus." I told him. "Would you mind it if I asked you to help me get ingratiated to his good graces."

"Oh, sure!" Judau agreed without condition.

I paused for a moment. I hadn't expected him to be so agreeable. When I took a bit longer to respond than I usually did, Judau laughed a bit and ribbed me for it.

"What, were you expecting me to say no?"

"I… was expecting a little bit of hesitance." I admitted. "Or at the very least I thought you'd ask me what kind of favor I needed before deciding."

Judau smiled and shook his head.

"Hey now, what kind of friend would I be if I'm not gonna help out a buddy in need? He reassured me. 

Honestly, it unnerved me a bit that he trusted me so much. I made a silent promise to do my best to never abuse his faith in me.

"Also, I've helped you with your research, remember? I know what you're working on, and I want in on it."

Ah, so at least there's that bit of personal gain that he's aiming for.

-000-

It was mid-morning over at the Ramiel Estate, and Godfrey had only settled into his study as per his usual routine. As heir to the Ramiel family, he was increasingly being delegated more and more administrative duties by his father. Prime among these were the estate's finances. Duke Gregor had insisted that Godfrey personally study and understand how the family manages its resources. Solely relying on a treasurer could lead to disaster if said treasurer went corrupt. There were more than a handful of estates that fell from grace due to mismanaged finances. An estate as important as the Ramiels was simply not allowed to suffer the same fate.

So when Rikke came to his desk with yet another project proposal, he couldn't help but sigh.

"This is why you skipped yesterday's temple sermon?" Godfrey chastised his younger sister. "Mother wouldn't be too pleased if she found out it was over work."

Despite saying that, the Ramiel heir still took the proposal presented to him on his desk and began reading through it.

(Another Magi-Armor development project… of course it is.)

Godfrey didn't skim through the proposal. He wasn't going to insult his own sister like that, even if he thought it was a bit exasperating.

"Why couldn't you find a more conventional hobby?" He mused aloud, intentionally saying it for Rikke to hear.

"This is not a hobby!" She protested, pouting just a little. "My projects are very important work!"

Godfrey chuckled a bit at that.

(She's so easy to mess with. I'll never figure out how she managed to get her reputation as the Academy's ice queen.)

"Whatever the case, these projects are expensive to fund." Godfrey responded, pushing aside the proposal after he read through all of it. "Let's skip the pleasantries. Why should I ask father to approve the budget for this venture?"

Godfrey played it tough on the outside, but really he wasn't opposed to the idea of letting Rikke work on her projects. He was just trying to teach her to be responsible, to think carefully about whatever it was she was going to do, and to not be swayed by her own whims. After all, she was going to be queen. She couldn't afford to be so irresponsible when she ruled.

Indeed, each and every one of her projects had been vetted carefully by Godfrey, to ensure she didn't waste her time and the estate's money. Because of this, few of her projects failed outright… and what few did fail still ended up with results that provided some side benefits. One of her earlier projects to build a flight capable Magi-Armor failed in its primary goal. However, the advancements made in the flight technology still proved beneficial to the Ramiel estate's ever growing shipyards.

"If this project succeeds, it'll fundamentally change how we use Magic Crystal technology.” Rikke explained. "It'll change what and how we think about the utility of crystal reactors. It could even allow me to revisit some of my previous projects in a new perspective."

(A fundamental change? She hasn't promised that in a while.)

"How'd you come about this radical shift in thinking?" Godfrey continued to grill her. "I'm skeptical that you've somehow figured out some miraculous solution that solved all your previous issues."

Rikke fidgeted a bit at that question, almost as if she was a bit ashamed of something.

"I… wasn't the one who thought of this solution." Rikke admitted, looking down. "It was someone I met, who was also studying under Master Kord's tutelage."

"Oh?" Godfrey responded.

(That's interesting… but what self respecting upper noble would personally invest so much effort into researching like this. Moreover, if one did want to pursue this line of interest, why would Rikke be asking for funding? That is, unless…)

As if she had read her brother's mind, Rikke began to explain her situation.

