World 78b: Undertale Isekai – Part 4

ANOTHER GREATER MYSTERY

Previously: Under Another Sky

Themesong: Desert Rose by Sting

The next few weeks were unremarkable on the grand scale, but the girls were acting… weirder and weirder. Maybe they were too stressed? Maybe it was just some cultural quirk that I didn’t get because I was an outsider. Case in point?

I was lounging about in the long afternoon warmth as spring turned to summer, playing around with my phone, and using my newest trick to spy on Elze as she changed out of her practice gear. The girl was Eff-Ai-Tee Fit. See, I’d figured out that if I used [ENCHANT] on my phone with [LONG SENSE] I could use the phone’s camera function as a scrying glass… well, that didn’t suck… and of course, being me, and having no actual enemies, I was using it to spy on my friends.

A shadow fell over me, and Yae’s voice said, “Ahem… Jouya-dono… you shouldn’t be doing that, you shouldn’t.”

I looked back over my shoulder, then grinned. “Why not?” I teased. “Not like we haven’t changed in front of each other… or been covered in slime in front of each other for that matter.”

She frowned, then shook her head, “You’re like my brother, you are.”

“Charming, lucky, and devilishly good looking?”

“Always playing pranks on others… not that he’s as cute as you are… not that I’m saying you’re cute, I’m not,” she was babbling now. “I just love that about him… the playfulness I mean… not that I’m saying I love you, I’m not.”

I blinked up at her, then chuckled “This is when you’re supposed to call me a baka and storm out.”

She stamped her foot, glared at me, blushed furiously, then yes, called me a baka and stormed out.

As she left, I called out “See!? I told you!”

=====

Yae wasn’t the only one who was being strange. Linze had bought a scroll in the Ancient Magic Script (not to be confused with Ancient Spirit Script… I both loved and hated the literalness of this auto-translate function I was under. It would be so much better if I actually knew the local lingos… but eh. At least it never made me sound like an idiot unless I was actually being one.) and I’d made her a pair of glasses so she could read the thing. It turned out to contain a water spell called [BUBBLE BOMB] and she’d asked for my help in mastering it.

Of course, I’d agreed, though I no idea how I was supposed to help. Turns out, I was mostly there to protect her when she passed out. Yeah, that’s what happens you run out of MP in this world. Dizziness, fatigue, and if you push it too far, down you go.

One [GATE] later and I was undressing her, much to her embarrassment, and tucking her into bed. I wanted to ask her if she was okay, but she was too loopy to answer, so I took a second [GATE] to the palace. Please don’t think that anyone could just do this if they had the power. The Palace Mages actually had erected magical shields around the place to stop teleporters, as even the simplest shield could block [GATE], but I’d been given permission to gate to a specific room… that happened to be part of Yumina’s suit of rooms, of course.

The King, or General Leon, or someone, had posted a guard permanently inside the room, and the young man snapped to attention as I appeared. “Ah. Miss Jouya. Is the princess with you today?”

“Not today, Tyso,” I said, shaking my head. “I’m here to see Miss Charlotte.”

“Ah,” the young soldier scratched the back of his neck, then rang a bell. A palace page entered, then ran off, and a little while later, a maid arrived with some tea and cake (a recipe I’d taught the palace chef, of course). Half an hour later, Charlotte finally arrived, looking very much as if she could use a vacation.

“You’ve been working yourself too hard,” I commented. “In my land, we say that someone who looks like you look has been ‘Burning the Candle at Both Ends’.”

She blinked, then chuckled softly. “Maybe. But there’s so much research to be done. So many books to translate.”

“Do you need more glasses?” I asked, “Maybe if you had more scribes transcribing and translating?”

She sighed, “I won’t say no. Thank you… but that’s not why you’re here, I take it?”

I shook my head, “No. Linze has been wearing herself out practicing a new spell and I’m worried about her. She collapsed after fifteen castings.”

Smiling, Charlotte patted my hand, then stole a bite of cake. “Don’t worry. She’s just worn out.”

“I figured as much. But when I cast [RESTORE VIGOR] on her, I didn’t work,” I sighed, then, just for good measure and by way of demonstration, cast it on Charlotte, who recovered some color right away. “See, that’s what it’s supposed to do.”

“”I see…” she said, considering. “I do feel less… fatigued. But I think that spell removes physical fatigue, not spiritual fatigue. She’s just out of Manna. She’ll be better in a day, assuming she gets enough rest.”

“Oh… huh. So… are there, like… Manna Potions I could buy just in case she or Yumina run out of Manna while we’re out in the field?”

“Manna… Potions?” She asked, then looked amazed at the concept. “No… do you know the formula for such a thing?”

I opened my mouth to say sure, you just mix up Blister Pod Cap, Elves Ear, Mora Tapinella, and Red Mountain Flower… then realized I’d sound like a lunatic, so I simply shook my head. “Sorry. I don’t think any of the ingredients I know of can be harvested anywhere around here.”

“Shame… though you could do what my old master did and give them some of your Manna,” she suggested.

“Oh? How’s that?”

“She has a Null Magic Spell called [TRANSFER]. Back when I was her apprentice, she’d work me until I dropped, then force more manna into me with that. Then repeat the process… over and over again.” She shuddered.

“Right… Transfer, cool,” I said. “Very helpful.”

“What did you call it?” she asked, confused.

“[Transfer]. I was just repeating your words,” I said, then shrugged. “I should get back. Thanks for the help… and you really need to get some rest. Take a few days off. I’ll drop off your glasses tomorrow morning, then you can hand them to your assistants and let them get a few days ahead of you.”

The next day, as promised, Linze was back to her cheerful self and we were back in the woods as she she struggled to master the spell.

“What seems to be the trouble?” I asked as I used [TRANSFER] to, you know, transfer some of my seemingly inexhaustible manna to her. Topping her off took slightly less energy than maintaining Byakko did, and once again I had to wonder how much of this was God’s doing and how much of this was based on my previous perks and stats.

“I think the problem is that I’m having trouble figuring out what the spell is supposed to do.”

“I imagine it’s some kind of watery explosion… at least that’s what I get from the name,” I said, shrugging. “It seems fairly obvious, doesn’t it?”

“What?” She looked… well, imagine a mixture of confusion and outrage, with just a little frustration tossed in for good mix.

“Well, Bubble… bomb… what else is it going to be?” I asked, wondering why she was so confused… and clearly irritated with me and not just the entire situation.

“What are you talking about?” she asked, looking confused.

“The name of the spell… oh you’ve got to be kidding me,” I groaned, realizing (like an idiot moment of satori) what must be happening. “Okay… try to spell out what you hear me saying when I say ‘Bubble’ ‘Bomb’ and ‘[BUBBLE BOMB]’,” I told her, aware that to me they sounded utterly identical… but then again, until I’d started Jumpchain, ‘Pen’ and ‘Pin’ had sounded identical too.

She did so, and I looked down at the symbols she’d written. My mind told me that they were both read ‘Bubble Bomb’… but the non-spell version was written ‘Paer Abragan’ while the spell version was written ‘Vrustnaki’. “Well… that explains sooo much,” I muttered.

While Linze looked at me like I was mental, I pulled out my phone and dialed God. “Hiii… Jouya here… sooo… any chance there’s a way to partly disable the translation magic you’ve got on me?”

“Oh! Certainly,” he said, “It’s not really a translation per se. I simply uploaded the local divine language into your mind when I incarnated you into this world. All you have to do is concentrate when others are speaking and you’ll be able to hear the actual words that are coming out of their mouths.”

“Thank you, Detective Carter… wait… if this is the divine language… how come I can’t read everything?”

“It only works for spoken language, I’m afraid. The divine language doesn’t have a written form.” If he minded being called Chris Tucker, it didn’t show in his voice.

“Right. Gotcha,” I hung up and got back to Linze, who proved that, once she understood the basics, she could master the spell in no time.

After blowing up a dozen trees, she tackled me and, I swear, almost kissed me. Instead, she just sat on my hips and blushed furiously… then claimed she was super duper tired and that she’d clearly burned too much energy and I should definitely take her back to the Inn so she could rest and no no, me [TRANSFER]ing energy to her was clearly too much for her to ask.

See what I mean by weird?

Even Elze got in on the bizarre behaviour. She drafted me to take her to the capital on a day where we had no missions for the guild (we were, to be honest, clearing them out as fast as they were coming in most weeks… so much so that the Guild was requesting that we leave the easier gigs for the other members, which was fine by us, to be honest. I had money coming in from my games and the various investments and designs, and we were doing pretty decently for funds from our various questing ventures.

“Sure thing… what’s up?” I asked.

“Oh… I’ve been wanting to replace my gauntlets. They’re wearing out… especially after those gargoyles the other day.” That was her excuse any way. Turns out, her real reason was that she wanted to go dress shopping. And not for her. Noooo… she’d seen this super cute (her words) gothic lolita dress the last time we’d been in the capital’s upscale shopping district and she wanted me to try it on.

