“Another perfect score,” Judy stated flatly at the end of the last song by some lesser-known pop band. I emerged from my thoughts and looked at the other girl grinning broadly in front of me. After a second or two I returned the gesture, albeit weakly. My reaction must not have been satisfying enough, since the princess’ smile quickly withered and got replaced by the apex predator of all pouts.
“Don’t you have anything to say?” She asked me as her brows twitched dangerously.
“Good job. You are a great singer.” I answered in a machine-like fashion, which only made her pout even harder.
“You didn’t mean that at all!”
“I did,” I told her with a sigh, “You cannot expect the same enthusiasm after the... what was it, the sixth time?”
“Eighth,” Judy corrected me while she was poking at the touchscreen of the song picker.
The princess turned her nose up with a huff and sat down beside me, letting Judy onto the center stage of the small karaoke booth. In retrospect I felt a little sorry for her, so I tried to come up with some minor praise, but I never had the chance to say it as Judy began singing and I once again felt myself slip into a tired stupor.
It was more about mental exhaustion than physical, though the latter also played a role in my sour disposition. After my encounter with the creature on Friday I had spent all my time knee-deep in research. I didn’t know how other survivors of near-death encounters coped with the experience, but in my case it manifested as a compulsion to find out as much as I could about my assailant lest I would be found flat-footed again.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t turn up much. It was a Faun, one of the demi-human foot soldiers of the Abyssals. Of that I was fairly certain. However, I could not find any reference to the outline lightshow that we engaged in. Not only that, according the Celestial Hub, Faun were supposed to be these inarticulate monstrosities that only cared about fighting and destruction, another bit that didn’t fit my attacker’s modus operandi. I was getting so desperate I even tried to call Snowy, but she had her phone turned off all weekend for some reason.
It was more than a little infuriating. I had the entire celestial intelligence network at my disposal, combined with having an actual Abyssal in my phonebook, and yet I still came up blank. And then there was the date— *cough* excuse me; the outing. I was tempted to pull the plug on it, or at the very least postpone it, but both Judy and the princess kept bombarding me with text messages about their plans, and I just didn’t have the heart to rain on their parade. Not to mention, while that Faun was probably really, really dangerous, he didn’t actually ‘attack’ me per se. Or maybe he did? No, in hindsight I can say that whatever that special effects show was back there, it didn’t feel like an attack. Not to mention that I was reasonably certain that if he wanted me dead, I wouldn’t have been sitting in this karaoke booth; and I couldn’t even attribute the uninterrupted continuation of this old habit of mine called breathing to just staying indoors for all Saturday. My wooden front door probably wasn’t going to stop him if he really wanted to come in.
In retrospect my dat—outing turned out to be fairly uneventful. That didn’t mean it wasn’t hectic, tiring and positively exhausting, but at least there was no sign of the Faun anywhere.
Now, I wasn’t saying that the day was all bad. When it started it was actually fairly exciting, as seeing the two girls in their casual clothes was a refreshing experience… though I suppose I have already seen Judy like that, but this time she seemed to put extra effort into her appearance. She was wearing a knit sweater under a light coat with farmers and ankle-boots, which fit the season pretty well and she looked pretty good in it. The real surprise was the princess, who showed up in a low-cut blouse with a short skirt and stockings with a pair of long boots. I asked her if she wasn’t cold, but apparently she was fine. Draconic physiology, I supposed. Needless to say, I felt a little under-dressed, as I was only wearing my uniform’s trousers and shirt with one of the long black coats that I had about twenty of (for some reason) on top of it all. The girls insisted it suited me, but I still regretted not wearing a different pair of shoes at the very least.
Not that these silly wardrobe-issues held my attention for long, as it was hard to keep my mind off the Faun and our encounter, and the girls quickly noticed I didn’t have my whole heart in the activities. Speaking of activities, the two of them apparently couldn’t agree on exactly where to go and what to do, so we went everywhere and did everything.
The morning started out with heading to the zoo, followed by a snack at a bakery at the other end of the town, after which we had a brief window-shopping session ending with a short lunch at a fancy restaurant. Afterward we visited an aquarium, watched a god-awful romantic comedy in the cinema and finally ended up in the karaoke bar tucked away in a corner of the shopping district.
I involuntarily shuddered and blinked with what I hoped wasn’t a particularly stupid expression before the words properly registered and I took the microphone from the hand extended towards me. I stood up and walked to the song picker.
But back to the topic of the outing: While I wouldn’t say we had a bad time, there was something of a tension in the air between the three of us, and for obvious reasons. I knew for a fact that the princess had a crush on me, which was complicated by her earlier crush on Joshua. Judy was… complicated in a different way. She has never been as obvious or over-the-top as the princess, but my assistant has also given me plenty of signs of interest, and if her rivalry with the other girl has shown anything, she was serious.
That left me as the final arbiter, and to be perfectly honest, I wished the entire ordeal to hell. Why? Take this particular day for example. By all intents and purposes, this little outing should have been a blast. I was spending time with two people I liked, we were going around to places traditionally associated with fun, and even without that, just hanging out with my friends like this should have been enjoyable in and of itself… and yet it wasn’t. Not really. It felt more like we were eyeing each other for the whole time; waiting for someone else to break the ice and address the elephant in the room, but neither of them did it. Though again, nor did I. Stones and glass houses, eh?