"He is… a lower noble. He doesn't have as many resources available for his work as I do. He has a lot of potential held back by a lack of funding."

Godfrey nodded along so far.

"It's important to secure his loyalty first, before someone like the Ostgards can get to him. Losing him might mean the gulf between us and the Ostgards’ industrial capacity would only grow." She continued.

Godfrey listened carefully to what Rikke had to say, and then thought about it carefully.

(There she goes… throwing herself to work the Kingdom’s politics again. Much as I’d like her to take it easy every now and again, this lower noble she’s met has me interested.)

The heir smirked inwardly, careful not to let his sister know his thoughts.

(Rikke has bever been this impressed by someone before… not even by the Crown Prince.)

"This lower noble… tell me more about him."

-000-

It was the fourth day of the week, and I had returned to Sir Thaddeus' workshop early again. Judau had kept his word and was instrumental in convincing his father to let me use his facilities. The conditions Sir Thaddeus gave me in return were also fairly reasonable. The first was that he wanted to keep a copy of all my work notes. The second was that if I succeeded, he wanted to license my work and produce it in his workshop at favorable rates. The third was that he wanted my squadron to come to him exclusively for Magi-Armor maintenance, at least for the duration of our studies.

These terms were acceptable to me. While I wished I could have monopolized the results of my projects more, I trusted the Brekkeners enough to let them license my work and inventions for a bargain price. When it comes to signing an exclusive contract with Sir Thaddeus for repair and maintenance rights, I was confident that Judau being in my squadron would keep service prices at reasonable levels.

It was very much a mutually beneficial agreement, so I readily agreed to it.

Now, Judau and myself had been hard at work turning my concepts into reality. We also brought in Jonah and Inara for our work. They were both brought in due to their magic affinity and knowledge. Jonah was well versed in magic, enchanted engravings, and crystal reactors. Inara on the other hand, was one of the most powerful magic users in the Academy due to her elven heritage. Since this project was to enhance the magical capabilities of low affinity pilots such as myself, it was important to have a high level battlemage to set the standard for us to compare to.

For our project, Sir Thaddeus had provided a salvaged Grenzer for us to work with. Apparently this was scrapped together from a handful of Grenzers which had been damaged enough that its previous owners decided it would be much cheaper to get entirely new Armors. It was suspended from a large bracket, lifting the machine some 2 meters off the ground. The bracket was attached to the Grenzer's hardpoints, on the waist and back, which meant that the machine's articulation faced very little blockage.

We had taken to affectionately calling the Grenzer we worked on "Tessa". It was a joke that Judau thought up, regarding how we had to remove the machine's external armor pieces so that we could easily access the important mechanisms in the inner frame. We had first called it "the test-bed" when we had gotten started, but Judau found it to be a mouthful. He ended up shortening the name to its current form for brevity's sake, and we followed along.

Right now, we were working on powered enchantments and magical engravings. High affinity pilots like Inara could easily channel their own magical energy to overcharge the enchantments, but low affinity users like me couldn't do so without burning out. We first ran a control test with Inara at Tessa's helm. She stood inside the machine's exposed cockpit section wearing a piloting suit that was already plugged in, while I was on standby to take her place to test out our prototype. Now all she needed was to power up Tessa and proceed with the test.

"Begin the control test!" I told her out loud.

Inara nodded to me then powered up Tessa. Without the armor plates covering the rest of the Grenzer, I could clearly see the magical crystal reactor in Tessa's gut start glowing. Its colors turned from its deep ocean blue to a brighter sky blue. Pipes and hoses coming from the reactor and leading to various components around the machine shook for a bit as the sudden surge of energy passed through them. A few bursts of mechanical hissing from all over Tessa told us that the mechanical components were receiving the proper amounts of energy. The reactor's initial roaring noise slowly dissipated into a calmer, more stable hum.

