Keira and Rowana were walking along a cobblestone pathway amidst the moonlight. The elf was wearing a deep blue long-sleeved silk gown. It wasn’t visible under her coat, but the dress left her shoulders and upper back exposed, although it hid most of her enviable cleavage. A pair of shining blue open-toed high-heels poked out beneath the long skirt, making sharp clacks along the deceptively smooth pathway with every step. She walked with the sort of grace and confidence that clearly showed this was hardly her first time walking around in such formal apparel.
Unlike Keira, who nearly fell over every ten or so steps. And she probably would have, if it wasn’t for her linking arms with Rowana.
“Easy there, sweetie, I have you,” said the elf as she helped the unsteady catgirl regain her balance.
“Phew… thanks again, Rowie. I honestly had no idea this sort of footwear even existed,” complained Keira with a dispirited expression. “I can’t believe I let you talk me into wearing these things.”
The ensemble the beastkin was wearing was very much identical to Rowana’s, aside from the color.
“But you look so good in yellow!” cooed Rowana with sparkling eyes. “You always wear those drab clothes that do you no justice. Even though I buy all those cute outfits,” she added with a small pout.
“I can’t wear that frilly stuff out in the field! It offers no protection and makes it difficult to move around! Can’t I at least go barefoot?!”
“Denied. You promised you’d adhere to proper etiquette when I officially introduced you to my parents, and I’m going to hold you to that.”
“But you never mentioned anything about formal wear! And why didn’t you tell me your parents were some fancy-shmancy big shots!?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I guess for the same reasons you didn’t tell me you were some weirdo deity’s Hero,” countered Rowana with a sharp glare.
Keira did not answer, but merely stared guiltily at her feet. As expected, the news that the catgirl had been hiding something that huge from her lover did not go over smoothly with the elf. Once the hustle and bustle of that military parade from yesterday had settled down, the two of them had a very frank and lengthy discussion regarding trust. At the end of it, Rowana said she would eventually forgive Keira for keeping such a colossal secret from her, but at the same time made it abundantly clear she would lord it over the catgirl for the time being.
“Are there any other complaints you may have about tonight’s dinner?” asked the elf with a devious smile.
The two of them resumed their walk up the stone path as they steadily approached the Slyth family’s home. Truthfully speaking, ‘home’ was a bit disingenuous, as the building in question was a grand three-story mansion that rivaled the Central Consortium building in size. It was built at the base of one of the largest Hylt branches in the city, with the titanic tree trunk looming behind it. The surrounding estate enveloped the entire 40 meter width of the ancient limb and covered nearly two acres of ‘land.’ It was impossible to approach the place on foot from any direction other than the front, making it quite safe from the average thief.
The massive front yard had been turned into a park in its own right. It had well-trimmed hedges, eye-catching sculptures, beautiful flowers and happy little trees spread around it to create a soothing and serene atmosphere. It was quite obvious this oversized garden took a lot of resources to maintain, especially considering the fact that all the vegetation had to be grown in planters. Well, there wasn’t going to be any fertile soil this far up a Hylt tree, but the Architects who designed and built this place did so in a manner that made one forget they were actually hundreds of meters up in the air.
Even if it was beautiful, however, it was still far too long a walk from the main gate to the actual mansion. Rowana didn’t seem to mind since it was both romantic and nostalgic, but Keira’s struggling with her high-heels said otherwise. Not to mention that Boxxy inwardly scoffed at the tremendous waste of resources around it. Paying people to maintain all this scenery that was neither functional, shiny nor tasty? What sort of madness was this?!
Then again, if anyone could afford an extravagant environment like this, it would be Samulus and Doris Slyth. Even though Rowana lived alone in a small one-room house in the Azurvale equivalent of bum-fuck nowhere, this was mostly because she wanted to live independently of her parents due to various reasons. Her family, as it turned out, was among the top 10 wealthiest families in the Republic. They owned several mercantile and artisan guilds, the most profitable of which was the Pixie Powder Pavilion. This nation-spanning organization was the undisputed best when it came to the wholesale procurement, production, and transportation of alchemical ingredients and compounds. According to Rowana, it had been the core of the Slyth family’s legacy for the past six generations, and was also one of the main reasons she became an Alchemist like her father.
