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“Ciel…” Claptrap’s former co worker frowned, thinking very deeply. “Well, she hasn’t been here recently. But that’s because she’s preparing for the Regional Tournament, isn’ it? She can’t take time to shop when she’s got the hopes of the sect riding on her. She didn’t really come back much after you left anyway.”

Claptrap’s stomach did flips as he cleanly disengaged himself from the conversation with a clerk at the former location Claptrap managed and hurried outside. Instead of all of the rather pressing matters Claptrap could have handled, he had proceeded directly here, to ask about the woman who had changed his life. It seemed she was well.

She didn’t really come back much after you left anyway.

Probably just a coincidence, Claptrap thought, all the while sporting a shit eating grin. Since it seemed that Ciel was still doing well, he could investigate some other leads. So Claptrap hurried away, checking his old merchant contacts, talking business, the price of materials, the new methods of leather refinement, etc.

And then, to the contacts he trusted the most, Claptrap let slip that he might have access to a non-Engraving Guild made piece of armor, and distributed a few examples. Most were shocked at first, or fearful, but as they examined the armor more closely, greed rose up and washed away all of their misgivings. There certainly was something reliable about merchants that wasn’t true about anyone else; their motivations were rather clear.

But what made Claptrap sick was that one of the informants made a satisfied sound when he made this pitch, and said, “Ah, I’d heard about this. So you are the one who has the hook-up.”

It was one of his earlier visitations, and it was impossible that news from the other informants had already traveled all the way to this location. There was only one explanation: that someone in the city was already leaking the news.

The Engraving Guild wouldn’t be so sloppy to spread the news of it if it was planning to act, so the news must have come from a relatively ‘friendly’ party. It had to be the Style that had a deal with the Crashing Wave Style. It was extremely likely that this Style was a local powerhouse, with a high amount of influence.

So, strangely, after all of Claptrap’s social calls had been made, he found himself standing opposite the local branch of the Engraving Guild. Although Deardun was the capital of the Northern Region, it was the most sparsely populated, if largest, regions, and therefore the Engraving Guild had a relatively smaller presence. But it still was an ornately decorated building, stinking of money.

It was hard to keep his breathing steady as he looked at it. This was the enemy he was making, by selling the equipment Engraved by the Ghousthound for profit. It was an old and powerful enemy, with deep connections to the most powerful Styles of the Central Region. And yet… And yet he didn’t regret it. Because although Claptrap was timid, and relatively reasonable, there was an edge of madness to his actions. For Ciel…

He would do anything to capture the attention of that woman. No matter what enemies he had to make, or what devils he was forced to befriend-

“Claptrap!” The voice was high and melodic, the tone gay. Absolutely frozen stiff, Claptrap spun on his heel, turning to find a woman standing there. A woman in form fitting leather armor, and a soft pink skirt to add some feminine flair to the otherwise utilitarian outfit. She had large azure eyes, and her brown hair cascaded down past her shoulders, interspersed with thinly spun threads of gold. “I had heard you left the city! I’m so glad you came back. I missed my favorite merchant.”

With a wildly beating heart, Claptrap had to admit to himself that he had just come face to face with Ciel, and he was nowhere near prepared for it. Maybe if he had time to jot down a few lines for their reunion-

But Ciel already moved forward, and spread her arms, pulling him close into a hug, and she was warm and smelled-

“Come with me, we need to talk business.” Her whisper was soft, and urgent, and still kind, but it was a different sort of whisper, with none of the hollow warmth of her previously greeting. Something deep within Claptrap’s heart trembled.

As she pulled back, her face was still smiling warmly, but now Claptrap could see the edges of it; it was a hollow thing. And his chest slowly emptied of emotion. What was going on…?

As she talked lightly about various topics around Deardun, Ciel invited him for a drink to catch up and led him away, leading him deeper into the area of Deardun monopolized by the larger Styles. Then they entered into an inn and walked past the silent drinkers to a back room, with extravagant chairs.

It was strange. This was what he always wanted, to talk casually with Ciel like this. To feel as though she was interested in him. To feel connected to her. And yet…

After the door was safely closed behind them, she stopped speaking and yawned, draping herself across a chair. She gave him an apologetic smile.

“Ah, Claptrap, I apologize about that- oh, you probably don’t even remember me, do you? My name is Ciel, a disciple of the Steel Feather Style. I used to frequent a store you clerked at. To be honest, I didn’t remember you at all for a while either, but after a lot of thinking, I did remember a certain clerk with an extraordinarily reassuring face; thats you. I understand that you have done very well for yourself out in Qtal.”

