Two days came and went, all while the two of us made preparations for our visit to this noble's house.
I'd spent nearly all day yesterday coaching and enacting dialogue and situations with her. I wasn't sure what else I could do to prepare at this point.
It was almost ironic. Amalia seemed more relaxed about this than I was. The closer things got, the more I felt anxiety building. I'd run through a lot of scenarios and established a backstory for her visit, but considering 'magic tools' and the like, I wasn't sure how well it would hold. I was having second thoughts.
"Are you sure your face is clean?" "Yup!"
"Do your clothes have any wrinkles in them?" "Nope! You somehow got them all out!"
"Did you eat enough? Does your stomach feel well?" "Breakfast was delicious!"
"How about your sword? Do you have the cube?" "Yup and yup again!"
Ahh. What is this nagging feeling, like I'm forgetting something? I don't like this.
Amalia had been nothing but cheerful. It seemed like the better mood she was in, the more I worried. Whenever things went too well, I began questioning when they'd go wrong. That's just how it normally went.
With great trepidation in my core, we followed the directions given by the Hall and a random passerby. This brought us to a rather large piece of property in a district of the town I was unfamiliar with. While we'd been in some of the back alleys and viewed the 'slum areas' from a safe distance, this was the opposite in nature. It seemed we'd entered the 'rich' part of Berrios.
While Amalia was now better dressed for the part, it felt like we were sticking out more than usual. The thought formed in my mind that perhaps it was a bit unusual for a relatively young girl to walk through here alone, unguarded, and with a sword at her side. There was less foot traffic in this area, too, and all the buildings seemed a bit larger.
Well, they were still unimpressive to me, but it was a nice step up.
We came to a large property surrounded by a wall and wrought iron fencing. Wooden pillars segmented the fencing every so often. While the property itself wasn't some huge mansion, it was still at odds with what I'd come to expect from this low-tech world. There were two guards at the gate, along with a few people already present. A line?
We stood at the back while I eavesdropped on their conversations. Apparently, the two men in front of us had business with the owner. The guards were dressed similarly to the knights we'd seen prior, while the two men in front were a bit more varied. One wore what appeared to be chainmail, while the other a more simple, brown robe.
Their discussions finished. Chainmail-man had entered the place accompanied by a guard, while the brown robe left the scene after relaying a message. Seems it was something hush-hush, as they spoke in whispers.
Amalia approached the man. I was tucked away around her neck, observing the situation while camouflaging the small bit of flesh that was exposed.
"This is the Biron residence. State your business!" the guard's voice boomed forth.
"My name is Amalia Alcott. I am here on behalf of my Mistress to examine someone who was injured, as posted on the request at the Hall."
As I listened to Amalia's clear soprano tone, it was sharply interrupted by a small snort from the guard.
"A child?" the man began muttering to himself, "This is the eighth one already today. Honestly, even kids now."
He cleared his throat, "Kid, I'm not trying to be rude, but this isn't a place you can come and go as you please. Just because there's a large reward posted for healing the Young Miss, doesn't mean you should lose your bearings. Numerous healers in the town have already tried with little success."
As a passenger, I could do little but hope Amalia was able to direct the conversation well. My body tensed up.
With a small chuckle, she replied, "Sir, I'm not trying to be rude either, and I'm sure you've had many visitors lately, but if you discriminate based on someone's appearance and turn away actual help, can you truly bear the burden of that responsibility?"
At this, the man was visibly caught off guard. I heard his voice catch in his throat.
"I don't mind leaving if you insist, but that means my Mistress, Rozalin, will definitely write this venture off as a waste of time. That's no great loss to her, but when I saw Lord Biron's troubled face as he posted the request, I immediately begged her to let me come examine the situation.
"Perhaps, ..." she drew her words out with deliberate intonation, "Perhaps that was unnecessary?"
There was a grunt, followed by a pause and shift in tone. The guard grudgingly replied, "You have identification, I assume?"
Amalia affirmed happily, before presenting it.
"Wait here. Once another guard returns, I will escort you inside. Lord Biron is busy this afternoon with discussions and interviews. You will be free to sit inside the lounge until someone is available."
At this, we stood waiting for a short time. I could feel Amalia's heart pounding faster.
Ahh, I could kiss her right now! Who knew my dumb dog-kid could speak so well when she tried? That training and having faith really paid off! I'd have to spoil her after this, most definitely.