“It’ll look better on you,” I commented, having already stowed the two new pairs of gauntlets she’d bought despite not having four hands… she claimed she was going to mix and match for different elemental effects on each hand… in my ring and had no intention of wearing the black and white confection that was that dress. I looked ridiculous in frills and lace.

She demurred, claiming that she wasn’t suited for dresses and always felt silly.

“Nonsense,” I said, shaking my head. “You’re perfectly cute… but it doesn’t matter how other people feel. Nice clothes are about making yourself feel good.” She resisted, but I could tell she wanted the dress, so I ended up buying it for her… which only ended up getting me in trouble with the others. Apparently, having bought Elze a present, I had to buy each of the other girls a dress… then find a party to get us all invited to so they could show off their new dresses. “That’s hardly fair,” I commented. “I don’t have a new dress to show off.”

“Of course you don’t,” Elze said.

“Yes,” Yae said, “You have to buy a nice suit, you do.”

“What?” I said, pouting. “How is that fair? How come I don’t get a new dress?”

Yumina grinned. “Because you’re the boy!” she said, giggling as I rolled my eyes. That was hardly fair. Just because I could turn into a guy didn’t mean I couldn’t have a nice dress… granted, my idea of a nice dress would be scandalous in Belfastian high society. No one had invented electrical tape in this world. Had to get a suit? Fine. I’d get the girliest suit I could find… or have made.

All of this culminated in the strangest way of all, though I’m getting ahead of myself. Some six weeks after the poisoning attempt, we were collectively summoned to the capital, though the message was vague, simply instructing each of us to bring good clothing. Well, okay, not the princess… she had plenty of good clothing at the palace… clothing she refused to share even though we were the same size. She claimed that it didn’t suit my coloration. Humph… she was probably right. I was a winter, she was a summer. Even the colors of pink that suited us were different, with me favoring vibrant fuschia and the princess favoring pastels… you know, colors with a commitment phobia.

Anyway, we arrived at the palace at the designated time (I’m very punctual) and found that there was a bit of a party going on. Not a rowdy one, mind you, with the medieval version of dance music and kegs of beer, nor a fancy one, with cocktails and banal smalltalk. This was more in the nature of the members of the court gathered in the presence chamber (that’s like an informal audience chamber. It’s where the monarch receives guests without all the pomp and ceremony.) The King and Queen were present, of course, as was Charlotte, though she looked even more stressed than usual… now it looked as if she was burning the candle in the middle too. Also present were General Leon… or as I called him ‘Backbreaker’ since he had a habit of showing approval with resounding slaps on the back that often felt more like an assassination attempt than a friendly greeting… but that was his way and he meant nothing sinister by it, so it was forgivable.

The Mismedian ambassador, the fox girl Olga was there, looking better now that she wasn’t under suspicion… and she immediately pulled me aside to give me a handkerchief that her little sister, Arma the easily lost, had embroidered for me by way of thanks for helping reunite the sisters and for saving Olga from an abrupt shortening. As she thanked me, she grew more and more distracted by Byakko, draped over my shoulders at the time, for some reason.

“You have a white tiger as a pet?” she asked, trying to sound light and airy, but her ears and tail were too puffed out for her to be very convincing (want to touch the fluffy taaaail!). I’ve been around foxes, dogs, cats, and ferrets for too long, I know all their tells.

“Indeed. This is Byakko… he’s our newly crowned mascot,” I explained without going into the details of his true nature.

“The white tiger is the symbol of Mismede, the king of all beasts and spiritual liege of all beastmen,” she said, leaning closer to almost touch noses with the tiger. Byakko, pretending to be just a cute little fluff, went ‘Rawr’ and pawed at her. Very subtle.

“Ah?” I prevaricated. “Is that so? Should I worry that my having a white tiger as a pet will cause offence among your people?”

“Not unless you treat him poorly,” she said, apparently accepting that there wasn’t anything suspicious about my living fur stole… despite the fact that I was very casually supporting a thirteen kilo fluff on my narrow shoulders as if he weighed less than a tenth that.

“He does occasionally protest that he’s being snuggled too much, but he gets plenty of love and affection from my friends… you can pet him if you like… He only occasionally gnaws on people,” I said, grinning softly.

Olga was just trying to figure out if she dared, when Leon came over to attempt concussive chiropracty. We made smalltalk for a few minutes, and he invited me to spar sometime in the near future, which I accepted. It was clear he was an accomplished warrior, and it would be shameful to pass on the opportunity to see him in action. I also suggested that Elze might enjoy a chance to spar against the manbeast, who (like her) was a master of elemental gauntlet-based violence. Indeed, his sobriquet was ‘Fire Fist Leon’.

I know what you’re thinking. He had a son older than Elze, but he was a nice guy, a widower, and they both had a healthy appreciation for punching things to death. At worst, they could be friends, even if nothing romantic flourished. She even scored an invitation to the military drills scheduled for that afternoon, which I had no doubt she’d find thrilling, and not in a sarcastic way.

I also tried to hook Linze up with Charlotte (not in the romantic sense, of course) because I figured the two of them could compare notes and maybe Linze could convince the court magicienne to take a week off. I also mentioned to the king that perhaps he should take his ladies on a get away and make certain that Charlotte was too tired to do any reading… and maybe, just maybe, work on giving Yumina a little brother… just to push myself further from the throne.

Eventually, the pleasantries had been pleasanted and the small talk had been smalled, and the real reason for the summons to court was made clear as the King and the Duke and Count Edgardo, the Lord Privy Seal, cornered me, in an actual corner of the presence chamber and offered me a barony.

“A… you mean with the title and lands and all that?” I asked, making certain I understood. The king nodded. I accepted it, of course. I’m no fool, but I had a stipulation. “At the current time, I’m too young to enter into such contracts as formal oaths… as I might have mentioned before, with regards to the princess’s kind offer. And I’m just figuring out how to run my own life,” I lied, “Being responsible for the lives of liegemen and serfs and doing all that administration… you’d have to appoint a regent for me if you gave me lands now… so could you hold off on the lands until later? Once I reach the age of majority?”

The king laughed, nodding. “Of course, of course!” he said, patting me on the shoulder. And that, I thought, was that. I’d have the title and none of the responsibilities for most of my stay… okay, half my stay. That would be enough time for me to have my fill of adventuring and I’d have the resources and experience with the local cultures to be able to take it easy… or decided to hie for the hills and not look back. One of the two.

The formal investiture was that afternoon, in front of the entire court. I tried not to fidget as the king said, “Oh great adventurer who has saved my very life, pray, allow me to bestow upon you a title of nobility in praise of your deed.”

“I accept, your majesty, though I was merely doing as an adventurer should. I be unworthy of such praise,” was my reply.

“Nonsense!” he snapped, but in a jovial way. He grinned down at me, and said “I’m the king. I decide who is worthy!”

“Very well, then. I accept, but I’m too young yet to govern a fief, your majesty. In my land, such things are reserved for those who are legally adults.”

“Very well then. I shall hold off granting you a domain to rule, for now…” he grinned, “Saves me from having to appoint a regent for you.” I nodded. It was all going as scripted… then it wasn’t. The King’s grin got bigger as he continued. “That said, allowing the woman who saved my life to remain homeless would be a great discourtesy. Therefore, in place of the income of the lands I would have given you, I have prepared a reward sum for you, and a mansion that I hope should serve as a base of operations for your adventuring party.”

The house was, of course, in the Capital. Clearly this entire thing was a maneuver to get me to move to the capital so Yumina could visit more often… but also so that if there was an emergency (say Charlotte needed more glasses or the Queen needed more cake), I’d be on hand. It was in the Western District, 2A, Palaran Avenue, half an hour’s easy walk from the Palace’s gate. There wasn’t a 2B. Well, technically, there had been, but the owners of 2A had bought the neighboring mansion (recently gutted by an unfortunate fire) and used the land (once cleared) to build a quite impressive garden.

The city was divided into two rings, inner and outer, with the castle at the center, though Lake Palette occupied the Northern District of the outer ring and the Palace’s gardens occupied the inner North (it was more like a royal park than a garden, to be honest). The Western and Southern Outer Ring were divided from the rest of the city by the River Aisel… Palette and Easel? Sigh… and the docks were on the Western District’s lakeshore. Thus, most of the city’s mercantile class lived in the western half of the city, on one shore or the other. 2A was, by far, the largest mansion on that side of the river… and there were signs that a symbol had been recently removed from the gate and door. I suspected, very much so, in fact, that this house belonged to the late Count von Traitor Pants. Oddly, the house itself was smaller than the Viscount Swordrick’s home (and much smaller than the Ducal Palace Sue lived in)… but as far as I knew, Swordrick’s fortune was in producing weapons for the military, not in owning land. The Balsa family had owned considerable estates, and so this was more a city residence than their seat of power.

On the other hand, it wasn’t the house’s fault that it had been owned by scum, and it looked nice enough. As for the monetary part of the reward, it was twenty royal coins, each of which was worth a hundred gold, and they were far too valuable to see much use even in a world where magical items were on sale every day. It was an absolute fortune, and I suspected that it amounted as much to a dowry as to a reward, but looking a gift horse in the mouth was always frowned upon, no matter the culture.