And so we were here, trapped in this non-relationship where no one really dared to make the first move in fear of ruining it for everyone… God, I hate these stupid social Gordian knots…
“Are you okay?”
“Hm?” I was a little startled as I looked up and met the princess’ eyes. “Yes, why?”
“You have been cycling through the songs for two minutes,” My assistant supplied the answer. I frowned and glanced down at my hand, which was still absent-mindedly poking at the screen. I stopped and stifled a groan.
“I’m fine, I just… I was just lost in thought.”
My two companions looked at each other skeptically.
“Chief… If you don’t feel well, we can always end the day early.”
“Nah,” I shook my head as I began cycling through the songs again. “I’m fine. Just give me a moment.”
I sighed inwardly. Great. Now I even made them worried. This was steadily shaping up to be the best worst double non-date in the history of ever…
“Say whatever you want, I definitely won,” The princess declared smiling like a well-fed cat.
“That is quite the achievement, considering it wasn’t a competition,” My assistant responded in a deadpan grumble.
“You just say that because you lost.”
“Once again, and I cannot stress this enough, I couldn’t have lost since it wasn’t a competition.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you were the one who won.”
My assistant sent her a scathing glare (read: she slightly furrowed her brows) before she turned to me and said, “Chief, please say something.”
“Huh? Sorry, what were you talking about?”
This time she turned said scathing glare to me, but at last she shook her head and said, “Nothing.”
To be perfectly honest, I was listening (otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to describe what they were saying, duh). I just refused to get involved in their bickering. Not that I wouldn’t have stepped in if the situation evolved into a full-fledged argument, but as things stood, I needed my attention elsewhere.
We were already on our way home after the last stop of our outing, a dinner at fancy restaurant (a different one than where we had our lunch). The sky became overcast while we were at the karaoke bar, so dusk settled a little earlier than usual. Because of that I was paying extra attention to our environment, scanning every alleyway and crossroad for signs of the mysterious Faun.
I even went as far as to try and use my Far Sight to find him, but no matter how hard I tried to picture him in my mind, I couldn’t see anything. Maybe I needed to have prolonged contact with people to be able to look for them? Or maybe it could be as simple as knowing their actual name (which in this case I didn’t)? Damn, I was always putting off learning more about my Far Sight in favor of more pressing issues, but at this moment I would have given an arm and a leg to know what made it tick.
I obviously didn’t make any headway on that front during the couple of minutes it took to take the princess home. It didn’t mean I stopped trying until we got there though.
When we arrived at the gates of the mansion, I was once again hit by how it looked both majestic and utterly ridiculous in the suburban neighborhood. One would think I would get used to it after the couple of visits, but no, it was just as jarring as the first time. But back to the gates: upon arrival we were greeted by a familiar looking maid. She was young, tall and wore her long blonde hair in two tidy braids on the back of her head under that white frilly headwear-thing that all stereotypical maids seemed to sport. Her name was… Ugh… something starting with ‘M’…Melissa, maybe?
She clapped her hands and the gates opened by themselves, though the soft whirring noise coming from the bushes nearby told me it was probably just some mundane machinery that did the heavy lifting. She lowered her head and curtsied to us as we came closer.
“Welcome back, milady. Shall I tell the staff to prepare the parlor?”
“The parlor?” The princess muttered uncertainly. The maid looked over each one of us in turn and lowered her head apologetically.
“My apologies. I presumed we were having guests.”
“Ah, I see... No, they are just...”
The princess began, but it was at this moment that a sudden idea kicked down the back doors of my frontal lobe screaming, urging me to step forwards and raise my hand in a hurry.
“Actually!” I interjected loudly, baffling everyone present for a moment, including myself. I cleared my throat and smiled awkwardly before I lowered my voice and continued. “Actually, I don’t think we have seen your mansion from the inside, have we?”
“No, we haven’t,” Judy answered immediately, apparently deciding to follow my lead even though I gave her no reason to do so. My assistant was on the top of her game as always. I sent her an appreciative glance and faced the other two again.
“Isn’t this a good opportunity to do that? It would be a better way to end the day than to just separate here.”
“True,” Judy nodded and we both looked at the princess expectantly. She seemed taken aback by our proposal, but she quickly collected herself and grinned at us in full nobility mode.
“I agree. I don’t think there should be any harm in doing so.” She turned on her heel and addressed the maid next. “Please tell the twins we have guests after all. Could you prepare us some tea and biscuits?”
“Most certainly,” The young servant woman answered with a small nod.
I let the princess cross the gate first and urged Judy with my eyes to follow. I trailed after them a few steps behind, but as I entered the courtyard I immediately gestured for the maid to come closer. She was confused at first but still walked over to my side in the end.
“Yes? Can I help you?”
“I really hope so,” I told her while glancing back at the girls. Fortunately they stopped only a couple of meters ahead of us, where the princess was in the middle of animatedly showing Judy around a small pond. I turned my attention back at the maid and, after pondering on her name for a few seconds longer, took a stab in the dark.
“Melinda, right?” If she was surprised, it didn’t show on her face, instead she just nodded sharply. She was a professional. “Is Sebastian around?”
“Yes, von Fraenir is in the mansion. Do you wish to keep your presence hidden from him?” I raised a single brow at her inquiry, so she added, “I was under the impression you are... not on the best of terms.”