I whispered to her, "That was marvelous. You did very well."
"I'm so nervous, Rozzy. I can barely feel my feet, and my palms are all sweaty. I haven't talked like that to anyone in ages."
"It was perfect. Keep your chin up. As I said, even if you aren't feeling confident, pretend to be. Be proud and maintain eye contact. Remember our lessons."
Yes, that's what she needed to do. If she kept that wishy-washy, subservient attitude all the time, she'd be walked all over. I think her nervous tic was something she'd developed the past few years. I needed to scrub that filth off and polish her up. She'd obviously had an education and the like prior, so I'm glad she could do this if she put her mind to it.
Over the past week, I've realized that Amalia responds well to encouragement and someone relying on her. If I could continue playing on those features, sooner or later I'd be able to thoroughly engrain such mannerisms into her. For now, I just needed her to act for a short while.
The previous guard returned, at which point the one we spoke to began to escort us inside. The inner courtyard was actually ... surprisingly nice. There were trimmed hedges; a clear, stone walkway; several attendants; and even a water fountain. Compared to what I'd seen of this world so far, despite the simple elegance, I was a bit impressed.
"Please wait here and someone will be with you shortly," the man said, before closing a door behind us. The room we were in was rectangular with several wooden chairs lining the walls. A few paintings were hung, obviously done by an artisan's hand to depict previous family members. Two more guards stood in front of a large set of oval doors.
"Amalia, I don't mean to be rude or pry, but when you were growing up ... how does this house compare to when you lived in Kulve? Like, as far as size or how fancy it is. Basically, are these owners ridiculously rich?"
I felt her shoulders slump a little, "Mm, well ... it's much larger and nicer. I'd have to look around more, but my father preferred simpler ornaments and furniture. 'This is practical!' he'd always say. It seems they even have more people on staff. I don't think there's any use comparing the two."
By the end, she sounded a bit forlorn. I knew it was rude of me to ask such a thing, but I wanted to make sure this wasn't standard nobility. If that had been true, there was a massive wealth gap. Most likely, this was among the 1-percent as far as housing went in this town. Still, that meant that even nicer housing existed elsewhere. With the existence of magic and this information, I held hope.
I decided to change the tone to divert the somber mood.
"Amalia, I plan to acquire such an agreeable home in the future. If that happens, would you ... would you like to stay with me?"
I heard her stifle a giggle, "You'd be the richest Slime in the world if you could buy a house like this. But, ... that sounds nice—having a good home again. Maybe someday."
"Don't underestimate this Slime's business sense," I joked, "If I have enough time, I'm sure I can find a way."
Well, I hoped so anyway. I was growing displeased with caves.
There was some more idle chatter as we sat and waited in the room. After 10 minutes, out came a man dressed in some poofy pants, white undershirt, and a vest. He seemed to have a rather self-important air, judging by the angle he held his chin and his stride. For some reason, it made me want to smack him a few times.
He cleared his throat excessively before speaking in a nasal tone, "My name is Beaumont, Steward of House Biron. You are?"
"Amalia Alcott," I felt her press against me in salute, "Pleased to make your acquaintance, distinguished Steward of House Biron."
This fellow seemed to perk up at that one bit. Was he ... Was he weak to flattery?
"Yes, well. Tell me, miss Alcott, what brings you here?"
Amalia explained to the man our reason for coming, similar to the guard outside. Though without the barb and underlying threat this time. Shame, I liked that part. She even threw a few more compliments his way, causing a gross smile to appear on his face.
He spoke, "We appreciate good sentiments, but I will apologize for my curtness. None of the other Healers or Mages have had much success. What makes you think you will?"
A tough question, but I'd be disappointed had they not expressed skepticism.
"As I've said, I am only taken under Mistress Rozalin's wing. I am claiming no such thing. She entrusted me with two magic items and instructed me to arrange a meeting myself. I am examining and recording the result, at which point she'll tell me her judgment on the spot."
"On the spot? And how is such a thing possible?" he asked. I'd been waiting for this question and long-since verified its plausibility with my trusty pooch.
"Mistress Rozalin is able to communicate with me at range. She possesses such a Skill. One of the magic items is meant to provide visual information, while the other will help gauge the patient's condition and depth of the damage."
Amalia spoke of a few more things with the man, before he turned and told us to stay here for a moment. Things seemed to be going well. It would appear he went to consult someone, as when the doors opened this Beaumont fellow was accompanied by a familiar face. It was that man we met the other day, Alphonse Biron.