Still, the house was far too big for merely five of us… six with Byakko, who was dangling from Yumina’s arms, his tail coiled around her waist to keep from tripping her as we stood in the vast foyer. I said as much, only to get some very strange looks from the girls.

“What did I say?” I asked.

“Five? Are we to live here as well, are we?” Yae asked.

I was slightly flummoxed by that. “Of course. Why wouldn’t you?”

“But this house was given to you by the King!” Elze pointed out.

“Yes?” What was her point?

Linze said, “I think his aim was for you to share it with Yumina.”

I chuckled and brushed the thought aside with a wave of my hand. “That might have been his aim, but this is my house and I decide who stays here. I’ll not see any of my comrades forced to live in an inn when I have rooms to spare.”

“S… so just comrades?” Elze asked.

I frowned. What was wrong with comrades? Shaking my head, I smiled. “There is nothing mere about comrades. A comrade is one you would fight for, would (in extremis) die for. I value each of you no less than I value Yumina. You’re like family. Closer even, since one cannot choose one’s family… now what’s wrong?” They were blushing furiously. This culture, I tell you. I do not get these reactions. It was like I’d said something lewd… not that I didn’t say such things from time to time, but so far all my entendres tended to fall flat. ‘I’d like to nibble her pie.’? Nothing. ‘My word, would you look at the melons on that girl.’? Nada. ‘Oh! He’s got a big package!’? Total confusion. But I say the word family and suddenly it’s like I suggested a menage a seis with Byakko included. Apparently my translation software did not come with idiomatic mastery.

The trio practically ran off in different directions, leaving me with Yumina. “Sooo… you like the four of us to the same level?” she asked, eyes knowing.

“Of course. Why?”

“Oh… nothing. I guess I’m moving up in the world.”

I frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Jouya. I intend to become your wife. You know that. But I don’t intend to monopolize you,” the little princess said.

I nodded. “Good. Relationships where one party tries to dictate how the other spends their time, or who the other can associate with aren’t happy relationships.” I was careful not to commit to the whole wife thing, but I’d had more than one male friend who’d become trapped in a relationship with a partner who threw hissy fits whenever he’d tried to spend time with anyone besides that special her… fewer in other relationship configurations, but she-he was not uncommon and even he-he and she-she had seen it happen… I’d even once had a friend end up with a hyper-possessive Virtual Assistant. That was just weird… also DC. “All parties to a relationship should have their own autonomy or it’s no more than a prison. If one stays because one chooses, that is the truest test of loyalty, of commitment.”

The princess smiled, then grinned. “Don’t worry. I’ll go have a talk with the others, explain how it is. You just say here.”

And she handed over Byakko, who looked up at me and asked, “What’s all that about?”

I scooped up the kitten and began to explore the house. “No idea. I’m a stranger to this world, and the usual cultural cues I’d be using to figure things out don’t seem to be triggering the normal brain-cells. Either this culture is weirdly artificial in some way or I’m not operating at anything like full capacity. Since the second is actually true, I would normally discount the first, but…” I shrugged, looking around empty room after empty room. There wasn’t a single piece of furniture… not even shelves in the cellars. It was weird. Maybe the Count’s cousins had been allowed to take everything when the estate had been seized? Or maybe it had all been sold as a matter of course.

“But you don’t really understand?” the heavenly beast said as we headed out into the garden and I set him down to roll in the grass.

“I feel like I’m missing something fairly obvious, but I don’t know what… it’s very frustrating. I keep thinking in terms of mathematics.”

“Mmmm?” he asked, rolled onto his back and letting the sun warm his tummy furr… little sybarite.

“I… it’s like I’m adding one and one and getting… five? Ten? No… it’s more like I’m trying to integrate a variable, and instead of just getting x plus one I’m getting something that’s not even a number.” I shook my head, missing my normal titanic intellect and the perks that made societal functions as transparent as air. I’d put a lot of effort into training up my baseline over the ages, but to my many regrets, there were still fundamental limits to all things human. Without the perks that made me superhuman, I was merely a demigod. Not that that was a bad thing, and I wasn’t complaining… just wondering what I was missing.

I was just about to flop onto the grass and tickle a kitty tummy when Yumina and the others returned. Yumina was grinning, while the other three were trying not to meet my gaze… oh, lovely. It was a ‘Let’s talk’ moment. I love those! They’re the best! Noootttt. They were probably going to explain how it wouldn’t be right to live here with Yumina and me and I’d have to come up with some complicated plan wherein I’d keep inviting them over and pointing out that it was late and they should stay in the guest rooms… and maybe they could leave a change of clothes… and a toothbrush… until they were effectively living here and eventually I’d be like ‘it doesn’t make sense to pay for a room at an inn that you’re never using.’ But those kinds of plans, when they worked, took time and effort and were silly wastes of both.

“C… can we really live here?” Linze asked. “With you?”

Okay… that wasn’t what I was expecting. “Of course. I wouldn’t have offered if it wasn’t okay.”

“You won’t tell us to get out? Later on, I mean?” Elze asked, joining the conversation.

“Only if you start summoning fire elementals or breeding stink bugs,” I teased. “No… of course I won’t!” I added as I realized that they were taken aback by the teasing… had they been planning on raising fire elemental stink bugs? Sulfur bugs? Brimstone Beetles? Whatever?

“And you’ll treat us exactly like you’d treat Yumina-dono, will you?”

“Yeah!” I said, grinned, “Duh! You’re all the family I’ve got in this world!”

“There you have it,” Yumina proclaimed. “We’ll all be living here from now on. Feel free to decide when you have your feelings in order.”

I blinked… decide what? About living here? Wasn’t that already decided? Was my translation software on the fritz again? Do Gods not ‘grock’ idioms? Actually, that seemed strangely likely, but whatever. The three agreed with Yumina’s words however, then (instead of explaining what the hell was going on) they started talking about who got which room, rapidly breaking the embarrassed tension they were feeling as they discussed the realities of living in a giant house… such as having to hire servants to do the cleaning, since it was far too big a place for us to do it, even if we closed up the rooms that lacked furniture until we decided what to do with them. I mean, seriously. It was an actual mansion. It had more than fifty rooms, not counting water closets or sub-chambers like closets.

It was decided that we’d move in to the new place five days after we got it, thus giving us enough time to say a limited goodbye to the people we’d come to know in Reflet, as well as giving us enough time to purchase enough furnishings for the common rooms and servants’ quarters and our own rooms… it would be weird not sleeping in the same rooms as the others. Well, three of us went back to Reflet for the first three days to finish up business. Yumina headed back to the palace to speak with her mother about something.

When we returned to the capital, planning on moving into an inn there while we got things situated in the new house, we found Yumina outside the manse, overseeing workers as they carried a vast assortment of household goods into the mansion. Small pieces of furniture, cookware, chests of linens and curtains, rugs, crates of supplies and books and the dozens of other things one never realizes a house needs until one moves in and realizes one doesn’t have. There were also carpenters in the front walk cutting boards and staining them, clearly constructing shelving units and wine racks and other storage pieces… including what were clearly tables for a workshop for me.

She waved at us as we rolled our coach out of my [GATE] and rushed over. “Jouya! Perfect timing! There’s a man here seeking employment as a housekeeper! Can you come and meet him?”

I looked at the gentleman, then smirked. “Housekeeper, huh?” I asked, hopping down from the coach and taking the man’s hand. “Hello Liam,” I said. Liam was the king’s butler, and older brother of Liem, the Duke’s butler. I’d met the two of them on more than one occasion. “Come to keep an eye on the Princess?”

“Partly, partly, young miss,” he agreed. “But also, I’m getting a bit long in the tooth for Palace life. My son is of an age where he can care for the king, and my family owes you a debt for saving Liem’s life.” He smiled and bowed over his arm in very proper european form.

“And you’ve been taking care of the Princess since she was born and haven’t missed her at all these past weeks, have you?” I teased, earning myself a chuckle from the old man and a glower from Yumina.

“Indeed not,” he said. “She can be a handful, and I’ve enjoyed the vacation… but it’s time to get back to work, if you’ll have me.”

Of course we would, and thus we gained a head of household staff. He had, of course, arranged all the worker bustling all around us, and was ready to present us with several potential permanent members of the household by the time all the various furnishings had been delivered and put in place (mostly by laborers, but Elze had to show off with her [BOOST] spell… she gets better effect out of it than I do, which is interesting… then again, Linze was clearly more nuanced with the local magic than I was and Yae’s speed was incredible… it was as if they were each leveling up through prolonged contact with me… and don’t get me started on Yumina’s accuracy… it was spooky… and I know from spooky accuracy. She could 720 no scope three different sparrows on the wing with a bow and arrow from 500 paces. Sparrows! Without having known how many targets there would be when she started spinning. Note, these were magical arrows that didn’t do more than startle the birds. Sparrows are terrible eating unless you’re a hawk.)