Judau, who was busy monitoring and taking notes on Tessa's status, reported in from the observation scaffold on the side. He held on to his notebook and started guiding Inara through the suit's system checklist.

"Joint checks, start top to bottom." He said, going through the list.

In the exposed cockpit, I saw Inara roll her neck, before turning her head left to right. Tessa mimicked its pilot's movements perfectly, and with each motion a soft mechanical whine was heard from the magic powered motors that moved the neck joint. The half-elf then confirmed to Judau that the joint functioned without issue. The two continued down the list of joints that needed to be checked, and this took at least five minutes.

During this time, Jonah was off to the side monitoring a whole slew of measuring instruments. These were apparently devices meant to measure the energy levels of a magical item. A contraption which resembled a tuning fork would be taped onto the item being measured, then a wire would be attached from that fork and to the measuring device. A pair of small dials on the measuring device would tick up and down according to the energy level and magical frequency being detected.

"Reactor output is steady at 6,400 ticks per minute. Pilot-to-machine synchronization at optimal levels. All systems are green across the board." Jonah reported once Inara and Judau had finished their checks.

"Excellent." I nodded. "Proceed with step two."

Inara nodded. She moved inside the cockpit compartment and made Tessa pick up a short sword that we were borrowing for this test. Once the weapon was gripped firmly in the machine's hands, a brilliant blue aura surrounded the half-elf, causing her to glow. An immense amount of magical energy was channeled from herself and into the engravings carved into the blade, causing it to glow in that same magical blue color that had wrapped around the pilot. She carefully raised the blade and then pressed the sharp edge firmly on a magically hardened metal plate meant to mimic the armor plating used by Magi-Armors.

The point of contact between the blade and the metal plate sparked violently as Inara pushed the short sword downwards. The blade began cutting through the plate slowly but steadily, leaving a trail of melted metal in its wake. Eventually she cut all the way through the plate, and the severed end clanged on the ground as it fell down.

"Was that any good?!" Inara yelled out.

"More than good!" Jonah praised as he looked up from his instruments. "Your output was amazing, Inara! Hey Morgan, she set the bar really high. Are you sure you don't want me to run the test in your place?"

I shook my head at Jonah's suggestion.

"That would beat the purpose of this project in the first place!" I told him as I walked towards Tessa's boarding ramp. "We're trying to get weak magic pilots like me to perform on her level. It's absolutely important that I do the test."

Inara powered down Tessa before unplugging herself from the cockpit. I lowered the boarding ramp from the scaffold and made sure it safely locked into the open chest section where the cockpit was. I exchanged places with the half-elf, giving her a pat on the back for her impressive display of magical ability. She smiled and wished me luck.

I’ll definitely need it.

I attached the connector piece from my own piloting suit to the back of the exposed cockpit, then activated Tessa. I felt a low current of energy flow from my back to all around my body. A light tingling feeling covered me from head to toe for a brief moment before subsiding.

“Connection all good!” I announced.

Judau and I then went through the system checks exactly like Inara did. Each movement I did was mirrored by Tessa, and I felt both my own body as well as the machine move accordingly. That doubled feeling of motion was something I still couldn’t completely get used to, even though I’ve had an entire lifetime’s worth of piloting by now.

“Joint checks complete!” I reported to Judau.

Now Jonah read out the reports coming from his instruments.

“Reactor steady at 6,400 ticks per minute…” He said, basically repeating the earlier reading with Inara’s test. Once he was done, we proceeded with testing the prototype.

“Alright Morgan, we’ll activate the battery pack on your mark.” Judau said, his hand ready to pull the activation lever, which would send a steady flow of magical energy to supplement the crystal reactor and my own.

The battery pack was the solution that Jonah, Judau, and I came up with after much consideration. It was a small rig which had the average crystal battery sold in markets slotted into it. Seeing as the main issue was that low affinity users like me couldn’t channel as much magical energy in the first place, the simplest solution was to provide a secondary source of power. As the main reactor was needed to power the main body, and since crystal reactor technology wasn’t efficient enough, we couldn’t just channel energy from there. Overloading the crystal reactor thankfully won’t lead to any dangerous explosions, but it would burn out much of the piping needed to get the machine running.