I felt Amalia tense up a bit. In a way, we'd encountered the final boss in this whole scenario. I couldn't help but worry. That same, deep and dry voice washed over us, almost as if it were carried by magic.
"Greetings, Miss Alcott. My Steward has informed me of the details of your arrival. It is a pleasure to receive you today. Forgive me for my disheveled appearance, I've found myself quite busy of late."
She saluted, this time going so far as to kneel on one knee. I'm assuming this is some sort of noble-greeting?
"No such thing, Sir Biron. Forgive me for not recognizing you at the Hall, I am not familiar with the nobility in Berrios. My father was a Knight-Captain in Kulve, where I've recently traveled from. My name is Amalia Alcott—I hope I may be of service, your Lordship."
The man chuckled, "There's no need for such a formal salute, miss. I've long since retired from duty. It's been a long time since I've swung a sword. I seem to favor brandishing the pen much more, these days."
"Respect where it is due, Sir."
It got quiet for a moment. He seemed to be examining us.
"Your father sounds like a good man," came his praise. There was a short pause. I felt Amalia exhale.
"Yes. He was a good man. He was my hero."
"... Ah. If he has passed, then allow me to give my condolences."
"Thank you, Sir. I am sure you are a busy man so I shall be brief. It is your daughter, yes? If it pleases you, may I examine her condition? It shouldn't take long."
It was at this point a short conversation ensued. Biron asked Amalia a few more questions about her purpose, most of which fell flat due to the artificial nature of this visit. Hard to ask the 'messenger' anything detailed. I could figure out how to handle a follow up at a later date. Some strict instructions were given along with a brief pat-down by a female staff member. Amalia's shortsword was set aside.
We waited only a short moment before being escorted to another part of the manor, before arriving at another set of doors. The Steward knocked and announced our arrival, at which point I heard a melodic voice from the other side of the wall. There was something about that voice that seemed peculiar.
Upon entry, we were brought into a large and well-furnished bedroom. There was a set of glass doors opposite that led outside to a garden. Most eye-catching was the large bed, draped with curtains. Oddly, I didn't notice anyone present.
"Dear Aryana, we've more visitors come to see you," Biron spoke, softly, yet clear.
While I looked curiously around the room, it wasn't long before I hear someone stirring. The curtains surrounding the bed parted, revealing a young woman in a white, silk dress. Immediately my gaze was drawn to her face, of which the left side was bandaged.
"More, Father? I am ... still a bit weary."
This woman, 'Aryana,' was incredibly pale. But most importantly, that nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach had turned into a herd of galloping stallions. A memory surfaced, and I soon recalled exactly who I was looking at.
It was her. That girl from the cave. She survived.
My mind threatened to go blank.
"I'm sorry, child. We've one more young lady here to see you. She is here on behalf of her Mistress, a mage of some skill ..."
Biron briefly explained the situation to his daughter, at which she replied with a sigh, "I see."
This situation was outside of my calculations. I'd scarcely expected that girl to live. She hadn't seen me in the cave, so I should be safe. Yet that nagging persisted. What if there was some sort of magic or Skill she possessed that could incriminate me as having finished off that old witch?
I was beginning to regret not having the means nor effort to dispose of her and that armored man I'd encountered. Was there some way I could probe her for information? It's been over a week since that incident. I should be safe. I should.
Amalia's voice snapped me from my reverie, "I'm sorry to disturb you, ma'am. I am unsure if my Mistress or myself will be of use, but she has saved my life and is providing treatment for an illness of my own."
She'd continued on with the script, while my mind began to deviate. Was I secure? Can I use this? Should we flee? Everything jumbled together. I couldn't decide. The bad feeling in my stomach was telling me I didn't want to be here right now.
Calm down, calm down. It's fine. You disposed of the evidence. That old woman was on her last legs anyway. She probably would've died in that cave even without my actions. Think! What was her name again? Cassa ... Castella?
I started counting backward from 10, a plan forming. I told myself several lies and exaggerations to feel better.
"If it's alright, I'll be starting preparations now," came Amalia's voice. Normally it would sound as sweet as honey, but now it felt like a looming deadline or executioner's axe.