There were two young women, Cecile and Lapis, both vetted by the Maid’s Guild (because of course there was a Maid’s Guild… had this world been designed by an Otaku? Beast-Girls, Maids, mini-skirt mages, mystic eyes… a supreme god who was very Japanese?). Lapis was dignified and black-haired, while Cecile was sweet and had auburn hair… both were about twenty and dressed like French maids… because of course they were. They were obviously ninjas.

I know that sounds glib, but I’ve seen too many combat trained agents over the ages to fail to notice how they watched everything, how they moved nearly silently, how their lithe bodies moved under those risque uniforms (Mmm, yummy). They were clearly there to bodyguard the princess in her own home, and a glance at their inner-selves confirmed as much, but I said nothing. What Yumina didn’t know could very well save her life.

Next up were Julio, formerly a groundskeeper of the royal park and set to become my gardner, and his wife, Crea, who was to become the cook. They were in their late twenties, golden-blond and reddish haired, and very laid back. Crea was experienced, of course, having worked as an apprentice chef in several aristocratic households before, but her degree of experience and mine were not even close to being on the same level. I’d have to give her lessons to bring her up to the level I considered more than merely acceptable… but I hadn’t had an apprentice of my own in a while, and I was looking forward to it. As for Julio? Gardening wasn’t really my thing… but I’d hung out with Toph enough that I should be able to offer a little feedback.

The last two staff members were in their fifties. Thomas and Huck, formerly of the Heavy Infantry and Light Cavalry respectively, would be in charge of gatekeeping and mansion security respectively, though of course they’d have to hire more people to stand all the watches (at least eight more to cover the gate and patrol the property… maybe I could make some security enchantments… mmmm…). I scanned them and found them to be exactly who they said they were, and honest to a fault the pair of them. Then again, Yumina had signed off on them, like the rest of the palace staff, and thus we knew they could be trusted.

Thomas and Huck, as middleagers, had their own families and households in the city, but the others would live on the grounds. Thankfully, the house came with servants quarters… quite a lot of them, in fact. The Balsa’s must have employed at least sixty butlers, maids, cooks, footmen, pages, gardeners, and guards, if the size of the servant’s quarters were anything to go by.

Those servants quarters, mostly under the main house or in the attic, were not counted in the house’s room count by tradition… and had been appallingly small, drab, and unpleasant. I’d ordered them gutted and refurbished… and (after a scan of the walls) I’d ordered everything moved back out of the house while I used [REMODEL] on every painted surface in the house to pull the paint off and form it into spheres for disposal. Lead paint… not good. I sent a note to the king explaining that the substance was toxic, especially to children and should be banned in all forms of paint, potery, potion-craft, water distribution or collection, and definately from toys. In each case, I tossed in several acceptable substitutes. I also warned him of the danger of Mercury, Asbestos, and Medicinal Bleeding. Thankfully, this world hadn’t discovered radium yet or arsenic-based pigments. It was clear I was going to have to set up a field guide of toxic substances and practices… weee… just what I’d always wanted. Come to a Fantasy setting and invent OSHA and the FDA/EPA. Maybe I could make some toxin snoopers. Good thing this world was, in general, much cleaner than most real feudal societies would have been, largely thanks to magic’s ready availability.

Anyway, the old paint spheres were disposed of in an old mine we’d found in our adventures and the servants quarters halved in number to create rooms that would be worth living in. I also whipped up a collection of very pretty wallpapers which the new occupants could choose from. Not as nice as the stuff I designed for the public rooms of the house, obviously, but that stuff had precious metals and tiny gemstones imbedded in it. I wanted the servants to feel welcome… not spoiled. Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself. All that took several days.

Back on the day in question, we quickly confirmed the new staff and sent them off to get prepared for the tasks ahead of them. Thankfully, each of them knew what was expected of them, and (after being given some money) they headed back out into the city to do the rest of the shopping… except Liam, who prepared the afternoon tea. And it’s a good thing he did, because no sooner were the cookies laid out than Sue and her father arrived with housewarming presents.

As Yumina caught up with her cousin, the Duke clapped me on the shoulder. “I must say, I was most surprised to learn of your engagement to the princess, my girl,” he said.

“No more shocked than I was, your highness,” I said. “They wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

He laughed at that. “No no. I’m not surprised at their choice! To be honest, I think the world of you! I had intended to have my Sue and you… but my older brother beat me to it. Always on the ball, those two.”

I just gaped like a fish at that… then did my impression of a cavern as Yumina and Sue squealed, and hopped up and down, then gave me double puppy-dog faces.

“I was just telling Yumina that, if it was Jouya, I wouldn’t mind an arranged marriage!” Sue gushed.

“And I was saying that I wouldn’t mind sharing Jouya if it was with my beloved cousin!” added Yumina.

“Well, I’ll refrain from pressing the issue for today,” the Duke said, waving the thought away as if he hadn’t just said ‘for today’. “I’ve got a bit of a favor to ask of you, Jouya… on a different topic, of course.”

“Oh?” I asked, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

“Nothing to worry about,” he chuckled. “Nothing at all. My brother and I have been working to strengthen ties with Mismede, perhaps to forming an alliance… but that requires getting the two kings to sit down and hash out the details.”

“Ah… I see,” I said, “You need me to go to Mismede and set up a [GATE] so that there are no misadventures with either king in transit. Otherwise, Tristwin and the Mismedean King would have to each travel to a point on the border… and that means bringing armies and risking monsters or bandits or open war if things go badly.”

“Indeed. Yes. It will take about six days to reach Mismede by carriage, then another four days to reach their capital, Berge… provided all goes as planned… don’t worry. We plan to file this request with the Guild, requesting your party… that way your Guild Rank will increase and you’ll be formally rewarded.”

“And you’ll provide documentation proving I’m… we’re on diplomatic mission?” I asked.

“Actually, Olga and Arma will be travelling with you. They’re returning home, and you’ll be acting as their escort to Berge, then they’ll escort you around Mismede and introduce you to King Jamukha.”

“So just us to guard Olga?” Elze asked.

“Oh. No. You’ll have an armed cavalry escort to the border here, and another once you cross the Great Gau River into Mismede. We’ve discussed the matter with Charlotte, and what we’d like you to do is to transport a mirror that has been enchanted with your Gate spell to Mismede. That way they’ll believe it’s a property of a magical item that can be sealed up… wouldn’t do for them to suspect that you could bring an army out into their capital at any time, right?”

I nodded, but Yumina humphed, “As if she would.”

“That’s a good point,” I said. “I tend to dislike plans that involve a great many civilians getting trampled by the army. A security squad or special infiltration unit is much more likely.” I grinned at Yumina as she stuck her tongue out at me. I considered. “To be honest… I could also do that with several hand mirrors, thus allowing correspondence to be sent safely… in fact, I could whip up a few dozen pairs of such things to connect the Palace to every outpost and city in the country if you like?”

The Duke blinked, then nodded rapidly, “Oh? Could you really?”

“Yes. Of course. Talk to Tristwin and General Leon, and have them make up a list… I’ll need about four ingots of steel and one of silver… and a bunch of glass for each dozen mirrors… best provide some gold so I can coat the steel… I’ve recently found a spell called [REINFORCE] which makes things more resilient, so the mirrors will be harder to damage. I’ll label each mirror with the name of the location it’s being sent to.”

“Won’t you have to go to each location?” Linze asked.

“Oh… yeah. That’s true… so it will take some time to get the entire network up and running, but once I’ve been to a location, I can get back there and just ride to the next location. Shame I can’t work it for boats… but yeah. Anyway… when do you want us to head out?” I asked the Duke.

“Three days from now, if you’re willing?”

“Awww… I want to go!” Sue complained.

“Once I’ve been there, I can go back whenever I like, little princess,” I teased. “I’ll take you with on the next aaaaack!” I was cut off by a pounce glomp that knocked my chair over… and that smile was waaay too enthusiastic… I gulped as she snuggled in my lap.

===

To Mismede we went, escorted by a dozen knights of Belfast and a like number of soldiers from the beastmen, in three wagons. The two escort wagons were of the older style, but the one in which my party rode had been outfitted with the new springs and cushions and wasn’t nearly so bumpy a ride… still, it was far from the most comfortable ride, and so I was providing distractions in the form of games. Mostly basic ones, Sorry and Othello, but I’d also made a Cluedo set and a variation of Dominion which used chits drawn from bags instead of cards. It wasn’t as easy to play (you needed a cheat sheet for each player), but it was much more sturdy.

The leader of the guard contingent from Belfast was Sir Lyon Blitz, eldest son of General Leon Blitz, and he was the only member of the guard force who actually knew who Yumina was. It was also clear to anyone who was paying attention that he and Olga were infatuated with each other. I mentioned this to my compatriots, and they just stared at me as if I had three heads. “What? You don’t think so?” I asked, in the aftermath of a bandit attack in which none of our guards gained so much of a scratch. Competence is a great thing… as is overwhelming might.

“Some people never seem to notice things that are right in front of them,” Elze said. Linze nodded firmly.

Yae added, “Some people are so busy being nice to everyone that they send very confusing messages, they do.”