“That is a very polite way to say that we hate each other’s guts, but you are actually correct. However, I would actually like to ask for the opposite. Could you tell him I wish to talk to him?” She blinked at me like she didn’t understand the request, so I added, “It’s about draconian business.”
Her eyes narrowed in a frown and she nodded sharply. I returned the gesture and swiftly followed after the others, who were in the process of discussing the architectural style of the mansion’s veranda. I wasn’t particularly well-versed in the field of architecture, so I pretended to understand what the princess was talking about and periodically nodded in agreement to whatever she said.
One thing was clear though: the place was fancy as hell on the outside, but it held no candle to the interior. The foyer even had a big, crystal chandelier that would have looked gaudy anywhere else, but since everything was so gaudy to begin with, it fit right in. I admittedly knew even less about interior design than architecture, but looking at the décor made me think of the word ‘Victorian’. It was all about showing off the wealth and patina of the household, though the amount of gold and rare wood in the hallways was maybe a bit of an overkill.
The parlor itself wasn’t half shabby either. It was huge, dominated by a gently burning hearth surrounded by a set of old, leather-bound red sofas arranged around a coffee-table with a thick glass top sitting on four cast-metal legs in the shape of, surprise-surprise, dragons. The walls were also covered with a series of fancy (not to mention expensive) looking paintings depicting aged patriarchs with stern brows; with the occasional matriarch here and there trying to out-glare the men. I guess it ran in the family…
“That one is great-grandfather Antonio. He was a duke in Italy,” The princess chattered as she pointed at the next painting in turn. The two of them were heading backwards in chronological order, and I could see the change in art style on each painting, but even the latest one seemed quite old. It was a little disappointing, as I was actually hoping to see if cubist portrait. It would have looked hilarious in this environment, but alas even the newest painting looked to be at least a few hundred years old.
That made me remember a question I wanted to ask for quite some time, so I raised my hand like in the classroom and waited for her to notice me.
“I have a question.”
“By all means, ask.”
I pointedly looked over the paintings one more time before I turned back to her.
“Looking at these portraits makes me curious. Just how long do you draconians live?”
Our host raised a contemplative finger to her lips.
“It depends. Those with thinner blood only age a little slower than humans, so... about one hundred and twenty. Give or take a decade.”
“And the ones with thicker blood?” Judy followed up while inconspicuously poking at her phone. She must have been taking notes for a while by then. The princess cocked her head to the side with her finger still on her lower lip.
“I... Actually, I don’t know. Being a draconian is very dangerous, so few of us die of old age. I think father once mentioned that my grandpa lived for over three hundred years and he was the oldest living draconian at the time.” She paused, and seeing the completely unrelated expression of interest on my face, she continued with renewed vigor. “I don’t know how old one of us could get, but dragons were rumored to be so long-lived they were practically immortal, so I don’t see why we couldn’t be like that once....” She twitched, apparently remembering something unpleasant that momentarily scrunched up her face. She shook her head and forced a smile onto her lips a moment later. “B-But that’s beside the point. Let’s talk about something else.”
By chance (or maybe not, as I could totally imagine her waiting until we finished talking), the blonde maid showed up in the doorway and gestured to me. I smiled back at her and said to the girls; “Uh... I think I drank one too many cans of coke today. I need to use the toilet.” The princess nodded and was ready to show me the way, but I raised my hands apologetically and subsequently pointed at the maid. “You really don’t need to. I’ll ask her; you two stay here and have your tea. I’ll be back before you know it.”
As if they were waiting for my words as well, a pair of thin maids with bob-cuts entered the parlor pushing two small serving carts; one with an elaborate porcelain tea set and another with a veritable mountain of biscuits and other sweets. I smiled at them appreciatively, though they didn’t return the gesture. They were also a little familiar, and after wracking my brain for a few seconds I could recall them from the time when I first took the princess home. They didn’t seem particularly friendly back then either, so I just shrugged them off.
Following this, I headed towards the blonde servant still standing by the doorway and she immediately turned around to lead the way. I followed half a step behind her as we ventured into the depths of the estate. That might have sounded overly dramatic, but trust me, the place was massive.
Long story short, navigating the hallways and stairwells of the mansion for several minutes, we arrived in front of a heavy mahogany door with the words ‘Sebastian von Fraenir’ engraved onto its surface at eye-level with a thick, golden font. So the guy had his own office with his name on it. Neat. I was ready to knock and enter, since I was in a bit of a hurry, as I told the girls I was only leaving for a couple of minutes, but I was stopped by a polite cough at my side. I faced the young maid with a curious “Yes?”
“Before you enter, may I ask you something?”
“Considering that this might be the last time we have the fortune to talk...”
“Well, that’s not ominous at all!” I grumbled with a roll of my eyes. I could swear I saw the corners of her lips twitch, but she continued like I didn’t interrupt her.
“... I was somewhat curious about one thing. How did you know my name?”
“... Erm... It’s because the princess told me.” I wanted to add a soft ‘Duh!’, but I refrained.
“Yes, just a couple of days ago, actually. During lunch break, to be exact.” I paused and flashed a smile. “By the way, I appreciated your efforts with the lunch box. It was delicious.”
“The lunchbox was milady’s creation in its entirety. Neither I or any other servant took part in its making.” She corrected me in a slightly mechanical voice, like her line was rehearsed or something.