I braced myself for a moment. I knew full well how painful this could get if the test failed. Knowing that was also one of the biggest reasons why I just had to do it myself. Nobody else should have to suffer due to a mistake I made. I grit my teeth, then motioned to Judau to pull the lever. When he did, the battery pack activated, sending a surge of energy into Tessa… as well as myself.

The power surge ran into me like a powered carriage running at full speed. For a flash of a moment, my bones felt like they were burning up. The pain -while brief and very quickly subsided- was incredible. Luckily, I had experience with getting desynchronized from my machine from my previous life. I already knew how to steel myself and weather the immense pressure doing something like this caused. Still, the desync hit me a bit harder than I thought it would have.

While I was still recovering from the initial wave of pain, Jonah reported in with his instrument readings.

“Battery pack now running steady at 4,800 ticks a minute… Synchronization levels went to red for a bit… rising back to safe levels, but it’s wavering. Morgan, you alright?” He asked me. Concern covered his face.

No, it wasn’t just Jonah who was worried, Judau and Inara were too. Granted, the half-elf didn’t know in detail or have any experience of what I was going through… but she actually paid attention to Theoretical Magic classes. She had a vague inkling of what just happened.

“It’s fine,” I responded, putting up a brave face and trying to reassure my friends and brushing off the issue.

I shook my head as if to shake away the pain. Taking deep breaths, I picked up the short sword with my right hand and gripped it tightly. I've handled desyncs before. I can handle this.

“Proceeding with step two!” I said out loud.

I started channeling magical energy into the short sword, and the engravings started glowing an eerie, almost sickly shade of dull red. I felt an immense pressure run through my right arm, and I could also feel a moderate heat worming through my muscles. It wasn't unbearable, but the sensation running through my arm was a bit more intense than I was originally anticipating. Both the main reactor and the battery pack also started to sound like it was having issues. They went from a calm hum to a more aggressive buzzing noise. I grunted slightly in pain, but pushed through it as I raised the weapon and then pressed it onto a plate of magically hardened metal. As the edge of the blade touched the plate, a violent flashed occured from the point of contact. A shower of sparks were sent flying about, and the burning in my right arm intensified. Despite this, the red glow from the blade dulled even further, indicating that there was an insufficient flow of magic being channeled. I began pushing the blade downwards to cut through the plate, but resistance was tough. Compared to how casually Inara did it earlier, I was genuinely struggling.

“I… need… more…” I grit out, though between the violent hissing noise coming from the blade failing to cut through, and the ruckus that the reactor was causing, none of my friends could hear my words.

I channeled more power from the battery and through my right arm. Immediately, the red glow on the blade brightened… but very quickly a wave of pain washed through that same arm. It took all I had in me not to scream out in pain, just as it took all my willpower not to reflexively let go of the blade. Instead, I grabbed on to the hilt with my left hand as well. I hoped that funneling energy through two arms would let me deal with the burden better by dividing it in two… but this was not the case. Instead of halving the pressure on my right arm, the left one was subjected to an equal amount of pain. I bit my tongue to avoid howling in pain, and pushed just that little bit harder on the metal plate. It seemed to be working as I was starting to cut deeper into the hunk of metal, but my vision started fading, and the strength from my limbs also began to wane. Simultaneously, sparks burst from Tessa’s joints, before its arms and legs fell limp entirely. It was only thanks to the bracket that the machine was attached to that I didn’t end up falling flat to the ground.

It was all so sudden. Any semblance of energy had suddenly evaporated from me, and I felt myself go limp like a ragdoll. My back control plate stopped me from dropping to my knees and face planting on the cockpit’s floor. The last thing I heard as all my senses faded were my friends rushing to check in on me.

-000-

Blinding light crept through my eyelids as my eyes slowly opened. I winced slightly in pain, and tried to turn my head away from the intense brightness invading my vision. Slowly, I adjusted my eyes and could somewhat properly see again.