“Really? I mean Olga’s nice,” I commented, “But she doesn’t seem like she flirts with others… do you think Lyon is the jealous type?” My question just made them stare at me more, so I wandered off, shaking my head.

Finally, after six days of travel, we arrived at Canaan, the southernmost town in all of Belfast. Canaan lay at the tip of the peninsula that Reflet served as the gateway to. I’d been told we’d have to cross the Great Gau River by ferry from Canaan to Langley, though the map I had on my phone showed that the so called Gau River was, in fact, a bay or estuary (it’s hard to tell the difference for most people… myself included, since I no longer had access to any of my personas that had any expertise in hydrogeology). Either way, it was kilometers across and marine blue and very clearly no longer a river long before it reached the ocean proper

Canaan was a port town… but not a maritime one. The harbor, such as it was, was situated on what locals were calling ‘the riverbank’ and almost all of the ships were small, with few sails and the biggest among them were barges, and not large ones at that. It was clear that most of the trade was going upriver or across to Langley, which was visible (if barely) across the water. That said, this entire town… its location, its layout, its ships… they rang off to me.

There wasn’t enough overland shipping to really support a port town this busy, and without an oceanic trade, there wasn’t really enough coming in to support the hustle and bustle that was in evidence either. That meant that all those ships that weren’t taking goods back and forth had to be generating the majority of whatever this city was trading… but those goods couldn’t really be any different from what Langley (with access to the same waters) were generating, could they? Maybe? I wasn’t really that interested in finding out, but the strangeness didn’t stop there.

The ships were an example of magical adaptation… but not a good one. The reason they all had such simple sailplans was because of wind magic. When each ship could pay for a wind mage to come aboard and push the ship, you didn’t really want to confuse the mage with too many sails… combine that with the relatively placid sailing area, and the locals didn’t really feel they needed anything more complex… but that meant that all of them were paying for wind when wind was, for all intents and purposes, freely available 85% of the time.

This is what you get when Enchantment is a Null Spell that’s one in a few tens of thousands. Technology stagnates, because magical items are so rare. Instead of selling windstones for emergencies, there’s an entire guild dedicated to wind crafters just pushing boats around… and no one was willing to brave the open ocean… granted, that might be because there were monsters there… but I’ve seen a map of this world… there were no vast open oceans. There were two macro-continents and they were both roughly circular and not super far from each other. Closer than Sri Lanka to Singapore in any case.

And the town layouts were all wrong, as I’ve mentioned before, but in Mismede it got worse. This was like someone’s fantasy world where the world-builder hadn’t done their research… or just hadn’t thought things through very well… hmmm… Japanese overgod… oh… ahaha… I got it. When I’d made my build for Undertale, I’d taken a drawback that made Anime and Manga into historical documents for that world… a world entirely contained in a mountain range. Now I was outside that range… but still in a world where Anime and Manga were, effectively, truth… I was in a fantasy anime. Of course I was. Hahaha. I started chuckling as the realization hit me.

“Jouya? Are you okay?” Arma asked.

I patted her cute little foxy head and smiled. “Yup. Beware of toggles, little one,” I told her, confusing her no doubt.

“I’m not that much younger than you,” she pointed out, “And I’m not that short.”

I grinned. She stuck her tongue out at me. I bought her a brooch as a memento of Belfast… and a few sets of earrings for the girls. Good thing I’d figured out the genre. Adventure Fantasy, like Lodoss War. Couldn’t be like Bastard… not enough violence and nudity. Couldn’t be like Dragon Half, not enough silly… I had a feeling I was missing a sub-genre, but it wasn’t coming to me. Maybe I was missing more than one. So far, it was all pretty calm and low conflict. Then again, I wasn’t the Main Character, now was I? That was probably some burly dude with a hot elven sorceress girlfriend and a sneaky beast-man friend as the party thief slash comic relief. I was just a drop-in chilling until everything got fixed somewhere in the machinework of the heavens or whatever. God was just making certain I was entertained while on vacation.

Everyone made the trip across the water in good spirits… except Linze, who it turns out gets motion-sickness… stereotypically, since she’d been the one reading, but that’s life for you. [RECOVERY] didn’t cure it, which was a pain… and the fact that it didn’t work on what was obviously a Status Effect was odd… then again, she could read just fine in a moving shaking carriage… logic… sigh. Maybe it was psychosomatic? Or didn’t work on things where there was an outside force in constant effect? Or maybe the god of Status Effects took no credit for motion-sickness? Fantasy Magic doesn’t always make sense. In fact, the worlds where it did were something of a minority.

Langley was a bit smaller than Canaan, and the population was about 80-20 in favor of Beastmen, while Canaan had been about 70-30 in favor of Humans. If the architecture of Belfast was largely Fantasy France, the architecture of Mismede was fantasy Goa, a hybrid of Arabian and Mughal designs. The marketplace was also more bustling and varied than Canaan’s had been. While the human city focused on metal goods, gemstones, and shellfish, the beastman city focused on spices, wood, and fabric. Both had fish and fruits, most of which were the same, and both had grains and baked goods, but they were totally different, which was interesting. Belfast had a short-grained wheat and barley crop, while Mismede had a long-grained wheat and a thing called ‘khotis’ that looked like a cross between rye and caraway which tasted divine, but had to be carefully handled as it produced about twice as much gluten as normal wheat and had spiky pods that could quickly cause infection if you got pricked with one and didn’t get the complete (and very fragile) barb out. Khotis was a wonderful couscous substitute if you cooked it with something acidic. Cooking it with an alkaline made it into very goopy potage.

I ended up buying a few bushels of the grains, plus some of the local wild rice which had nice plump chewy grains, and we had lunch amid the stalls of the marketplace. It was a shame they didn’t have baclava… maybe I’d have to invent it for them… along with filo dough. I actually bought more supplies than that, since Garm, the commander of the Mismedian guards had been nice enough to explain that there were no large towns between Langley and Berge (the capital… which was, again, odd). I got back to the carriages to find Olga, Yumina, Yae, Linze, and Elze all comparing their new jewelry and gushing about how nice the pieces were… which was nice, but made me feel a little embarrassed for some reason. Maybe just because they kept glancing at me. This world is so odd… It’s like it’s running on tropes that I’m not used to… which is just weird. I thought I knew all the Anime tropes.

Case in point? As we rolled out of Langley, by all measures a fairly important trade port, one would have expected the road leading to the capital to be well paved and patrolled… but it wasn’t. The countryside outside the city was overgrown and farmlands quickly gave way to wilderness, with a veritable jungle swallowing the way ahead. The road too was rough and full of the sound and spore of monsters, though they didn’t come after us, since the jungles were also full of prey.

The nearest town of any size to Langley was Eld, and the distance between them was such that if one wished to travel from one to the other, one needed to leave at dawn and travel without stopping to arrive after dusk… and there was no such thing as a caravanserai in this world… or at least this part of this world.

I commented on the strangeness of the spacing of towns to Olga, and she explained that Mismede was settled by several different clans, each holding separate territory. Few places (Langley being one of them) were colonies where multiple clans had agreed to share space, but even then, the town itself was divided into different quarters, with only the harbor and market being shared turf.

“There are seven Clans, each with their own Patriarch or Matriarch, of which His Beastliness is one,” she said. “Beastmen, the Winged Races, the Horned Races, the Dragonfolk, the Dryadic Peoples, the Aquatic Races, and the Fairies. The Beastmen are the majority, so we hold the monarchy, since even together, all the other races cannot oppose us, but since they can make things difficult, they hold a great deal of power. The Patriarchs of the other six clans are like… like the great nobles of your Belfast.”

“Ah. Fascinating…” I said, then pulled out a roll of paper and cast [DRAW] on it, making a map of southern Belfast and all of Mismede. “But not an efficient use of land.” One by one, I placed the cities and towns of Mismede on the map, and added the roads that I’d been able to locate on my phone. “The distances mean that travel is dangerous and thus your trade is suppressed. If you add minor fortifications with walled yards for trade caravans to rest for the night, and charge travellers to stay at them at or near these locations,” I added in fifteen dots, “you’ll probably see a rise of 40% of your internal trade within two years.” I added another twenty dots. “If you expand the network with roads connecting towns and cities to these points and add fortifications at those locations as well, you’ll probably see an increase of two to three hundred percent trade within a decade.”

She blinked at the map, eyes going wide as the sparse roadways of Mismede became a web of interlinked communities. “You… you just threw this together?” she asked, clearly wondering if I’d been spying on her country. In this age, a good map was a rarity and a security risk.

“Yes. I did. And no, I’m not planning an invasion for Belfast. In fact, if you do this, and station riders and troops at each caravanserai… that’s what this type of fort is called, you’ll find that you can more rapidly respond to any monster attack… or invasion. Too many countries rely on border forts to stop an invasion, when the doctrine of defense in depth is far more effective.”

“What do you mean… defense in depth?” she asked, and Garm and Lyon gravitated over as I began to explain, using a Go board to demonstrate how a line of border forts, once breached, allowed an invader essentially free reign, but how a staggered series of border forts and internal fortifications meant that an invader could punch through the border only to find themselves smashing into new defenses… and then enveloped from behind.