“Except for suggesting the pepper,” I corrected her playfully.
“... She told you about that too?”
“Of course she did. Why, is that strange?”
She paused again while she collected her thoughts and finally shook her head.
“No, it isn’t.” After a moment more she gave me a shallow curtsy and bow. “Please continue to support milady in the future.”
I was taken aback for a moment. In the end I laughed awkwardly and said, “That was actually what I wanted to ask you.”
She nodded with a level of solemnity that was completely unbefitting the situation and excused herself. She pattered away in a dignified strut, her large skirts all but billowing as she walked. I waited for her to disappear out of sight before I turned to the door and promptly knocked.
“Come in,” Came the familiar voice of the old butler from inside. He didn’t have to say it twice, as I already had my fingers on the doorknob.
The inside of the large office, or whatever it was called, somehow managed to be even more posh than the rest of the mansion. It also had a gently burning fireplace like the parlor, but instead of the unified Victorian look of that room, this place looked more like a giant, elaborate trophy-room filled to the brim with objects from vastly different cultures. The floor was covered by Persian rugs, the furniture looked vaguely Chinese, the walls were covered in a wide variety of wild game trophies, plaques with various weapons and other artifacts mounted on them, and there was even a full set of gilded plate armor standing in the corner holding a very plain and battered spear that nevertheless shone with that ethereal glow I already began to associate with magic.
Combine that with the red lighting of the room, provided by the open fireplace and the last rays of the sunset, and add in that weird smell of history that seemed to permeate every really old place, and it truly felt like I stepped into a different world altogether. I didn’t wonder for long though, as the old butler cleared his throat and drew my attention to him. He was standing by a large, curtained window and stared into the distance. Or maybe he was just refusing to look at me as some sort of silly social power-play. Sure, we could still see each other in the eye through his reflection on the glass, but it was still rude.
“So it is true.” He let out a decidedly sinister chuckle. “To think you would willingly come to my lair to have counsel with…” His eyes suddenly opened wide and a second later he turned on his heel and shouted, “Put that down!”
“What, this?” I waved the statuette I picked up from the drawer next to the door. It looked something like one of those Neolithic fertility idols, except obviously more recent. “I was just curious. What does it do?”
The butler rushed up to my side and snatched the statuette out of my hand.
“It is none of your business. Who gave you permission to touch anything?!”
“Sorry, but it’s just hard to contain myself with all of this interesting stuff around. Like that creepy Japanese doll over there, or that lion head on the wall, or that spear. Especially the spear.”
The old man’s face tensed up as he looked me over again. He placed the statuette back onto the drawer and faced me with a measured voice.
“What do you find interesting about that spear?”
“It’s enchanted or something,” I told him off-handedly while I walked over to one of the old sofas and gestured for my host to join me. “Anyways, I came to talk business, so we should get started.”
Sebastian glared at me before he exhaled sharply through his flared nostrils and walked over to the sofa in front of mine.
“And here I was hoping milady has finally convinced you to apologize for your insolence. How foolish of me.”
“Foolish indeed,” I nodded sagely, completely ignoring his thundering eyes. “I am looking for information.”
“Are you now?” He swept back his monochrome hair as he sat down and looked me in the eye. “According to what I’ve heard, you wanted to discuss,” He raised his hands and continued in air-quotes “’draconian business.’”
“Well, kind of. It would be more accurate to say that what I want to discuss might interest you as the steward of the Dracis family. It might even concern the estate’s security.”
The change in my tone made him falter for a moment, but at last he let down his hands.
I took a deep breath and began; “First and foremost, I wondered if you knew about any… out of place characters wandering in the neighborhood.”
He eyed me for a few seconds, but at last Sebastian said; “Only a trio of children of your age. They have been wandering around the streets as if looking for something, but they hardly seem like a threat to us.”
“I think I know the guys you are talking about, and I agree. Those guys couldn’t threaten their way out of a wet paper-bag if their lives depended on it.”
“… That doesn’t seem to make any sense.”
“I know. It sounded better in my head,” I told him with a sigh before I continued. “Let me try this from another angle: what can you tell me about Fauns?”
The word immediately resulted in a surprised look that slowly eased back into a scowl.
“And why do you think I could tell you anything about Fauns. They are creatures of the Abyss, not of dragonkind.”
“True, but considering you have been around for, what, fifteen centuries? I figured you might have picked up a few bits and pieces along the way.”
The old man’s demeanor changed again, this time hovering between caution and open hostility.
“I have to say, I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“Oh come on,” I exclaimed with a wave of my hand. “There are records of you going back as far as the early middle ages. True, they are fragmentary and vague, but there aren’t exactly a lot of people related to dragons with white stripes in their hair running around kidnapping royalty for ransom. I am surprised no one else made the connection yet.” At this point he looked like he was ready to snap my neck and bury me in the backyard, so I sighed and waved again. “Don’t get so worked up, I just told you no one else made the connection that you are not just a draconian in service of the Dracis but an actual—” At this point I was interrupted as the old man's body started making actual, literal cracking noises as he grew a good head taller in a matter of seconds. I raised my open palms in surrender and hastily added, "I figure you already know what I'm talking about, so I won't spell it out."
The now oversized butler steadied himself, and after a couple of seconds, he somehow deflated to his original size while he still glared at me with actually glowing eyes.