When the two lovebirds finally reached the front of the mansion, they were greeted by two rows of servants. Butlers in sharp-looking black tuxedos on the left, maids in modest, nun-like black dresses with white aprons in front on the right. There were 12 of them each, and they were lined up on either side of a luxurious red carpet that led up a marble staircase and towards the mansion’s intimidatingly large front doors.
They all bowed respectfully as Rowana and Keira walked in between them. It was only expected that the catgirl who was supposedly a penniless vagrant until a few months ago would feel overwhelmed and out of place, but why was the elf also growing nervous? Surely she should be used to this sort of stuff by now, right? But before Keira got the chance to ask, the two of them arrived at the grand double doors, where a butler much older than the others was waiting for them.
Curiously enough, he seemed to be the only human servant in the otherwise elven household. He had a full head of very short hair that had grown gray with age, sky blue eyes and a dignified, almost snobbish air around him.
“Mr Ridgeworth?! Is that you?!”
“Indeed, miss Rowana. It is good to see you are still in good health,” he answered with a respectful bow of his own, although the stern expression on his wrinkled face did not change in the slightest.
“That’s my line! I haven’t seen you in years! I was sure you would’ve retired by now!”
“Nonsense, my lady. Serving the Master and Mistress of the dignified house of Slyth has been this one’s duty and privilege for many years, and I do not plan on giving it up any time soon. The day I am relieved of my responsibilities will be the day I can no longer walk.”
“I see you’re still saying that after all these years, huh?”
Rowana gave a small, tired sigh, then formally introduced him to her girlfriend.
“Keira, this is Mr Ridgeworth. He has been the head butler around here ever since I can remember. He’s something of a second father to me.”
“My lady’s words are most kind,” offered the old butler with a small bow, then turned towards the awkwardly smiling catgirl. “And this beautiful creature must be Madam Morgana. I have heard much about your exploits and have been looking forward to meeting you in person. I am reassured to know that young lady Slyth’s future is in such capable hands.”
“I, uh, th-thank you, Mr Ridgeworth. It’s a pleasure to meet you as well,” said the catgirl with an awkward curtsy and a slightly reddened face.
“Indeed. Now, we shouldn’t be keeping my lady’s parents waiting any longer. Walk this way, if you please.”
The butler led them into the house proper, which was as posh and extravagant as one might expect. The fluffy red carpet on the floor, the high ceiling that had way too many chandeliers, the maroon white walls and the various examples of tasteful artwork and fine furniture gave each corridor and room they passed through an undeniable air of extravagance.
Interestingly enough, what Boxxy was most concerned with wasn’t the potential for larceny all around it, but rather the butler leading it and Rowana deeper into the mansion. His body was way too fit and healthy for someone of his apparent age, even if it wasn’t clearly visible underneath that uniform. It was the physique one might expect from an adventurer or soldier, not a manservant. This wasn’t really cause for alarm in and of itself, however, as it made sense that the rich and powerful would have capable bodyguards close at hand.
What really caught the shapeshifter’s interest was the fact that this ‘human’ did not smell like one. Indeed, he didn’t have a scent of his own at all. Combined with his out-of-place level of fitness, Boxxy could do little but assume he was a Doppelganger in disguise, likely one of Reggie’s agents. It didn’t have a chance to go see the ‘ganger capo himself just yet, so it could only guess at this individual’s purpose here. Well, not like it mattered anyway. Boxxy was sure it could handle this Mr Ridgeworth if a fight broke out without having to deviate from Keira’s specs.
Assuming it came to that, of course. For all it knew, Reggie might have implanted agents into any number of wealthy households to keep tabs on them. If one of the wealthiest and most respected bankers in the country recommended a servant, then surely the other socialites would be eager to hire them. Whatever the case, it saw no reason to blow either of their covers with a confrontation, but it would still keep a close eye on the guy.
The two female visitors were led through another set of grand double doors and into a spacious well-lit dining room with decor that was just as opulent as the rest of the house. It actually went one step further, as it had a roaring fireplace on the left side and an array of tall, curtain-covered windows on the other. There were a few sets of decorative weapons lining the walls, each of them being way too shiny to be practical. The middle of the room was dominated by a needlessly long table, covered by a pure white embroidered tablecloth.
Rowana’s parents were seated next to each other at the far end of said table, and seemed to be in the middle of discussing something before they were interrupted by the head butler’s entrance. Doris was wearing a beautiful bright red dress that was a bit more modest than her daughter’s, aside from the long vertical slit on the right side of her skirt. Samulus was wearing a black tailcoat suit with a white undershirt, making him undoubtedly the least colorful of the group.