Claptrap remained silent, struggling to process all the new information that she was dumping on him. She frowned at him, and asked, “Do you feel guilty, for all of that profit? Is that why you went to the Engraver Guild Branch?”

Still Claptrap remained silent, and Ciel asked, continuing, “Were you going to turn yourself in? There is still a lot of profit to be made, if your connection is still good.”

Finally Claptrap came back to himself, feeling strangely guilty. Had she thought that…? “What? No, I just... “

“Good, because as I’m sure you’ve worked out… the Steel Feather Style is very interested in what you’ve been doing. If you wait a few minutes-” She was interrupted by the opening of the door, and a man with a huge bristling beard walked through the door, with a beaming smile.

“Ah good! Ciel, you’ve already brought him. Welcome, Mr. Claptrap, I am Harnor Tath, the vice-patriarch of the Steel Feather Style in charge of training. Would you like something to drink, some food?”

With the new arrival, Ciel visibly withdrew, leaning back in her chair in relaxing, content that she had served her purpose. Because to her, their connection was just that. A coincidental previous series of encounters that she didn’t associate with any particular emotion other than… reassuring. It was extremely… Something. Claptrap couldn’t understand even what he was feeling right now, it was just a giant numb bundle that escaped his understanding, roaring in his chest.

But he was still a merchant. And the whole reason that he had left was because Claptrap knew that was all he was to her, even if he wanted to be more. He needed to be more than just a clerk. He needed to be a man, and this was his chance. And although he was strangely empty, he squared his shoulders and focused on Harnor Tath, to talk business.

As he did so, Claptrap grew very still. He would not have noticed it a few weeks ago, but there was something… indefinite about Harnor Tath. A potency to the air around him. Claptrap did not have much of a concept of strength. He simply didn’t associate very much with spear-users in situations where they displayed their strength. But recently Claptrap had spent a lot of time with the Ghosthound, and his spear attendants. He even had met the Ghosthound’s master, who was the son of the storied Spear Phantom.

This man… was a cut above that level of strength. The very air seemed to wiggle around him, filled with a strange, something. As his scrutiny and shock became obvious, Harnor simply smiled and laughed. “...perhaps I’ve underestimated you. Very few merchants notice. But yes… I am at the Adept level. What you are sensing is that I’m at the cusp of being able to become a Pontiff. But that cusp is a difficult threshold to cross.”

Ciel rolled her eyes. “Dad’s being generous. The fact that he’s this strong at his age is very impressive. It’s almost guaranteed that he will be named a Pontiff in his lifetime.”

“Nothing’s guaranteed,” Harnor said calmly, flashing a special smile at Ciel.

Claptrap became decidedly light headed. It was one thing to find out that the girl you had a crush on barely remembered you at all; it was another to then directly be plunged into a business discussion with her father, who was far, far, far, far above you in terms of personal and political power. He found his tongue thick and clumsy, unable speak.

Harnor then turned his attention back to Claptrap and began to ask more pointed questions about the equipment, the connection, the different runes available, and prices. After a time, Ciel excused herself and left, allowing them to continue the discussion in peace. Watching her leave hurt, but it swiftly made it much easier for Claptrap to speak, allowing the discussions to proceed much more swiftly.

“Is it a money issue?” Harnor asked quietly, with a frown on his face. Claptrap had previously said that while the offer was generously, he wasn’t sure if his connection would be able to produce much volume for a time. “And if it’s not the money, why- Ah, that individual is in the Regional Tournament, isn’t he? Or she. As my Ciel proves, power isn’t dependant on gender.”

Claptrap flushed red. He tried to think about a clever way to dismiss Harnor’s speculations, but couldn’t find any easy lines for why he would come to the city now, and why the flow of Engraved equipments would also coincidentally stop right now. It was too simple.

But at the same time, Claptrap was deathly afraid of what would happen if the Engraving Guild could discover the identity of the Ghosthound. If they did, they would take action against the Ghosthound long before they would come after him. Eliminating the supply of unofficially Engraved equipment was much more important than punishing the merchant that sold it, or at least Claptrap hoped so.

So all Claptrap could do was open his mouth, close it, and then shrug helplessly. Harnor smiled.

“Well, then that’s fine. You have our offer. If you have product you want to move, come to the Steel Feather Style and state that you are a friend of Ciel’s; I’ll have word put out to the guards that will bring you to the right people.”

Harnor got up to leave, and then hesitated at the door, before turning back around towards Claptrap. “Ah, and one free piece of advice. The preliminaries of the Regional Tournament this year… Tell your friend that what is important is perseverance. I hope to hear from you soon.”

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