“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t fry you where you are,” He hissed through clenched teeth.
“I can give you three.” I answered with a smile to make sure the cold sweat on my back wouldn’t show on my face. “One, it would damage the sofa, and that would be a shame. Two, it would make the princess sad, which is an even bigger shame. Three… you can't.”
His eyes still burning with a strange red glow (which was probably not just the ethereal magic light I have been seeing recently, as it was casting shadows around me), Sebastian slowly cocked his head to the side.
“And pray tell, just why can't I erase you right here and now?”
“Remember those records I told you?” I asked, and he nodded. “Even if something happens to me, those are still out there. Sooner or later others might find out, and then they might use it as a bargaining chip, like blackmailing you or selling it to a third party that may or may not be hunting your kind.”
“You are doing that already.”
“No, I am not blackmailing you yet. Quite the opposite, actually. I am offering you an opportunity to get rid of any evidence pointing at you being more than just an old draconian.”
“And you want information in exchange.”
“Indeed. You are catching on quickly despite being so old.”
Sebastian snorted and his eyes finally stopped glowing. He fixed his tie and sat down again.
“Not that it seems to matter to you. Back in my days, the young actually respected their elder.”
“I see.” I smiled at his slightly less murderous tone and clapped my hands in a gesture to dispel the previous tension. “Now that we have all that behind us, let’s talk business. So, about Fauns. What can you tell me?”
The old butler leaned back in his seat and crossed his legs before leaning forwards again and resting his chin on his knuckle.
“Would you mind telling me why you want to know about them? Does it have something to do with your first question?”
I hesitated for a moment, but at last I decided to be honest about it.
“It does. I ran into one this week.” The old man’s face became stern again, but this time it was not aimed at me. His eyes hurried me to continue, so I did. “It was after dark, only a couple of streets from here. I couldn’t make him out properly, but I am fairly sure it was a Faun.”
“This is the first time I have heard of this. It is indeed a security risk.” Sebastian spoke in a surprisingly soft voice. “Boy, if you told me this from the beginning, it would have made your whole charade unnecessary.”
I wanted to ask what kind of ‘charade’ he was talking about, but I refrained. Instead I shrugged and continued by saying, “So, what can you tell me about Fauns?”
Sebastian gave me a wry look before he let out a soft grunt and said, "They are the loyal lapdogs of the Abyssal Lords. The older they get, the more varied abilities they have, but they are not a threat." I tried to imitate the way Josh raised only one critical eyebrow, and seeing it made Sebastian clear his throat. "To us. They are no threat to us. To you, however…" There was another long pause as the butler's eyebrows slowly furrowed, resulting in a question: "Tell me boy, how did you meet this Faun? Was if after Milady?"
"It was probably hunting me," I answered him honestly, earning another skeptical look from the man.
"Would you mind telling me why you would think a Faun would 'hunt' you?"
I let out a self-derisive chuckle and awkwardly scratched the base of my neck as I told him, "You see, I might have ever so slightly antagonized the current head of house Inanna."
"… How so?"
I let out another awkward laugh while trying to find a way to change the topic, but the butler's eyes looked so uncharacteristically curious I gave in and told him, "Well, I told him he sounded like a creepy uncle in public, then I called his death threats lame, and in the end I gave him an embarrassing nickname. Oh, and I called him a dick a couple of times in conversation. That's all I can think of right now."
Sebastian gave me a measuring look before he simply stated, "Exactly the kind of insolence I expected from you."
"Hey!" I protested, albeit feebly, before I shook my head and said, "Anyways, we were talking about the Faun, right? Have you heard anything about looking one in the eye?”
By this point most of the hostility of the old man completely disappeared in favor of curiosity.
“Looking them in the eye…” He stroked his beard for a while, probably stalling for time just to piss me off, but at last he shook his head. “It has been ages since I have seen one of those brutish creatures in person, and I never had any problem looking them in the eye. I have, however, heard tales about how a single look from a powerful Faun could paralyze even the bravest warrior, but I always considered that just a poetic way of saying they were quite frightening for your ancestors.”
“So you have heard nothing about after-images? Or glowing orange specters?”
“No, I can’t say I have.”
I clicked my tongue in frustration. “Damn, I thought if there was anyone who knew about this, it would be a—” I swallowed back the end of my sentence upon seeing the hostility retuning to the old man's eyes, and I hastily replaced it with, "A steward of the Dracis family."
“Life can be disappointing like that,” Sebastian murmured while crossing his fingers on his lap. “So, about those ‘bits of information’ you were talking about…”
I mirrored his pose and shook my head. “So far your secrets and what we just discussed is not even in the same ballpark. You are going to have to give me more. A lot more.”
“You are testing my patience, boy…”
“That’s strange. I have heard the elderly were supposed to be quote patient.” I shook my head with a smile and looked the man in the eye. “I want an exchange of equal value.”
The old man exhaled in exhaustion.
“Fine, name your price.”
“Information,” I answered immediately. “I would like to have access to any records you might have. History of draconians, biographies, past involvements, any info you have on the other Old Blooded, et cetera.”
Sebastian lapsed back into glaring at me.
“You are getting greedy, boy.”
“I know,” I answered with a grin. “But I also thought of a bargaining chip that I would throw in as a gratis.”
“Oh? And what would that be?”
I let the smile creep even wider on my face.