“Even if you have to have twice as many forts over all, this system is worth the investment for four reasons,” I explained, ticking them off. “First, it’s many times more effective than a simple line.” They nodded, seeing that immediately. “Second, it allows your government to respond to internal issues like bandits, monsters, and disasters by having troops and supplies stationed throughout the kingdom.” That got more consideration, but I didn’t pause before listing, “Third, is the boost to trade and internal communication, which not only helps defray the cost to a huge degree, but also draws your people closer together, since trade partners almost never want to go to war as such wars disrupt trade.” That got a look of confusion from the two warriors, but Olga, a diplomat, nodded enthusiastically. “And fourth, and this is the really big one… it allows your governments to move troops around internally, so that a) local lords don’t gain too much control over the local garrisons… and b) local peoples begin to think of themselves as part of a nation, and not just a clan… and c) so local peoples see that their taxes are being spent on something that benefits them personally, rather than on distant border forts they might never see against an enemy they may never have heard of.”

“I don’t follow,” Lyon said and Garm nodded, grunting in agreement.

“Oh, it’s simple,” Olga said, pointing to Canaan and Langley. “See how far these two cities are from the border of the Empire?” she asked, referring to Regulus, which occupied almost all of Belfast’s land border and (like Belfast) occupied a river border and a sea border with Mismede. “Ask the merchants of these harbor towns to pay taxes to support troops being stationed here,” she drew her finger from the coastal towns to the mountain and river border, “and they’ll protest about a threat they won’t ever seen unless the entire kingdom has already fallen.”

“Ah!” the warriors said at once. “But if we station troops here, here, and here, to fight bandits and monsters…” Garm began, and Lyon finished, “They’ll praise us for protecting their interests, even if we ask them for more funds than are needed to supply just those locations.”

“Yes,” I said, “And if you make certain that the forces at each post are drawn from multiple clans, not just the local clans… though you might want to make certain the local commanders are locals… unless the post is right near a point of contention… then you want a neutral party if you can find one. But that’s politics, not military.”

The girls could only stare as I laid out a detailed analysis of nation-building. Normally, I didn’t talk about such things with them, but now they were beginning to see why I almost always beat them at the various area control and worker placement games I’d taught them… and I could almost hear the gears beginning to turn over in their heads.

When we camped for the night (yes, in the middle of the jungle between Langley and Eld), I took a break from my lessons on infrastructure and made up a large tagine for the party, tossing in some of the fresh fish sausage and stonefruits with the rice and barley and a few kilos of diced clams. While the food was cooking, I also used [GATE] to send Elze and Yae home to get a bath (at their request)… and to get some fresh bread from our kitchen at home. Ah, magic.

Yumina (who was on the second bath-shift) and Linze flanked me as I cooked, clearly a little unnerved by the sounds of wildness coming from all around; the little princess hugging Byakko tight, as his presence pretty much guaranteed that no beast would attack and even most monsters would avoid our encampment… though bugs and slimes were still a risk for which we had wards and armed guards at the ready.

Of course, our maids, Lapis and Cecile, weren’t present at home, with Butler Liam giving an evasive answer to explain their absence. They were, of course, following behind our party, keeping a ninja-maid eye on Yumina, but clearly she wasn’t to know and I wasn’t feeling like giving away their secret until I needed to. Just as I was concealing my capabilities from the Mismedians, I was (to a lesser extent) concealing them from the Belfastians. Only my friends had more than an inkling of what I could do, and even then I often managed to surprise.

As I returned with Bath-Squad One (and some blondies for desert) it was to near bedlam. I’d only been gone fifteen minutes, but something had riled up the horses and the sounds of panicking wildlife was all around us. Yumina and Linze ran up to join Me, Yae, and Elze, and everyone drew their weapons.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“We don’t know,” Yumina responded. “It started a couple of minutes ago, and it’s getting worse.”

“In the sky!” yelled one of the beastmen, a rabbit named Lain, pointing his hand and ears upward. Part of me wanted to say ‘Yes, thank you, I’d forgotten where the sky was.’ but I restrained my sarcasm and looked in that direction just as a gust of wind smashed against the upper canopy and something huge cast a shadow over the stars.

“A dragon!” Garm gasped, “Why is there a dragon here?”

Olga, clutching her little sister close, concurred. Arma looked terrified as I asked, “Why wouldn’t there be a dragon here?”

“Dragons usually stick to the Sanctuary Grounds in the center of the country… no one else is allowed into their territory and they have agreed not to terrorize the people outside their lands as long as no one intrudes into their lands!” Olga said, shivering in fear.

“Did someone enter the Sanctuary?” Garm asked, voice rough.

“Not… not necessarily,” Olga said, “Every few years, one or more adolescent dragons will break the rules, wreaking havoc on our settlements.”

“Don’t the Dragon Elders do anything about it?” I asked, aghast.

“Not really,” the elder fox-girl said, “But they don’t protest when we kill the youngling, since in that case it’s the dragon who’s the intruder.”

“Great… can we defeat a dragon? Even a young one?” I asked, having no idea where this world placed Dragons on the sliding scale of total calamity. I’d been to worlds where any dragon was a disaster on wings (Dragon’s Crown), and to others were they were more in the vein of giant flying firebreathing rats (Demon’s Souls). Anything you could snipe to death with normal arrows was a flying rat. If it took multiple demigod tier heroes to take a youngling down, we were screwed.

Garm growled, “If we had a hundred elite royal soldiers, it might be possible… but anything short of a critical hit will only make a dragon angry.”

“It doesn’t seem to have noticed us,” Yumina said as the shadow didn’t return. “I wonder where it’s going?”

I considered, then traced the dragon’s trajectory and swore. “It’s heading for Eld.”

“What?!” everyone around me gasped.

“Why would it be heading that way?!” Olga snapped.

Garm considered, then grunted, “There’s a large pasture south of the village. It’s probably aiming for the cattle.”

“Then it’ll leave the people alone?” Yumina asked, but the Mismedian captain shook his head.

“Not a chance. Once it gets a taste of meat, it will just strike again… and beastmen are as good as cattle when it comes to most dragons.”

“What do we do?” Lyon asked, “Our mission is to protect the ambassador!” It was clear that both captains were frustrated by their desire to be big damn heroes and save the day, but their duty was to safeguard Yumina and Olga… and to prevent a diplomatic incident that might lead to war.

“Never fear,” I said, pulling the curtain on the gate mirror. “Olga, Arma, Yumina… if you’d please pass through?” Lyon and Garm had already been briefed on the importance of the mirror, but hadn’t been thinking of it as an escape route since they weren’t used to thinking with portals. Of course, right now it was merely a mirror, having not been enchanted, but I cast a whispered [GATE] on it back to Belfast’s royal castle… to the room the mirror’s twin was standing, royal guard included.

“Wonderful idea!” Garm snapped, turning to gather his men. Lyon nodded as well, turning to his own men. Garm blinked at that, “But sir, surely you’re under no obligation to help us in this!?”

“If I were to claim this was no concern of mine, my father would surely smite me,” Lyon said with a broad grin. “Our kings desire more than peace, they desire cooperation between our nations. To deny such help as we can offer now, simply because a document has not yet been signed? That would defy the spirit of honor and mutual accord!”

“Well spoken, sir!” Garm said, pulling himself onto his horse.

Leaving our camping gear behind, with a token guard to pack up the remaining gear (and the mirror) into the supply wagon, the knights of two nations and my compatriots mounted the three carriages and the horses and rode off for Eld at full speed, hoping against hope to arrive in time to prevent any fatalities.

Of course, horses cannot run as fast as a dragon can fly, and so (by the time we arrived, nearly ninety minutes later) the village was a sea of flames, with villagers running everywhere, screaming in terror and falling over themselves in blind panic. The dragon, a huge black beast with shining red eyes, was smaller than Belagar, the Ice Drake I’d hunted in Endor, but I had had more powers available to use against it, as well as my sword… ah… I missed Soul of Ice… and not just for her power, but also for her amusing personality and petulance. Right at the moment, however, the dragon was more than making up for the lack of a childish sword, as it was taking sadistic glee in the destruction it was wreaking upon the defenseless town.

We left our horses, breathing hard and unable or unwilling to get closer, at the edge of the forest, and ran the last kilometer on foot. The knights, moving well under the orders of their captains, leapt to the aid of the civilians, while my group (as had been agreed on the mad-dash ride) moved to lure the dragon away from the village.

With Byakko in his full-sized form, Linze and I were able to lure the beast towards the large pasture to the south of the town. It wasn’t ideal to lead the brute towards the town’s livestock, but it was a better place to fight it than in the midst of a burning town full of potential victims. As it turned out, Byakko could also speak Dragon, and so my faithful steed was insulting the dragon to get it to follow us… (and boy did I feel like He-Man, riding a tiger into battle… well, more like She-Ra riding her brother’s mount, but still… I need a sword of power… see, that’s how you know I’m not the MC. I don’t have a sword of power.

“What’s it saying?” Linze asked.