Amalia explained what she was about to do to the three people present. A metal cube roughly three centimeters at each side was retrieved from a waist pouch. I had created and polished it the prior day, before embedding a diamond on one side for appearance's sake. If anyone closely examined it, they'd realize it was nothing more than a lump of iron and gemstone—completely non-magical in nature. For now, anyway.
I'd expected Amalia to be unable to bring her sword into the residence, so I needed another object to act as a focus. While she held her hand in the pouch, I slipped over Amalia's shuffling hand, contorting and tearing myself until I resembled a glove.
I mentally gave her the OK signal, at which point she pulled both myself and the cube out. Care had to be taken, as I understood my body weight would tire her. I moved as far up her arm as possible, hiding within her clothes. As she set the cube down on a nearby stand, I injected Mana into the metal with my Domain Skill. The room instantly lit up, giving me an improvised form of vision yet again.
Should anyone have a Skill similar to Magic Sensory, both the 'glove' and cube would indeed appear to be magical items rife with Mana. Amalia 'explained' the function of these items—which was, of course, bullshit I'd made up by sprinkling lies over the truth. I'd learned from the visit to the Knight's Barracks. If a lie detection-type item was used, we needed an explanation that wouldn't trigger such a thing.
"Just a moment. I'm going to consult my Mistress and tell her we're about to start," Amalia spoke, before switching over to the Link, "Roz, is everything okay? Can I begin?"
"I'm ready, go ahead."
Amalia spoke with the woman named Aryana, instructing her to remove the fabric covering her face. I would need direct contact with the skin for best effect. My core was hidden and unable to view the sight directly. Though I could only make out the young woman's form from Domain's effect, Amalia's sudden intake of air spoke volumes about her condition.
Amalia held her hands to her chest, speaking in a whisper, "You poor thing. That looks ... so painful."
"Painful?" Aryana laughed derisively, "It's nothing more than a reminder of my failures. That knowledge is more painful than anything."
The air was heavy.
Lord Biron was the one to disturb the silence, clearing his throat, "Perhaps, Miss Alcott, if you could continue. My daughter has been through much, and I'd prefer to let her rest as much as possible."
Amalia nodded in affirmation, as we moved over to the girl's bedside. She sat side by side with Aryana, and I soon found my flesh come into contact with the girl's face. Amalia's movements were exceedingly slow and gentle. After a second, I realized why.
The girl's face had been turned into a disfigured mess, something straight out of a comic book or horror show. The left side of her head had been melted like a wax figure. The flesh had been scarred beyond belief. Her eye and nose hadn't even been spared. It looked like her body was still attempting to heal and fight infection. Most likely, had they not given her medical attention already, she would have bled out. I can only imagine how bad it was when she was first attacked.
My stomach wanted to churn a bit. For some reason, the extent of this damage disgusted me. It would've been easier to look at had it been rendered to a bloody pulp. Acidic damage was ... frightening.
I only had a second to process this information. If I stalled, questions would arise. I began pouring healing Mana into the girl's face, examining and delving deeper into the tissue. Aryana let out a soft gasp.
"Are you alright, dear?" came Biron's worried tone, as he edged closer. Her reply came swiftly.
"I'm fine, Father. The Mana just caught me off guard."
It was good that we hadn't been stopped, but honestly speaking ... I had no clue what to do with such a grievous injury. Rejuvenation wasn't something that could help in such a situation. While its Mana cost was relatively low, it was limited to natural regeneration. It accelerated and improved—not created skin from already-dead and scarred over flesh.
If I didn't do something, we'd be discredited. My plan wouldn't work. How can I fix this girl? What can I do to gain trust? I need something, even if only minor.
I kept pouring Mana into her face while scrambling for a plan. If nothing else, the healing would provide soothing relief.
Knowledge of Aryana's condition was swirling around in my head. The information I received kept splashing on a mental canvas. All my practice so far with Amalia's body and the minor injuries and poisonings she'd sustained had formed the wooden frame, while today's examination wove into the fiber and stretched over that canvas.
It wasn't enough. I needed more. Magic was all well and good—as illogical as it tended to be—but it wasn't a cure-all. Mana seemed to be the rough equivalent of throwing money at a problem and hoping it fixed itself. The approach itself was often sound, but flawed.
I should be looking at this another way. Medical knowledge. Modern study. The way magic interacted with the cells seemed to be the key. Bone, sinew, nerves, muscle, the layers of skin. I wasn't a doctor, but I could at least boast that I had paid attention to my studies. And given all I've been observing about how magic interacted with the biological processes. ...