“Announcing the arrival of lady Rowana Slyth and her partner, the esteemed Decanus Keira Morgana,” he declared in a loud crisp voice as he made way for the guests of honor.
Samulus’s eyebrow twitched a bit at the word ‘partner,’ suggesting this was not going to be a pleasant visit. Fortunately his expression softened a bit when he turned to greet his daughter.
“Welcome back, dearest daughter,” he declared while standing from his seat.
“Hi, dad! Hey, mom!” returned Rowana in a casual manner, which made his eyebrow twitch once again.
“Oh, relax yourself, Samulus!” said his wife Doris while slapping him lightly on the wrist. “No need for formality among family, right?”
“… Yes, dear,” consented the middle-aged elf as his tension disappeared somewhere.
“Mr Ridgeworth, please be a dear and grab us some refreshments before dinner, would you? I think a cup of Floodroot tea would do all of us some good.”
“Of course, Mistress Slyth. Would milady Slyth or madam Morgana prefer something else?”
“Some tea sounds lovely, actually,” answered Rowana with a smile.
“Lots of honey for mine, please!”
“Understood. Then, if you will excuse me-”
With those words and yet another bow, the head butler excused himself from the room. Doris stood from her seat and briskly walked over to Rowana to give her a small hug.
“Oh, it is always nice to see you, little sunflower,” she said in a sweet tone. “I just wish you’d come to visit here more than once a decade.”
“Come on, mom. You know I can’t stand this house. Besides, you two already have a habit of dropping in unannounced at my place every few months. Regardless of my consent on the matter.”
“Are we really that big of a bother?”
“Of course not, I just wish you’d work on the ‘unannounced’ bit.”
“Nonsense!” declared her father as he strode over behind his wife. “It’s a parent’s duty to meddle in their child’s life! And meddle is exactly what I plan to do!”
His gaze locked onto Keira, his mood rapidly deteriorating as he looked her up and down. Even though the catgirl’s unruly hair had been straightened out in a formal bob and she was wearing the clothes and makeup one would expect of a high-class lady, it was quite obvious she didn’t belong in them. If he were to be blunt, he would say she looked like a hobo in a tuxedo.
The catgirl stepped forward and attempted a polite curtsy, much like when she met the Mr Ridgeworth.
“It’s a pleasure to formally meet you, mister Slyth.”
“Yeeeees… Quite. Please, have a seat.”
The four of them took their seats at one end of the long table, with Doris and Samulus sitting opposite Keira and Rowana respectively. As if on cue, Mr Ridgeworth entered the room with a small trolley and served everyone a cup of tea with a rather strong aroma. Everyone calmed down significantly after a good long sip, and the mother of the household began the conversation.
“So. My daughter’s sweetheart is a Hero, hmm?” questioned Doris.
Keira tensed up instantly at those words.
“Ma’am? Please, dearie, there’s no need for that.”
“Then, uh, should I call you Mrs Slyth? Or is Doris okay?”
“Huhuhuhu, I’d much prefer if you called me ‘mum,’ actually!”
“That is the proper way to address one’s mother-in-law, isn’t it?”
“I mean, you are going to marry Rowana, aren’t you?”
“Don’t be absurd!” exploded Samulus. “I will never allow that! My precious little girl is too young to marry!”
“You’re the one being absurd, dear. She’s already 19 years old, you know.”
“She’s still thirty- no, fifty years too young!”
“Hypocrisy is unbecoming of you, Samulus. We were already married at her age, weren’t we?”
“This and that are completely different! We were- are members of respectable families, and this girl is just some gutter rat who’s only using Rowana to get her hands on our money!”
“Samulus, my dear husband.”
A sudden chill filled the room at Doris’s words. Her lips were smiling, but her glare was sharp enough to burrow a hole straight through Samulus’s forehead.
“Please keep those paranoid delusions to yourself. Not only are you insulting our honored guest and your own daughter’s judgement, but you’re severely underestimating me as well. Do you honestly think I would allow this relationship if I thought for a single moment my daughter was being deceived by some gold-digger?”
“… No, dear. Sorry, dear.”
She crossed her arms while raising an eyebrow.
“And I apologize to miss Morgana for my harsh words.”
“Very good. Now then- Hmm? What’s wrong, you two?”