I found myself staring directly at a stark gray ceiling, and my back on a cushion of sorts. The intense brightness from before turned out to be a reasonably dim magi-light directly above me. I could smell the aroma of pure alcohol and medicines invade my nose, which lead me to believe I was in a medical room of some sort. I tried to move my body, to crane my neck to look around… but I found that the rest of my body was incredibly uncooperative. My neck was stiff and couldn’t move around much without causing a bit of pain. My arms were also stiff, but instead of feeling pain from it, it felt numb. My legs fared a bit better, as I could still feel my toes wriggling and I could roll my feet, though once again it was incredibly stiff and sore.

“So, you’re finally awake?” I heard a… feminine voice? It certainly sounded like a feminine voice. Said voice spoke to me from the side.

Still being disoriented, I couldn’t pinpoint which direction it was coming from. I also couldn’t discern whose voice it was exactly. Everything was still a haze. I tried to get myself to sit upright, but the world would start spinning if I exerted myself too much. After a single pathetic attempt to get myself up, I groaned and resigned myself to laying still on the bed.

"You understand that you very nearly got yourself killed, right?" The voice spoke to me again, this time chastising me. "What were you thinking, trying to do something that someone of your caliber should know is dangerous?"

I was still having trouble identifying the voice… but with the way she spoke, and how her tone of voice was…

Could it be Rikke? But that can't be right. Everyone knows she left for the Ramiel estate at the start of the weekend. Her whole entourage accompanied her to the harbor and made a big deal about it.

I pushed my still recovering body and forcefully turned my head towards the direction of the voice, despite the pain. Lo and behold, my guess was right. Rikke, for some reason, was there, sitting on a chair beside the bed I was resting on. I tried to ask why, but all that came out of my throat was a hoarse groan which vaguely gave off the impression of confusion. Thankfully, Rikke seemed to somewhat understand what I was trying to convey.

"Why do you seem so surprised that I'm here?" She asked, shaking her head. Her face was still as neutral and stoic as it ever was. "I did say I was looking forward to working with you again, didn't I?"

That… made some sense… but still, isn't it a bit too soon?

"What's wrong, were you not expecting me so soon?"

Wait, what the hell?! How'd she tell? Was she somehow reading my…

"I'm not a telepath." Rikke cut me off, half laughing, half sighing. "Your thoughts are written on your face like an open book."

Huh… I suppose that makes sense. I wasn't as guarded right now as I was during our previous meeting. Having figured that out, I tried again to get up. I slid my elbows back to try and prop my upper body, but it was still a struggle to push myself into a sitting position.

"It's only been a couple of hours, you've barely recovered." Rikke chastised me again. “Try and stay down.”

She stood up from her chair and with hardly any force, pushed me down. Still being so weak, I couldn't offer any resistance to her. I didn't let that stop me though, as I tried to squirm my way up the bed's backboard right after… though this wasn't exactly successful either.

"Stubborn as a bull, aren't you?" She sighed. "Fine, hold still for a moment."

Rikke opened up her palm and placed it over my chest. I half expected her to push me down again, but instead her hand glowed green before a wave of magical energy washed over me. It wasn't much, but the pain and numbness that had covered my entire body slightly lessened, and I felt a portion of my strength return little by little. After several minutes of her continuously casting that spell, the glowing subsided from her hand, and that wave of relief ceased.

With that little bit of boost, I was successfully able to push myself to a sitting position. Admittedly, I still grunted and winced in pain a bit, and overall it still felt like I got ran over by a stampede of horses, but Rikke gave me just enough strength to recover this much.

"Thank… you…" I managed to croak out, rather pathetically I might add.

"It's no problem." Rikke responded, her voice still even toned and her face stoic as it always was… but there was something there. She seemed… winded? Tired? Was that a high level healing spell that she casted on me? I supposed that was the case because when she sat back down, she slumped into her seat just a little bit before recomposing her posture.