Ahh. That’s it. That’s what I’ve been missing this whole time.
Amplified Healing Lvl.1 Acquired!
There’s no way in hell I’ll be able to fix all this. No, not at all. It'd take days of tinkering to gain the expertise, plus more Mana than I possess. But in the very least, I can do something about the nerve endings. They’re practically crying out right now. Did they use potions to seal the wound? That might explain this tissue's condition. This was perfect.
”What’s wrong, ‘Yana?!” Biron hollered.
“The pain ... I think it's, it’s fading.”
Biron turned to Amalia, "What's going on, exactly? Isn't this supposed to be an examination?"
"Shh..." she hushed, "My Mistress is concentrating. I need to focus, too."
My work continued for several minutes, with Biron pacing back and forth. The Steward Beaumont had been summoned elsewhere at some point and left, leaving us four in the room. I continued working on the nerve endings to heal the area around them best as possible. It wasn't perfect, but in the very least her face wouldn't feel like it was burning all the time.
When I finally signaled my work done, Amalia slowly removed her hand from the woman's face. I gave her the rundown on how things went and what to say.
"Mistress Rozalin has completed her evaluation. She says that some relief measures would be possible, but at this time ... umm, how did it go again?" she finished, trailing off.
I wanted to slap myself in the face. I also wanted to hit her, but it was probably my fault for using technical terms. I repeated and simplified the explanation.
"Erm, I'm sorry. I didn't understand the explanation," Amalia laughed dryly at the two, "She says, 'Facial reconstruction to pre-accident condition is outside my skill level due to scar tissue and ... nerve endings?' "
At this, Biron's shoulders visibly sagged as he was likely about to reply. I quickly urged Amalia to follow up, having her parrot my words.
"Mistress Rozalin says that while she may not be able to heal Miss Aryana now, that is mostly because Healing magic is not her specialty. She will continue to study the topic, and should you not have found someone able to heal Miss Aryana by then, she will look into stopping by in the future. If that happens, she hopes that the relief provided today will at least make such a wait bearable."
At this, Amalia stood up and took us a short distance away from the bedside, allowing Biron to quickly take our seat.
Biron turned to Aryana, holding her hand, "Dear, how is it? How do you feel?"
"The pain seems to, to have lessened. If I don't move or touch it, it's no longer throbbing," she replied quietly.
I watched as she gingerly caressed the still-damaged skin with the tips of her fingers. Yes, this was enough.
Once more, I instructed Amalia.
"Mistress Rozalin would like to know if you have relations with a woman named Castella."
This was the important question. I had a hunch, but confirming was necessary.
The air went quiet. I could barely make out Aryana grasping her father's hand more tightly, as her head bowed down. After a long moment, she finally croaked out a few words.
"Yes. Castella was ... was my teacher. It was my fault that, that now she ... Now she's—"
A bubble of guilt threatened to build up inside me upon witnessing this girl's condition and reaction. However, for the most part, my brain was in overdrive on how to work this to my advantage. I squashed that bubble.
"Mistress says that she owes Castella a small debt and that it was Castella who taught her some magic in the past. She suspected you were a student of hers, which is part of her willingness to send me in her place. Mistress does not like appearing in public, but in the future should she stop, hopes that you will forgive her appearance and eccentricities.
"Mistress has heard the news recently of Castella's latest expedition and assumed passing. She sends her condolences and hopes that you will not blame yourself for whatever may have transpired."
By this point, the fact tears were streaming down the young woman's face was noted despite my limited view. The cries she was letting out were proof enough. A choked 'thank you' ensued.
It was time for the two of us to pack up and get the hell out of here. A small service had been rendered, a relationship established, and 'good-will' earned. If we were lucky, there might even be some form of monetary reward. That remained to be seen and would depend on Biron's generosity.
The entirely-plain metal cube was pocketed and Amalia 'took off' the 'magic item' in the shape of a glove. Now that I was back to my original hiding spot, vision was restored.
Amalia bowed towards the two, leaving behind a few more well-wishes and pangs of sympathy. It was when I noticed a drop at the edge of her chin that I realized Amalia, too, had been silently crying. I wasn't sure how to feel about this.
Lord Biron escorted us back to the main hall, making small talk and expressing his thanks. Amalia did receive a small pouch from the man, which I was very interested in opening once we escaped. Apparently a 'small token of thanks'. I doubted it was a full 10 gold Leafs, but a tiny fraction of that seemed likely, given the jingling. Fantastic!