“I heard you are not exactly on good terms with the knights with the ridiculously long name?”
The old man's demeanor took a sudden turn to the grim at the mere mention of 'knights'. It wasn't the kind of anger he showed whenever I messed around with him, but a genuine, coldly burning hate.
“You are a master of understatement,” He much less said than spat the words at me, and I reflexively swallowed, but then I immediately retreated behind my fake smile.
“Why, thank you." I paused here for a moment to lean closer and spoke in a softer voice, "So, what would you say if I told you I could give you detailed information on their activities in the past couple months?”
The old man’s eyes flared up with a mixture of surprise and suspicion.
“And how would you even have such information?”
“Does it really matter? I have it, and while they are as good at covering their tracks as you are, there is still a lot of information you could mine out of it. Who knows what kinds of disasters you could avert by having all that at your fingertips?”
Sebastian grit his teeth in frustration, but at last he relented.
“So let me see if I got this straight… You wish to trade my identity and information on the movements of the accursed knights, information that you refuse to source, in exchange for access to the Dracis library.”
“If by ‘library’ you mean the archives the family accumulated over the centuries, then yes.”
“And what if the information you provide proves to be useless.”
“Hey, the same could be said about your library. It might be completely useless to me.” I leaned forward even more and linked my fingers for emphasis. “But what if it isn’t? Can you afford the chance?”
The old butler followed my example and said, “In other words, we are both gambling. At worst neither of us gets what they want, at best we both walk away content.” He narrowed his eyes and added, “The only problem is that I am not going to gamble on our household’s security.”
“You don’t need to. You can exclude any information that would pose a direct threat to the Dracis family or yourself.”
“How generous of you.”
“I know,” I answered with a self-conscious grin.
We sat in silence for several minutes while Sebastian mulled over my offer. It also gave me a little time to think about what I was doing, and it made me want to hit myself. Talking with the butler itself was a spur of the moment idea, but it somehow spiraled into something far more dangerous. But then again, I was looking for information of any kind, and having a different source aside from the Celestial Hub might not have been such a bad idea.
At last Sebastian harrumphed, drawing my attention back to him.
“Very well, boy. I naturally have to discuss this with the patriarch, but if he agrees with your terms then I shall grant you access to our library.” He paused meaningfully before he added, “I hope you will live up to your end of the bargain, or I might really just have to hunt you.” He paused again, this time more spontaneously, and for the first time I saw his smile. It was unnerving, to say the least. “Though, on second thought, at least I can look forward to that if you turn out to be a sham.”
“Good for you,” I told him with a fake smile and stood up. “How long do you think the process will take?”
“I will have our answer by tomorrow night.”
“I can work with that,” I told him before clapping my hands. “Now then, if you excuse me, I have to get back before they start missing me.”
I offered him a hand to shake and he grudgingly accepted it, though he made a point out of crushing my poor fingers. It wasn’t that bad though, and it only took about ten minutes for the feeling to return to my hand. Anyways, I left after he made some more thinly veiled threats and headed back to the parlor… or I would have, if I had any idea about where to go.
As I mentioned beforehand, the mansion was pretty big and uniformly posh, and I really couldn’t remember the way I came from. For a moment I even entertained the thought of turning around and asking the old butler for directions, but then I remembered that I was magic, so I just used my Far Sight to figure out which direction to go… which actually provided me with a new surprise.
I already figured out that if I was only using my Far Sight in general, without any person in mind, I could tell where certain people were in relation to me. This is how I figured out that there would be a secret underground mage school dungeon thing underneath Blue Cherry High even before I actually learned about it. As I did just that and slipped into a shallow daze, I could quickly pick out the princess and Judy, but there was another presence very close to me. I focused on it, and suddenly I (or at least my vision) was back in Sebastian’s ‘office’, where he was in the middle of a heated conversation on an old-school rotary phone, which I couldn’t hear at all before.
The door was probably soundproofed, I figured, but more importantly, this meant that I could use my Far Sight on Sebastian as well. I was fairly sure I couldn’t do that before, and the only thing that changed was…
“Physical contact, huh?” I mused as I continued rubbing my still aching right hand. That was nice to know.
That said, I didn’t actually listen into the man’s conversation, as I was in a hurry. I focused my attention on the girls and after some trial and error I managed to bumble my way back to the parlor. I was prepared for some apologizing about my tardiness, but maybe exactly because of that I was woefully unprepared for the sight as I entered the room.
I only left for about twenty minutes yet the entire place changed, courtesy of the mountain of clothes strewn on the sofas and tables. They looked like gowns of various levels of fanciness, yet they were draped over the furniture like they were work-clothes a tired guy threw down after a long day at his job. My two companions, on the other hand, were nowhere to be seen. I was just about to use Far Sight again when I noticed some movement at the back door at the other end of the parlor, which itself was a new find I didn’t notice before.
“Oh, you are back,” Melinda noted dispassionately as she walked in. “And with all limbs attached. Impressive.”
“Thank you, I guess,” I answered reflexively and waved towards the clothes. “What is all this about?”
“Milady wanted to ask Miss Judy’s opinion on some of her formal-wear.”
“Just on a whim?”
“Yes. Is there a problem with that?”
“No, it’s just unexpected,” I told her while I looked over the mess again. “I also don’t know where to sit.”
“There is no reason for you to sit down; they should be back at any moment.”