Before I wanted to ask her anything about that though, I looked to the other side of my bed and saw a glass of water on a little table. I shakily moved my hand to pick it up and slowly drank from it. The water felt like it was Godsent, quenching a thirst I didn't realize I had. I ended up emptying the cup into myself in one go. Drinking the water also helped restore a little bit more of my strength, and my throat felt much better now. I felt like I could start talking in whole sentences.

I cleared my throat and prepared to converse with Rikke.

"I didn't know… you could cast such powerful healing magic." I asked her.

"It's not something I like to flaunt." She simply explained. "Though I'm surprised you didn't know. It's well known that I have one of the highest levels of magical affinity in the Academy after all, beat out only by that Ostgard lackey and your half-elf friend."

"I don't really… pay attention to the upper nobles that much." I admitted. "I prefer to… keep track of what's in front of me."

"A reasonable attitude to have, given your position." Rikke nodded plainly. It seemed she understood my sentiment, even though it didn’t look like she approved.

Back on track, I don't think I’ve ever heard of Rikke's magical affinity even in my previous life. I wondered for a moment if this was yet another divergence in the timeline, or if this was always the case. Granted, she was always overshadowed by Inara and the Ostgard lackey Rikke mentioned earlier. Inara was one of my squadron members so I knew about her abilities well. The Ostgard lackey, on the other hand, I was a bit iffy on. She was one of the top Ostgard lieutenants in the revolting side, and the legend was that she never faced defeat during the civil war. Her loss was a major blow during the Confederate invasion shortly after, when she was assassinated by enemy agents shortly before the war started.

I knew her reputation as a fearsome warrior… but despite having served under her for a short while, her magical capability was always something that I've never seen in person.

"Speaking of Inara," I said as I slowly remembered exactly why I was bedridden. "Where is she right now?"

"Your friend is still at the workshop, resting." Rikke answered. "She spent almost a whole hour healing you with her magic before we could move you to this clinic."

This clinic? Looking around only now did I realize I was no longer in Sir Thaddeus' workshop. This was a dedicated medical clinic… and if I were to guess, it's the one that's only a few blocks away from the wagon terminal.

Worry then started to set in as I remember the whole disaster that got me here.

"Judau and Jonah, are they…"

"I left some of my followers to help them fix up your test machine. They're some of the best technicians my family can call on, they'll be plenty helpful to your friends, I'm sure."

Huh, so she was serious about working together on future projects.

"So… you saw what we were trying to do, right?" I then asked her. My voice had recovered to the point I could speak clearly again.

"I did, and I spoke to… Judau was it? The one that was sir Thaddeus' son… I spoke to him a little about your project." Rikke nodded and recounted her conversation. "I must say, it was bold of you to immediately jump to testing."

"Well, there was only one way to tell if it worked or not."

"True, but there are far less reckless ways to get it done."

I sighed and agreed inwardly, but I didn't feel like admitting that. I wasn't too keen on having an upper noble roll me over in my own damned project, even if she did have a point.

"Right… Anyways, did Judau say what caused the… uh… problem?"

"Him and your other friend seemed to think that the reactor and battery forced each other out of sync." The upper noble explained to me. "They're thinking that you were essentially being synchronized to two different energy sources, and both were fighting each other to put you into their power network."

I groaned a bit.

"So I was dealing with two desynchronizations at the same time?" I asked. "That explains why the test hurts a hell of a lot more than I expected it to."

"Indeed." She said, along with a curt nod. "It seems to me that solving the desynchronization issue should be the biggest hurdle."

I thought about her words for a moment. Getting the battery pack and main reactor to function without crashing each other should put the project into smooth sailing afterwards… but that was easier said than done. We still had to look into why the battery and reactor were causing each other to desync before we could do anything to fix it. There was also the problem with funding. Crystal powered machines and magic crystals aren't cheap. I'm not quite sure how much money both Sir Thaddeus and myself could provide to keep the project going. My relatively meager allowance got us all the parts we needed to build the battery pack, and my purse felt significantly lighter after that purchase. Sir Thaddeus also only provided us a salvaged machine and some other bits of gear like the short sword. This all meant he wasn't entirely comfortable spending too much money on our project… at least until we could provide tangible results.