While I was guessing the pouch's exact contents and budgeting living expenses in my head, Biron's voice interrupted my happy thoughts. Once we arrived at the main hall, he called out to a man.
"Ah! Knight-Captain, I'm sorry to have kept you waiting."
Standing in front of us was the person we'd spotted at the entrance line earlier, the man in chainmail. Beside him stood another man that I didn't quite recognize. His gray beard and facial scars signified age, and he wore a set of simple clothes like you'd see on nearly any 'peasant' or commoner outside. That wasn't to say he looked poor, as the clothes themselves were clean and immaculate despite their plain and rough look. Wasn't the attire a bit out of place, though?
"Alphonse! I'm sorry to pester you yet again. We've returned from the expedition last night and needed to speak to Miss Aryana. There are a few holes in Blake's story, so I was hoping she'd be able to help with our report were she conscious now."
That gruff voice seemed awfully familiar. While pondering, Amalia was the one who managed to break my stupor.
"Sir!" she exclaimed, saluting the plain-attired man. I could feel her lower back twitching, trying hard not to let her tail wag. Why was she so excited?
More confusion. I watched the man twirl a finger around his beard, directing his gaze our way. He too seemed to be a bit confused by her gesture. Unfortunately, his confusion lasted much shorter than mine.
"Oh! What's this? Aren't you that girl we spotted along the roadside several days back? I'm quite surprised to see you here, of all places. You appear to be doing well. Forgive me and my old age, but what was your name again?"
"Amalia Alcott, Sir!"
"Ah, that's right. A pleasure to meet you again, Miss."
Biron spoke, "Have you met before, Captain Hendrickson? Young Amalia here was assisting myself with Aryana's injuries. Her Mistress was actually able to make some progress, whereas the other Healers in this town could only balk at 'Yana's plight."
His tone shifted to a hard stance with a hint of venom by the end. Meanwhile, the lightbulbs in my head finally went off. Hendrickson. That was the Knight-Captain I told myself I would eat last. Then, the man in chainmail was? ... No, it was a different man. Not that annoying one from before.
"Hmm? That's most surprising," he turned to us, "It sounds like you've met quite the person there, child. You look nothing like that little urchin we spotted before. Good for you."
"Th-Thank you, Sir! Mistress Rozalin has been taking good care of me the past several days."
Hendrickson was patting Amalia's shoulder. Panic felt like it was welling up in the pit of my stomach. Having these people together could compromise our story. It would be best to leave immediately. This man was dangerous.
"If you don't mind waiting a short while, Hendrickson, then I'll have Aryana prepare. She is likely still a bit emotional, so I hope you'll forgive her."
Biron motioned for a servant, before giving them instructions and sending them off.
Hendrickson waved his hand, "Not a problem. She can take her time, Alphonse. I dread finishing this report anyway, y'know. Seems like the Blades will be stopping."
This seemed to pique Biron's interest, "The Blades? Why?"
Questions were floating around in my head. Escape routes being calculated. What I needed to relay to Amalia considered.
Hendrickson looked our way, before rubbing the back of his head.
"Well ... Not like it's a great secret or security issue to anyone present, but ... Seems like that Dungeon we were investigating got it's Core stolen or destroyed. Can you imagine that? Someone dumb enough to mess with a Core, like they don't know what that means. King's gonna want to send in the Blades to investigate. Treason and all that."
Excuse me? What?!
Biron laughed, "That does sound strange. It's been quite a while since I've heard a Core get destroyed. I can see why you're so hesitant. If the Black Blades are stopping out here, I wouldn't want to work with them either. Sure it isn't about time to retire, old friend?"
The two laughed for a short period. Meanwhile, my thoughts were utter chaos.
I whispered to Amalia, "We need to leave Berrios. I think I messed up."
Amalia started to question me and respond, but the flow of conversation continued before I could fully explain. We got cut off. My anxiety was building. I was forced to take in their chit-chat.
Hendrickson let out a large sigh, "Perhaps I really should retire. They'll probably put me on duty with those fellows. Creepy bastards. If Miss Aryana can clear up a few things, we can finish the report. We've narrowed things down a bit, but they'll want to send in specialists to ... ahem! Anyway. Enough of that boring, work talk."
Boring talk?! Why did you stop there! Tell me what they're going to do or send!