“If you say so…” I mused as my eyes lingered on the gowns. Some of them seemed to be surprisingly risqué, but before I could study them any further, I noticed that the blonde maid was staring at me expectantly. “Yes? Is there something else?”
“I was just wondering, if I am not indiscreet, about how well your counsel with meister von Fraenir went.”
“Oh that?” I shrugged as I ran my eyes over a red dress that looked like it was made to be held on by double-sided tape. I momentarily tried to imagine the princess in it, then Judy, then finally I returned my attention to the conversation before I started blushing. “It was less ‘counsel’ and more ‘mutually advantageous agreement’, but yes, it went well.”
“I am glad to hear that. That means I—”
Whatever she wanted to say was cut short by the back door opening again and the princess backing out of it while dragging something.
“Come on! Stop being obnoxious!”
“I am not,” Came the slightly petulant answer from the other side. The words barely registered though, as my attention was caught by the princess’ attire. It was a shiny, silken one-piece red dress with a narrow neckline that plunged down nearly to her belly-button and an open-sided skirt that revealed that she was barefoot. As Judy was dragged into the parlor I saw that she was also wearing a dress. Hers was infinitely more modest, and it reminded me of a dark-blue Chinese qipao, but it also had detached sleeves with those weird fingerless evening gloves that ended with a ring one had to put on their middle finger.
They didn’t seem to be wearing any makeup or had their hair done up (not that they needed to, considering the way hairdos worked around these parts), yet they looked so different that if I saw them on the street it might have taken me a while to recognize them. They were really pretty. Or rather, prettier than usual.
“Come on, we need to take up our place before he comes back!” The princess insisted while dragging my assistant, and I found this to be a good opportunity to interject.
“Actually, I am already back.”
The princess froze in place and glanced over her shoulder.
“Oh… H-Hi Leo…”
“Hi,” I answered her awkward greeting as she straightened herself and gave me an embarrassed smile.
“You… Um… You were late, so we thought…”
While the princess shared her excuses with me, I slowly walked over to her and took a better look at her from up close.
“Hm… This dress really suits you.”
“You… think so?”
“Yes. It might be a little bold, but it brings out your… personality.”
“He is talking about your br—” My assistant offered her deadpan contribution to the conversation from the side, but I cut her off.
“Yep, red fits your personality perfectly. And the cut really emphasizes your… eyes.”
“He still means your bre—” Judy interjected again, but I cut her off once more.
“Yes, the blue of your eyes really comes to the forefront like that.” I looked at Judy to see if she had anything else to add, but she only gave me a ‘We both know what you really mean, and you would only cut me off anyways, so why should I bother?’ look (admittedly her eyes were a little verbose every once in a while.) As I looked over though, I found myself paying extra attention to my assistant as I slowly circled her. “Speaking of blue, this dress looks great too.”
“If you say so,” She feigned disinterest, but the slight flush on her cheeks betrayed her.
“Yeah, it suits you surprisingly well.”
The blush immediately disappeared as it came as she narrowed her eyes.
“Oh come on, stop complaining and just take the compliment.” I told her while I poked her in the crease between her brows. “By the way, while I would be lying if I said it wasn’t fun to see you girls in a different outfit, I still can’t help but wonder what this is all about.”
“It was Eleanor’s idea,” Judy told me as she removed my finger from her de-scowlified forehead.
“I-It wasn’t just to show them off to you!” The princess exclaimed once her words sank in. “It’s for the ball!”
“… What ball?”
“The Christmas ball!”
“Oh, that…” I nodded knowingly even though this was the first time I have ever heard of it. “But it’s only October.”
“You can never start preparing for these things early enough,” She told me with a puffed chest that threatened to spill out of her outfit. “Gowns like these have to be fitted before the event, so we have to pick them in advance.”
“I see…” I agreed noncommittally as I turned to Judy. “And you?”
“I was just swept up in it.”
I was about to ask what they were planning to do with the rest of the outfits scattered in the parlor when the princess suddenly inserted herself between us.
“Actually, now that you are here, you could help us choose!”
Judy sounded a little irritated, and I shared some of her sentiment… but then again, this was an opportunity to look at pretty girls wearing tastefully skimpy clothes, and while I was trying not to get myself bogged down on the relationship end of things, it didn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the female form.
“Fine by me,” I told them with a smile, and much to my surprise, my assistant didn’t even protest any further.
“I am not going to lie,” I struck up a conversation as we were walking towards our neighborhood, “That last one was unexpected, but not in a bad way.”
In the end, the impromptu fashion show lasted well after dark and it was a little after eight by the time we waved our goodbyes at the mansion gates. Judy lowered her face at my words and muttered; “Please refrain from mentioning it again. Ever.”
I chuckled mirthfully as I recalled the borderline stripperific dress Judy wore for last. It was just like the red ‘gown’ I thought only double-sided tape held onto the wearer, except somehow even less covering. Heck, on second thought it might have been slightly transparent as well. I couldn’t take a good look, but I swear I clearly saw the outlines of her underwear.
Recalling that might have put a peculiar expression on my face, because Judy quickly averted her face again and muttered; “I’m never going to live this one down.”
“Oh come on, Dormouse!” I encouraged her with a pat on the shoulder. “You were just caught up in the heat of the moment. And it was only the three of us. Not to mention, even though I only saw it for a few seconds before you ran away, it looked great on you.”