"Well, that's assuming I can afford to keep the project running." I relayed my thoughts to the Duke's daughter.

Being that she's from such a rich family, I wasn't quite sure if Rikke understood just how expensive crystal powered machines could get. Even if she knew the exact cost on paper, her position as a very high ranking upper noble meant that her views on money and spending were quite different to my own. A family that could casually own a fleet of warships like the Ramiels could was one that was rich beyond my wildest dreams. Because of this, I felt the need to explain to her how big of a problem funding could be to me.

"Working on this stuff isn't cheap, especially if I run into more problems like this." I sighed and told her.

"Oh, that's fine." Rikke dismissed my concerns with a wave of her hands. "I will personally fund your project until completion."

It took me a while to process exactly what she told me. Initially, I was about to celebrate and thank her… but then my still drowsy brain caught up and started thinking. There was simply no way in hell Rikke was going to fund this work out of the goodness of her heart, especially when she already had most of my research notes. There had to be a catch.

"That is… a very generous offer." I thanked her politely. "But I'd be a fool to think you're doing this without expecting something in return."

Rikke smirked at my response for what felt like a split second before returning to her stoic and neutral expression. It seemed I had somehow endeared myself to her unintentionally.

"You're right, Sir Morgan. Only a fool would believe a favor like this would come with no strings attached. I applaud your quick thinking, even in your… current state."

Well, at least she's being honest about it. I can appreciate that. After all, there's nothing I hate more than slimy nobles who put up a kind and generous facade to cover their schemes and cutthroat behavior.

"In exchange for funding from my family, as well as personal support from myself, I want joint ownership of the technology that’s coming out of this project."

Oh. That was fairly reasonable, I suppose… Though I still didn't like it. I saw clearly that even with joint ownership of the invention, I would still be the junior partner. It all comes down to my rank as a Manor Lord, whereas Rikke was a Duke's daughter, and a would be Queen. She could use her immense influence and power to roll me over on any decision that was supposed to be done jointly. If she wanted to license the invention to a faction I didn't like, I really didn't have any way to stop her… at least, none that are without severe consequences.

I wanted to say no. I didn't want to get any more involved with Rikke than I already had… but this was an opportunity that was never going to come again.

Still, I had some reservations. I decided to try and pry into her motives.

"Why though?" I asked her.

"What do you mean?"

"Why fund my work? Why work with me? Why not work on it yourself?" I piled my questions on her. "You have my work notes, and I haven't made much progress since. Why not use your resources and run your own project? I’m sure you’d make good progress and outstrip my own efforts in short order."

Rikke nodded in understanding as I asked her all of that. She looked me dead in the eye before answering me in her typical even toned voice.

"If all I cared for were the end result of this project, I'd have done as you suggested." She told me. "But, say I succeed with running the project myself. Then what?"

I wasn't quite sure where she was trying to go with this. I blinked a couple of times as I couldn't answer her own question to me. Thankfully Rikke followed up quickly after, quickly ending the awkward silence.

"Think of it in the long term, Morgan. The foundations of that project were laid out by you. I certainly couldn't think of a solution the same way you did. Any effort I would try afterwards would slow down significantly. On the other hand, you've also admitted that you have problems with the resources you have on hand. Both of our research efforts have hurdles that the other could easily solve. You've certainly sped up my own research tremendously by simply lending me your notes. A partnership where I provide resources for you to work with would be beneficial to us both."

I see. That made a lot of sense. She wanted me to research not just for myself, but on her behalf as well. She gets the technology she wants, and I get the funding to push my own works ahead. Sure, I'd be the junior partner in this endeavor… but as of right now, both Rikke and my goals align.

For once, partnering up with an upper noble might just be a good thing for me.

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