Curses began billowing forward in my mind. The Knight-Captain cleared his throat and turned toward Amalia, who was still holding that salute.
"Miss, you can stop saluting now. I'm off-duty anyway," came an exasperated tone.
Her voice was flustered, "A-Apologizes, Sir!"
He shook his head, "Your Father must have been a great knight and parent to have raised such a respectful daughter. I hate to ask, but did you stop in at the Knight's Barracks? How did things go?"
Her shoulders stiffened, "It ... went about as well as you expected, Sir."
"Hmm, that figures. Those scribes and officers always were sticklers," he sighed.
"Is Miss Amalia here a knight, Hendrickson?" Biron asked.
"Of course not, Alphonse. Do you expect those idiots in the office to have any common sense?" asked the man.
This prompted a query from Biron, which was answered, "Miss Amalia's father was a Knight-Captain in Kulve. Her mother was apparently a beastkin. Knowing those scribes, do you follow the rest of what happened?"
Y-Y-You! Shut the fuck up, old man! Why are you outing us like that!? This could put a serious damper on our relationship with a high-ranking noble!
I wanted to claw my head open in frustration. Amalia began shaking a little underneath me. Most likely, she was beginning to fall back into those wimpy, anxious mannerisms now that her 'disguise' had been exposed. Damn it! What should I do!?
Biron cupped his chin, turning his attention to Amalia's face and examining her more thoroughly.
"She really doesn't look it. I assume the hood and cloak are for the ears and tail, then? Given my limited impression, that's still a shame. Seems like they really botched such an application. Not like there aren't a few Halfs in the army anyway."
Lord Biron sighed, rubbing his stubble with a free hand. Inspiration seemed to strike him.
"It's unfortunate I've retired and hold no official rank, else I'd be more than happy to chat with you longer and potentially make a recommendation. You've done a good service for my daughter and I, after all. Hendrickson, why don't you ..."
Biron cleared his throat. Hendrickson seemed to take a hint, as his eyes lit up, "Ahh, that's right! That wouldn't be a problem if I'm rememberin' right. Seems like these old bones might still be of use after all."
A hearty laugh. I watched as Hendrickson turned towards us, a smile on his face, "Little Miss, what do ya say? Want this old man here to give you a recommendation? If you're okay with me getting to know ya a bit more first, I doubt I'd mind tossing in my support."
My head emptied. This was the worst possible outcome.
I could feel Amalia's breathing become agitated and catch in her chest. Screw restraint, her tail was now wagging furiously! I felt the lower muscles in her back engaging in overdrive—the fabric of her clothes being forced to shuffle.
I didn't know what to do. I needed to run away from this place. If they were sending some sort of King's hit squad to investigate and they had even a single, tiny way to track me down, I was thoroughly and utterly fucked. I needed distance, time, a disguise, everything!
And now this bastard was offering the very thing Amalia wanted all her life! How the hell was I supposed to compete with that!? I can't stay here either, it's way too dangerous!
Think, god damn it! What do I do!? I don't have anything worth that much! Damn it, damn it! What can I say!? What should I do?
... Ah. That's right. There was nothing. I had nothing to offer like that. I'd just be alone again. I'd have to ... yeah, I'd have to start over. Hide somewhere for a long while. I had an idea what the surface was like. Gathering information was the whole plan initially. That was done now, right? So it doesn't matter. I'm used to being alone anyway. I'd be able to do it. Or maybe, ... I could, I could—
"I'm sorry, Sir, but I can't right now."
My thoughts spun. I realized Amalia's tail had stopped wagging, and she was gripping her clothes tightly.
Did I mishear? What? Why did she—
"I appreciate the offer more than anything. I'd love to serve Brita under you. But if I left Mistress Rozalin, I think she'd—... I still need to repay her for everything. And speak with her first."
Her clear tone was replaced by Hendrickson's gruff one, "Ah? Is that so? A shame, seems I might've been too late then."
I watched numbly as Hendrickson laughed and rubbed the back of his head. Amalia giggled too.
Her voice came again, "Perhaps in the future I'll seek you out again. If you really meant that, I would love more than anything else to follow in my father's footsteps."
Amalia gestured the man once more, doing that salute. This time she bowed deeply. I felt her hand press against part of me.
"Thank you so, so very much, Sir."
I didn't understand.
"The honor is all mine, Miss Alcott."
I just don't understand.