“It said ‘How dare you try to spoil my fun, you insolent worm!? I’ll rip you to shreds and eat the gristle off your charred bones!” Byakko growled, “What a disgraceful creature, cannot even speak a civilized language. This is among the many reasons why I so despise the Azure Monarch’s Kin!”

That got a chuckle out of me. Of course Byakko didn’t get along with Seiryu. East and West, getting along? Heresy! Though, since this dragon was a european-style dragon, I was guessing that, if there were five heavenly beasts in this world, the fifth would be a Chinese dragon… or a bear… Huanglong had been depicted both ways. I’d have to ask Byakko at some point… but maybe not when there was a dragon whelp to fight. “Linze. I want you to blind it,” I instructed, as I began to cast [MULTIPLY] several times.

My faithful co-caster nodded, throwing a massive [BUBBLE BOMB] at the creature’s face, which of course it hit with a blast of fire. The resulting explosion of steam would have cooked us if Byakko’s frosty, humidity eating battle aura hadn’t sucked the air dry even as he raced ahead of the blastfront. The dragon wasn’t so lucky, and it howled as the superheated water scaled its eyes… thus explaining why it was utterly unable to avoid the two-hundred and fifty-six simultaneous [GRASS WHIP]s that stabbed upwards out of the meadow and wrapped themselves around the dragon’s limbs, tethering it and causing it to crash into the ground chest first in a perfect parabola.

Unfortunately, too few of the individual strands had wrapped around its neck and it lashed its head back and forth, snarling and growling, vomiting a torrent of burning crimson that rapidly began to burn through the fibrous ropes holding it down. “So much for resolving this without killing the kid,” I sighed, then called, “Yae!”

With a perfectly executed ‘Hyah!’ the samurai-ko dropped out of the sky (or so it seemed, thanks to being tossed by a boosted Elze) and plunged her sword into the dragon’s left eye.

I used the creature’s distraction to cast [MULTIPLY] and [GATE] once each, throwing a panel of light horizontally above each of the dragon’s wings just as the ropes binding them down snapped. In perfect synchronization, the two mighty batwings snapped up, ready to create that first titanic downblast… but as the wings reached apex (rising out of the field a dozen meters behind the dragon’s actual position) the portals snapped shut, sheering both wings clean off in an instant and the Dragon howling in agony.

It turned, single eye trying to figure out what had happened, but a knife flew out of the darkness, spinning like it was propelled by a turbine, and suddenly the dragon was as eyeless as it was wingless. Linze and I shared a look, and then, as one, we cast a pair of [ICE WALL]s, one on either side of the creature’s body, the blood gushing from its wingstumps staining the ice red even as it was pinned under the steeple of solid water. My wall was bigger, but not nearly as clear (and thus not nearly as strong) as Linze’s… thus showing that power wasn’t even close to being everything, and it began to crack almost at once… but it was a very big wall and it had plenty of mass to crack.

I took Linze’s hand and said, “Like we practiced.” She nodded as I cast [TRANSFER], not just giving her a lump sum of my magic, but access to as much as she wanted to use. She swallowed hard, her hair standing on end as I maintained the contact, ramping down the flow to something that wouldn’t hurt her. Voice shaking with the pressure of the manna she was barely controlling, she called, “Come forth, Water! Feel My Blade, Both Cold and Clear: [AQUA CUTTER]!”

The massive edge launched itself upwards on a gorgeous arc, rising, rising, rising… then falling downward, passing clear over the panicky gouts of fire that the dragon was putting out at random… and then there was a sound like a guillotine snapping down and the only thing spouting out of the dragon was blood from its severed neck.

Just as we breathed a sigh of relief, another shadow flashed overhead, and we looked up to see another dragon blotting out the moonlight… a much larger one, this one nearly a match for Belagar, but crimson of scale with a white mane running down its spine.

Without landing, the dragon sighed. It was a melancholy sound, a sound of regret, and (after a few moments) it said, “I have arrived too late, it seems.”

“I assume you were coming to retrieve this wayward child,” I asked, raising my voice to be heard over the wind of the dragon’s wings.

“I am the Red Dragon, he who rules the Sanctuary Grounds… This child of my people seems to have caused much trouble… for that, I sincerely apologize.”

I nodded, then sighed myself. “I accept your apology for mine own sake, but such apologies are scant solace to those who have lost family, property, and livelihoods to this attack. As a leader of your people, it behoves you to do better. You have lost one… how many have the people of Eld lost today?”

“Do not dare to lecture me, child of man,” the Dragon snapped, narrowing its golden eyes.

Before I could respond, Byakko growled and took a step forward, “Red Dragon… tell your Monarch to properly discipline its kin… and teach you some respect!”

“This presence… it cannot be… White Monarch? Why… what brings you to this of all places?!” It was clear the Red Dragon was taken much aback. “I… I see… this Black Dragon was defeated not by mortals, but by your majesty… such a foolish child…” It shook its head sadly.

“You are the foolish one, oh Red Dragon,” Byakko snapped. “Your wayward whelp was brought low not by me, but by my mistress, this noble Jouya that stands before you. The brat spoke words without respect and she hath made him pay for such insolence and arrogance.”

“A mere human is master of the White Monarch?” the Red Dragon gasped, eyes widening as it looked at me, realizing for the first time that I was utterly unphased by its majesty. It settled to the ground, then (after a moment) lowered its body, kowtowing to me. “I humbly request that you pardon my insolent manner… and hope that you can find it within your heart to forgive us for this black dragon’s actions.”

“This once? I’ll be forgiving. But I understand that this happens all too often. Speak to your people. Make it clear that this kind of behaviour is not how a civilized people treat their allies. If you would be treated as other than mere monsters to be exterminated, your children must comport themselves better… or your people will lose face… and be responsible for all destruction they wreak. If you would have your territory respected, respect the territory of others… or I might have reason to speak to the Azure Monarch personally…” I said, placing my hand upon Byakko’s head possessively.

The Red Dragon gulped, realizing that I was, in fact, threatening to subjugate their patron deity if I was angered. A threat of force a Dragon could, and would, fight. It was their nature, after all. A threat to the spirit of their entire race? A threat that was believable… the disgrace of that could not be borne. And it was clear that the Black Dragon had landed not so much as a scratch to me and mine even as it had been dismembered… indeed, we weren’t even breathing hard.

“Of course, great lady. By all means… I shall return to the Sanctuary Grounds post haste and speak to the others. Your graciousness will be remembered.” It bowed again, then took its leave.

“And this is why I so detest the Azure Monarch,” Byakko grumbled, then purred as I scratched his ears. “Ohhh… yesssss…. Mmmmmm….”

“Good kitteh,” I said, then looked around at my companions. “Oh good grief… are you serious?” I asked. Each of them had slumped to the ground the moment the dragon was out of sight.

“We… we couldn’t moooove!” Elze whimpered.

“Indeed. We were frozen by terror, we were!” Yae said, blushing fiercely.

“I think I need to change my panties,” Linze sniffled.

“Awww!” I said, giving each of them a hug. “Come on. You’re all brave girls.”

“Weren’t you scared?” Linze asked.

“Eh. I’ve fought bigger dragons,” I said, shrugging. It was the truth.

=====

In the aftermath of the attack, thanks to Linze’s water magic, Elze’s prodigious strength, and my healing magic (and the search function on my phone), it turned out that, somehow, no one had been killed. No idea how that miracle happened, but it definitely meant this wasn’t one of the more grim and dark Anime worlds… but that was no surprise since it was the same world… well, reality… that contained Undertale. Clearly, this universe operated on some degree of generosity of spirit, which was nice.

Unfortunately, that only went so far, because Eld was, essentially, in ruins. I was doing what I could to help, assisting those townsfolk who were acting as repairmen by using [WALL OF STONE] to pull slabs of rock out of the ground to replace walls that had fallen down. In time, no doubt, they’d be cut apart into bricks (they weren’t super strong) and repurposed, but it was faster than using [MODEL] to do anything and sleeping outdoors while the entire town was rebuilt would be a recipe for disaster.

Anyway, I was just finishing up my fifth such building when Lyon and Garm came over to thank me for my work and bring me some food, which was good because my stomach was growling. The girls were all sacked out, as it had been a long night, and dawn was coming, but I had plenty of stamina and there were people in need of help.

As I ate the warm and surprisingly tasty gruel, Lyon stammered something about how insanely improbably it was that only four people had managed to take down a dragon all by themselves. I waved it away as having good allies. Garm, on the other hand, was more practical, and wanted to know what we intended to do with the dragon.

“I assume that dragon parts are valuable?” I ventured. It wasn’t a big guess; dragon bone and hide are often useful for crafting things and dragon organs and vitals and blood often useful as reagents… and the meat was often quite edible.

“The carcass probably has a value of ten to fifteen royal coins,” Lyon said.

I nodded. “I figured as much. Well, if the villagers can use the sale of their attacker’s remains to finance the reconstruction of their town, I see no reason they shouldn’t. I’d very much like a scale or two and I’ve heard dragon meat is delicious, so I’d like to try that, but anything they can use should go to the villagers.”