“You just say that because you are trying to be nice.”
“No I’m not. I am nice. Jokes aside, it really looked good on you. You should have more confidence in your figure.”
“It’s hard to do with this competition.” I looked at her questioningly, at which point she casually cupped her own breasts and pushed them up a little so that a bit of her cleavage showed through the neckline of her sweater. “Mother nature has betrayed me.”
I would have chuckled, but at the same time her words piqued my interest, so I stifled it and instead I asked; “Wait, girls actually do compare each other like that? I thought that was a stereotype.”
“It’s hard not to do that when you are changing in the same room. I was under the impression boys were doing the same with...” In a rare (and surprisingly adorable) show of embarrassment she averted her eyes and finished in a mumble with the words, “... other parts of their anatomy.”
“I think that’s a stereotype too. At least I have never done that.” She nodded, but she still seemed awkward, (not to mention she still had her hands cupped over her chest, which was distracting), so I began looking for alternative topics that did not involve secondary sexual characteristics. It didn’t take long to find one. “By the way, I have a new source of data.”
“You do?” She faced me again, finally lowering her hands. “I presume that was the reason behind your long absence.”
“It wasn’t that long, but yes. I was having a long talk with the butler.”
“That sounds very uncharacteristic for you. Are you ill by any chance?”
“Ha. Ha. You are very funny.”
“Thank you, I’m trying.”
“You sure do. Anyways, I traded some info and if everything works out well we should get access to the Dracis family’s records.”
“I presume that is good news.”
“Hey, having more sources is always good. Although, it is apparently a library, so accessing it would take more effort than the Celestial Hub. On the other hand, it might have different and older texts that could help us in unexpected ways.”
“It’s a library?” My assistant squinted at me suspiciously. “That means you would have an excuse to spend time at Eleanor’s mansion.”
I gave her a flat look in return and shook my head.
“That is a very peculiar way to say it. Do you think I want to hang out there that much?”
“I don’t know. Do you?”
I stifled a groan and told her, “If you are so worried about that, why don’t you do it?”
Judy paused for a moment and then gave me a huge nod.
“Challenge accepted. You already have your hands full with the website, I should pull my weight as well.”
“Are you sure? I don’t even know how much data we are talking about. It might take a while to comb through all of it.”
“Don’t worry about me chief. It would be better this way. You are good at deductions, but you are horrible at organization. Let’s work with our strong suits and share the work.”
I really couldn’t object to that, and even if I could, I had no time as we were almost in front of Judy’s home.
“All right then. We will discuss the details once the old guy tells me his answer. Until then, let’s focus on the Celestial Hub and whip it into a semblance of efficiency.”
She shook her head with a difficult to read expression and abruptly sighed.
“… Why do you have to bring our work to our dates?”
The question took me by surprise and I cocked my head to the side in reaction.
“Outings, and are you saying this was still part of it?”
“Of course. A date doesn’t end until the goodbye kiss. Speaking of which…” Before I could react she stood on her tiptoes and gave me a peck on my cheek. “I know this date was for your sake, but I still had fun. Thanks.”
“You are welc… wait, what?” The question broke through my reflexive words, but by then my assistant was already at her door. She gave me one last glance, which may or may not have been very bashful and incredibly cute, and then closed the door behind her. For a moment I couldn’t decide whether I should have been pleased or irritated over the latest blow on my anti-romance armor, but at last I decided that I might as well let the day end on a positive note and I headed homewards with a little smile.
There might have even been a slight spring in my steps, which sadly didn’t last long, as after rounding the corner I suddenly noticed a slight movement in the darkness stretching outside the light-cones of the street lamps. I stopped and strained my eyes, and in a second I was able to make out a familiar silhouette.
At first I was ready to bolt, but the longer I looked, the less afraid I became. The Faun, still as large and imposing as before, was standing still in what I presumed to be a relaxed stance. After a few more seconds I became able to make out some of his features.
He had a wide, flat nose that didn’t seem to have any nostrils, a pair of stubby, pointy ears and large eyes that seemed incredibly dark on his spotty white face. I couldn’t really figure out why his eyes seemed strange at this point, as my attention was drawn to his mouth as his lips parted in a surprisingly harmless smile. It was still looking weird on his large, flat face, but for some reason it didn’t unnerve me. Then the Faun locked eyes with me again and I could once again see flashes of orange lights swirling around his form as a single feeling hit me: curiosity. It only lasted for a moment, but when I blinked the emotion was gone alongside the Faun himself.
I wondered if it was because of my eyes adjusting slowly after the sudden light or if it was some sort of magic. I still knew so little about Fauns that both seemed like a distinct possibility. Either way, it seemed like whatever that Faun was here for; it wasn’t to paint the neighborhood red with my blood. I was both relieved and slightly puzzled by that, so I shelved it in my ‘things to worry about later’ folder, which was admittedly about to burst at this point. What can I say? It wasn’t my fault the world kept throwing flies into my salad every five minutes.
That said, after I was sure he was really gone, I continued on my way with considerably less spring in my steps. This time I didn’t bother to raid the kitchen once I got home, as I have already eaten enough tea-biscuits to last me a lifetime, and instead I headed for my room. I fired up my PC, logged into the Celestial Hub and cracked my fingers before I simply wrote in:
“Admin: Guys, I have a request for you.”