She hadn’t noticed it since she was busy disciplining her unruly husband, but both Rowana and Keira were looking away from each other with rather embarrassed faces.
“We, uhm,” spoke up the catgirl. “We aren’t… exactly… ready for ma-… ma-… marriage… yet.”
Matrimony was a huge commitment and not one that should be taken lightly. Now matter how lovey-dovey they were, it was an undeniable fact that they only met a few months ago.
“B-b-besides,” stammered Rowana, “things like two girls marrying is… illegal.”
“Oh in the Republic, maybe. There are plenty of other places that will let you get married, though!”
“No!” shouted Keira while banging her fists on the table, causing the teacups to rattle slightly. “It has to be here! It has to be where Rowie and her family live or else it doesn’t count!”
“Huhuhuhu, you say some nice things, don’t you?” replied Doris with a light chuckle.
“Indeed. It is good to see you’re taking this thing seriously,” approved Samulus with a nod.
“Then does the victorious Hero of Chaos have any plans to change things around?”
“… Something like that. I just figure if those bigwigs want to use me as their Hero, then the least they can do is make an exception for us two!”
“What about other homosexual couples, hmm?”
“Err, I don’t-”
“Surely if you just get what you want and ignore their needs they’ll just turn on you, am I wrong?”
“Mom, please stop probing my girlfriend,” said Rowana with a sigh. “You know full well a single person can’t make generations of bigotry disappear overnight. Speaking of which, why are you so calm about this, dad? I always thought you were against same-sex couples like us.”
The fear of being disowned by her family was what made it impossible for the old Rowana to come out to her parents. Her father’s attitude in particular was also one of the main reasons why she sought to live on her own in the first place, although that decision did not help her open up to others in the slightest. In fact, until Keira showed up, not a single person other than herself knew of her sexual orientation. She may have spoken to her friends and coworkers about their relationship, but that was because having Keira in her life gave her the courage to reveal that side of hers. She was planning on having this sit-down with her parents eventually, but it had happened sooner than expected since her mother had found out anyway.
Rowana really should not have underestimated the housewives’ information network.
“I, uh… *Cough* Well, I admit I had a bit of a fit when your mother told me of your, uh, preferences. But I’ve had a lot of time to think since then and I’ve decided that if that’s the way my precious daughter is, then it’s my responsibility to correct-”
Doris tensed up the muscles in her left hand under the table, letting out a rather loud and slightly disgusting noise as she cracked her knuckles.
“Accept her for who she was,” said Samulus, amending his words.
Rowana didn’t particularly know how to feel about this, but decided it was probably best to ignore her mother’s very obvious influence.
“Thanks, dad. That means a lot.”
“Also, Mr Slyth?”
“Yes, miss Morgana?”
“I also have to thank you. The potions and elixirs provided by your Pixie Powder Pavilion have saved a lot of good men out in the field.”
“Oh! Well, I’m glad our contribution to the war effort was of assistance to our brave soldiers.”
“Yeah,” said Rowana with a raised eyebrow. “I’m sure your patriotism has nothing to do with the fat supply contracts you got out of the government. Tell me, are you still making your people water down potentially life-saving healing potions?”
An awkward silence descended upon the room.
“Err, excuse me,” spoke up Keira, “but I need to go take a lea- I mean, powder my nose. Yeah, that second thing. Definitely.”
“Of course, dearie,” answered Doris, then gave the little bell that had been resting on the table a few solid rings.
The head butler entered the dining room not even 2 seconds later.
“Yes, Mistress Slyth?” he asked with a small bow.
“Could you please show miss Morgana to the ladies’ room?”
“Of course, Mistress. Right this way, Madam Morgana.”
“Thanks, Mr Edgeworth.”
“It’s ‘Ridgeworth,’ madam.”
“Ack! I, er, s-s-sorry.”
“Madam need not apologize. This one’s name is rather difficult to say, after all.”
“Then, can I call you Ridgey?”
“… If Madam finds it appropriate.”
“Yay! I’ll be counting on you then, Ridgey!”
“Quite. Now, if Madam would be so kind as to follow me…”
“Ah, right. Please excuse me, everyone!”
The catgirl stood from her seat, did an obligatory curtsy and followed the butler out of the room in high spirits.
“My, she is a handful, isn’t she?” said Doris with a bemused smile. “I can’t remember the last time someone managed to get a rise out of Ridgeworth.”
