Chapter 23: The Lake and the Stars
Since the Tipsy Pelican was closed on Mondays, the tavern was quiet and dark as I approached with Cassia sleeping on my back.
"My gods, Cassia!" Elsa said when she saw me carry her in. She rushed forward and put a palm against Cassia's sleeping face.
Charm came out of the backroom and looked at me with questioning eyes that said, What has Master done to this poor girl?
"Nothing! I was helping her!" I said to Charm defensively.
She actually had the gall to raise an eyebrow as if to say, What? I didn't say anything.
"What happened?" Elsa asked.
"She got into a fight," I said. "She's alright, but she's got some cuts and bruises that need tending to. Charm, boil some water and get some ice from the ice barrel."
Charm nodded and disappeared into the kitchen.
"Sorry about the dress," I said to Elsa as I carried Cassia up the stairs to the bedrooms. "Things got a little crazy."
"Don't worry about the dress. Tell me what happened. You two disappeared. I thought Charm was going to murder both of you when you returned by the way she was cutting the vegetables tonight. Never knew she was the jealous type."
I chuckled tiredly at that. She still might kill me even after hearing the story.
I took Cassia to her room and laid her down on the bed while taking care to keep my right hand out of Elsa's sight. Then I began telling Elsa the official version of the story that we had made up for the city guard and the church that left my actions out of it. I told her that we'd followed the person stalking us and how Cassia had sensed him, chased him to the atrium and fought and defeated High Templar Darren Tamblion singlehandedly.
Charm caught the end of the story as she entered Cassia's room with a bucket of ice and a pot of hot water.
Cassia had been against taking credit for defeating the high templar, but she finally agreed after seeing how much of a hassle it would be if word got around that I knew how to fight. There would be questions, and if anyone discovered my identity, I'd probably have to close the tavern and go into hiding. I still had enemies in the world, and they were not the sort of people you'd want to find you while you were gateless.
"Um…" I said, looking at Elsa and Charm, who were tending to Cassia. "Well, if you two don't mind, I'll leave it to you…"
"Of course," Elsa said.
Charm nodded again and dipped a clean towel in the water to clean Cassia's body, while Elsa began to take the dress off.
I quickly turned, blood flushing to my face. "I'll be in my room."
I grabbed a couple cubes of ice from the bucket and closed the door behind me. I took a deep breath and headed to my bedroom, pressing the ice to my finger.
It had been hurting badly since the walk back, and I began to wonder if I would be able to keep it.
Sometime later, I heard a knock at my door. I sat up to answer, but before I could, Charm entered.
"What really happened, Master?"
"Oh… not much."
"Master defeated the high templar, didn't he?"
"Well… she nearly had it handled," I said. "I just helped finished it up at the end."
"Did Master wet the bed?"
"What?" Then I noticed a puddle in my bed from the ice that I'd taken. I'd fallen asleep with it in my head. "Oh, that's just ice. I uh… needed to cool my head. You two got to undressing Cassia quickly, and she's a pretty-"
Damn, she'd noticed.
I sighed and lifted up my hand, showing my finger. It was dark black, burnt to a crisp.
Charm knelt beside me and took my hand into her fingers.
"Blessing of Superior Healing, Ameliorate," she whispered, and a pink light glowed around her hands. A minute later, my finger was back to normal again, if only a little stiff.
"Thanks," I said.
"Master should not use such dangerous spells in his current state."
She was right, of course. High-level spells were not meant to be used by the unawakened. Even with the Gate of Radiance open, the spell would have done damage to my body.
"I know…," I said. "I got carried away."
"Master's body is very weak."
"Weak like a baby kitten…"
"That was born with brittle bones…"
"Yeah, I got it."
"…And a failing heart."
"Okay! Enough already, I'm already starting to feel bad for this kitten!"
"The kitten is you, Master. If Master decides to use expert spells, he should open at least to the fifth gate."
"That's not going to happen," I said. "I don't even know if I could anyway."
"Then why is Master fighting high templars while he is on vacation?"
"That's the question I keep asking myself."
"That is not an answer, Master."
"Well, if you really want to know, I didn't have much of a choice."
"If Master is going to be a hero again, he should do it properly. If something happens to him, others will suffer too," Charm said and stood, turning to leave.
"Is that a threat?" I asked.
Charm watched me for a moment, and I could not read her face as it revealed nothing. Then she turned to leave without another word.
I sighed once more and said, "Goodnight, Charm. Thank you for fixing my hand."
Charm looked at me one last time and closed the door behind her.
I laid back on my bed. I did not want to think about Charm's words or Cassia's. And as usual, it was easy not to, at least until I dreamed in any case.
That night I saw my father again on the waters of the dark lake.
"You did well today," he said.
I snorted. "Did well with what? Killing some idiot?"
"You did not kill him. Your attack was not fatal."
"It was meant to be."
"You helped those children."
"No, I didn't."
"You are too hard on yourself, son. Of course, you did. Without you, they-"
"I would have made the deal," I said, cutting him off.
"I would have forced Cassia to drop the issue about the orphans in return for our lives. The only reason I didn't was because I knew a bastard like Darren wouldn't have let us live."
My father stared at me.
"When I mentioned that the archbishop would come to investigate if Cassia disappeared, I saw it in his eyes. There was only a moment of hesitation, then it passed. He was going to kill us both. If he took my deal, I wouldn't have fought him. I couldn't care less about those orphans."
My father shook his head. "That's not true. I know you."
"Oh yeah?" I said. "What do you know?"
"Orphans, children who have lost their parents, it is something you care for deeply."
"And why's that?" I said, a manic grin spreading on my face.
"Because what?" I yelled. "Say it!"
"Because… you are an orphan too."
"Then what are you!?" I screamed.
My father blinked at me. "I am your-"
"No you're not, you fool. I'm not just an orphan," I said, growing even more heated. "I'm an orphan that never knew his parents!"
"You're just a figment of my imagination. Something I created for myself. You are a lie, but I did not create you to lie to me. I don't need you to tell me that I did something good to feel better about myself. I'm fine with knowing the truth. I don't care. I don't care about the templar or any of her wishes to do good. I helped her today on a whim. Because it was amusing to me, and that's it. It's the same reason I created you. But now I'm done with you."
"Wait-" he said.
But I didn't. I waved him off, and my imaginary father vanished into nothingness.
Then I woke up. It was still dark outside my window. I stared through it at the stars for a long moment. My mind was filled with dark thoughts, and I had difficulty falling asleep again.
Judging by the color of the night sky, I still had four hours to sleep before Charm would wake me. I tossed and turned in my bed for at least an hour before I remembered something extremely important.
Cassia had agreed to wear Elsa's dresses for an entire week. Even the truly scandalous ones.
This thought improved my mood, and I had wonderful dreams that I did not wish to wake from for the rest of the night.
Hey everyone, I'm going on vacation next week, and I won't have regular access to a computer. I will release all of next week's chapters in advance to avoid making scheduled release errors or waiting to fix mistakes that any of you might catch while I'm gone.
So we'll do things a bit differently this week: I will release five chapters (which will start an end a new arc) throughout the day on Thursday PST. Patreon subscribers will still get an additional chapter on top of that.
Thanks for reading!