“Yeah,” admitted Rowana. “Keira’s a bit… rough around the edges, but that’s part of her charm. Just being in the same room with her makes me forget all my worries and troubles. She’s responsible, caring and hard-working.”
“Hmpf! We’ll see about that!” declared Samulus.
“Come now, dear. Surely even you have to admit she’s a good kid.”
“That’s just it, Doris. She’s a ‘kid.’ She knows nothing of the harshness of this world.”
“Dad! Don’t you ever speak of Keira like that!”
Rowana’s uncanny forcefulness surprised both of her parents.
“What are you on about?” asked her father.
“You don’t get to talk about her like that, okay?! You don’t know what she’s been through!”
“Oh, and you do?!”
“Of course! She told me everything about herself! And she deserves better than people like you speaking badly of her behind her back!”
“And how do you know she’s not making stuff up?!”
“I just do, okay?!”
“Well, I don’t! What did she tell you!? I’ll have my people verify everything right away!”
“This! This right here is why I can’t stand to be in this house!” shouted Rowana. “How am I supposed to live my life with you just looming over my shoulder and double-guessing everything I say and do?!”
“I… you’re right. I’m sorry, I just… can’t help but worry about my precious sunflower. First this war business, then I found out you have a girlfriend of all things, and then I find out she’s a Hero of some blasted God I’ve never heard about before and- This is all happening so fast I have no idea what to believe anymore!”
Doris reached over and put her hand on top of his, gripping it tenderly.
“How about you believe in your daughter, for a start?”
“I do! I’m just afraid my little girl will get taken away by some harlot that showed out of nowhere and- Ow! Ow-ow-ow-ow! Doris! Arrgh!”
“Oh, sorry dear,” said the wife while maintaining her bone-crushing grip on his hand. “I just get a little agitated when you speak ill of that sweet girl.”
“Okay! Okay! I’ll be on my best behavior, so please stop crushing me!”
The wife let go of her husband’s slightly bruised hand with a satisfied smile.
“There you go. Now then, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go check up on our adorable little guest.”
Doris stood from her seat and walked out of the room, leaving Rowana with her slightly injured father. Samulus waited a few moments to make sure she was out of earshot, then turned towards his daughter.
“Rowana, promise me something.”
“What is it, dad?”
“If that girl does anything- and I mean anything to hurt you, you come to me, alright?”
“Keira would never-”
“Promise me, Rowana!”
“… Alright, I promise.”
“Good. That’s all I ask.”
There was a moment of silence as Samulus rubbed his injured hand.
“I’m sorry for keeping this a secret, dad. I really should’ve told you earlier.”
“It’s quite alright, honey. I know first-hand I can be a bit too emotional at times. This whole same-sex thing still doesn’t feel right to me, but I can probably get used to it. Or rather, I don’t have much of a choice in the matter, if your mother has anything to say about it. Heh, truth be told, if it wasn’t for Doris keeping me in check, I don’t know where I’d be right now. She may be strict, but she’s still the best thing to ever happen to me. You also deserve nothing but the best, which is why I’m so particular about the company you keep.”
“I know, you always were an insufferably overprotective worry-wart. I just wish you would keep it to yourself rather than freak out and try to dissolve my girlfriend with Ectoplasmic acid on sight.”
“… What are you talking about?”
“I mean, I may not approve of the kid, but that’s hardly a reason to assault her! Let alone with Ectoplasmic acid! That stuff would eat straight through meat and bone like it was nothing!”
“But that’s exactly what you did when you first met her!”
“I did no such thing! I admit I may have not been, shall we say, a perfect gentleman tonight, but I’d never assault a guest in my own home!”
“… You do realize this is the same ‘guest’ that you mistook for a thief when you two came to visit me a few weeks ago, right?”
“Hmm? Did something like that happen?” he asked while scratching his head. “I’m pretty sure I’d remember something like that…”
“How can you not remember? It happened right before mom hit you with- … Actually nevermind. Must’ve been thinking of a weird dream or something. Just my imagination, I guess.”
Rowana felt a bit bad lying to her own father, but what else could she do?
“Oh! Oh, okay. Heh, you scared me for a second there,” he said with a light chuckle. “I mean can you imagine it? Me. Trying to melt your Hero girlfriend with acid? In front of your mother?! I may be hot-blooded but I’m not suicidal! Hahahaha!”
How was she supposed to know that frying-pan-induced amnesia was a thing that could happen?