“You don’t want anything more than a token as your reward?” Garm asked, eyes wide at my apparent generosity.

“We only did what anyone would have. Seeking a reward for coming to the aid of others is the act of a churl. The townsfolk did not hire us for this task. We took it on knowing the risks and accepting that no payment would be forthcoming. We’ve lost nothing but a little sleep and some muscle ache. The people of Eld have lost everything but their lives and livestock. Knowing that I was using money to buy more goods than I already have when it could be used to buy homes for those who have had theirs stripped away by violence? No. I could not in good conscience do that.” I grinned, waving to the watching townsfolk, and added, “Anyway, how would I carry such a massive body to market. No, the villagers should glean what they can and me and mine will be happy taking only what they deem a fair repayment. If they decide they can use it all, that is fine with me.” And I meant it. Even had I not been wealthy already, I’d have done so. Even had I not had far more wealth waiting for me beyond the end of this decade. Charity and compassion for others were the cornerstones of my personal morality. Money and goods were only useful in what they could be made to do for others.

They ended up giving me a pair of the dragon’s claws and they made a roast out of its tongue which was incredible. I’d brought Olga and Arma and Yumina back from Belfast by that point, and they tucked in with gusto, as did the others once they woke up. Around midday, I finally collapsed from exhaustion and woke in the late afternoon to the smell of dinner being prepared. There was something soft under my head and I blinked myself awake only to find Arma peering down at me and grinning.

“You were tired,” she said, her little fangs dimpling her lower lip. “Everyone said you’d been working since before dawn, and that’s after fighting that horrible dragon.”

I grunted something non-committal, then shrugged, feeling her thighs under the back of my head. “You didn’t have to serve as my pillow, you know?”

“Everyone else was busy,” she said. “Anyway, it was my turn.”

Turn? I had no idea what she was talking about, but I sat up and stretched, looking around to see how the village was doing. All the fires were out now and the rubble mostly cleared away. The longhouses that I’d helped erect were getting makeshift roofs and there were a number of lean-toos and shacks. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. The air was rich with the smell of roasting meat and woodsmoke, which was probably from the village starting to preserve several tons of high quality dragon meat. “Ah… hmmm… Well, as long as I wasn’t imposing,” I said, helping the little fox girl up.

Yumina came over, holding out my coat to me as Arma ran over to where her sister and Lyon were helping the headman sort the various goods that had been recovered from the village’s shops and storerooms. Since the entire town would benefit from the dragon carcass, everyone of the villagers was donating whatever they could personally spare to make certain no one went without.

We spent the night in Eld’s pasture, the sheep giving us wide berth and the goats being all too curious. The kids were adorable, as only small goats can be, and watching them frisk and frolic with my friends was enjoyable enough. I did tease Yumina a little when one of the goats chewed on her sleeve. “I can’t believe you brought pajamas for camping out in the woods,” I said, grinning at her.

“I can’t believe you sleep in shorts and a vest!” she retorted.

“It’s not a vest,” I humphed, “It’s a camisole.” Granted the difference between a vest (also known in some cultures as a wife-beater or tank-top) and a camisole are minor, but they do exist! Camisoles are cute… vests are boring. “It’s about style.”

“Humph,” she retorted, glaring at my shorts, “And those?”

“Bootyshorts are cute! And fit under pants or skirts!” I protested.

“I think they are nice, I do,” Yae said, having removed the outer layer of her outfit, though that still left her in a nagajuban and (though I couldn’t currently see it) a susoyoke and fundoshi/chest binding combo.

“You wear pants!” Yumina responded, as if a hakama and trousers were really the same thing… or as if that was a valid argument.

“Why are you arguing about Jouya’s underwear?” Elze asked. “I thought Jouya was the only pervert in the group.”

Yumina blushed deeply and I stuck my tongue out at gauntlet girl. “I’m not a pervert,” I said, lying my ass off. “I just have a fine appreciation of the female form… especially when the female forms I’m surrounded with are so fine!” I grinned at that, then ducked as travel pillows taken from the carriage were flung at me.

In the morning, we set out for Berge, hoping the rest of the two day trip would be uneventful.

=====

“Yeah… that’s the Taj Mahal,” I muttered, staring in surprise at the gargantuan white marble palace rising above the twelfth century Arabian city of sun-dried bricks and whitewash. Berge was at least two centuries behind Belfast, infrastructure-wise, but the city was huge and bustling, far more cosmopolitan than the mostly human Alephis, with cultures and species each contributing their own distinctive flavor to the unique whole that was the Mismedian capital. And in the center of it all… a Mughal-style not-mausoleum.

The differences in architectural styles was fascinating, be it the reliance on ceramic tile-work instead of stained glass to give buildings color, to the fact that windows in Mismede were almost invariably either wood lattice or shuttered openings instead of the plateglass of Belfast, to the use of clay instead of wood or slate for roofing tiles or lead for roof-gutters. An interesting thing about Berge was that, thanks to their reliance on brick rather than wood as the primary building material, the average height of a building was four stories, rather than the three of Alephis. And then there were the streets. Alephis and Reflet and most of the major towns and cities of Belfast used cobblestones. Langley had had cobbles on the main street leading from the harbor to the marketplace… but Eld, Mulgan, and Wensica had had only dirt tracks for streets even though they were on the main route to the coast from Berge… and Berge itself had some kind of ceramic that appeared to have been poured, smoothed, and baked in place… possibly with fire-magic.

They also had camels in addition to the horses, which none of the Belfastians had ever seen before. Yumina thought they were adorable and squealed as one of them lipped her hair. Yae found them a little frightening, and Linze was disgusted by the spitting, but each of them accepted a ride around the bizarre on camelback, which if you’ve never done it is like horse-riding only taller and with more swaying. All this happened as we sat at a bistro on the fringe of the teeming marketplace,

Olga and Garm allowed this detour with good grace, but it was clear both of them felt the need to report to the Palace and so we kept the meal short and moved on before the day got too hot.

The Palace was separated from the rest of the city by a wide but fairly shallow river and the bridge that crossed it had more than three dozen individual spans along its nearly two kilometer length. The surface of the bridge was comprised entirely of the same gleaming white alabaster as the Palace and the bridge was broad enough to station three main battle tanks abreast. At the far end were the Palace’s gardens.

Designed far more for beauty than defense, the gardens were breathtaking, a riot of colorful birds and neatly arranged trees full of flowers and fruits of a hundred species. There were even colorful squirrels and rabbitoids and sheep that looked like nothing more than clouds wandering round the gardens, these last tended by little kids with belled staves. It was clear that the wildlife was all trained or designed to guarantee that the grass was kept a perfectly level height and no rotten fruits or flowers could be seen. Someone knew a frightening amount about ecological management… I suspected it was the fairies or dryads… or both.

If the exterior of the Palace was lovely, the inside was resplendent. Far more ornate than the Palace in Alephis, the Palace of Berge would not have been outshone by the Romanovs of Imperial Russia. Titanic pillars held aloft huge vaulted ceilings that were airy and fine, massive sunlight shafts shining through skylights to bounce and refract across acres of policed white marble floors and golden filigreed’ walls. Silk curtains took the place of doors and the scents of spices and flowers filled those massive halls. It was like entering another world. The wealth on display beggared belief… this should have been the seat of an empire, not a mere kingdom less than five centuries old. Then again… in a way, Mismede was a union of seven different (though small) nations. It could be said to be an empire of sorts… but not one with the apparent wealth to support this structure. The Taj Mahal which it resembled had been built by the ruler of an empire of a hundred and fifty million. By best estimate, Mismede had a population similar to Spain and Portugal in the thirteenth century CE… i.e roughly six and a half million, or a little under a third of that of Belfast’s ‘France’.

Again, I reminded myself that I was in ‘FANTASYLANDIA!™’ but the logic of it escaped me. Thankfully, I was distracted by our arrival in front of what had to be the royal court, a group of impressively dressed ministers of state and their followers. Some sported wings, others horns, or fur, or scales; all in all, they were a vivid and varied group of people. One was even the fattest, shortest minotaur I’d ever seen. He couldn’t have been taller than 150 centimeters, and that included the tips of his horns.

Beyond them, high upon his throne, sat the Beastking, Jamukha Blau Mismede, a snow leopard in his early fifties. He exuded a regal air, a sense of his personal power and, if his eyes were to be believed, competence… and a trace of mischief. This was a man who knew both his own prowess and limits. He was no fool… even if he did act foolish at times. I also wanted to sit on his lap and pet his soft kitteh ears! Soooo cute… majestic. I meant majestic.

Everyone beside me bowed from the knees and lowered their head. I merely lowered my head ever so slightly, not breaking eye-contact with the monarch. Bending the knee would have been polite, but it was simply not something I did. I was not here as diplomatic envoy, which meant that no one that I’d sworn to serve had ordered me to place myself at the Beastking’s service (Yumina, as Ambassador, had received just such an order from her father for the duration of her mission). Bending a knee is not a mark of respect. It is a symbol of subservience. I don’t do subservience. Those I serve, I serve as an equal, if not from a position of power.

The king studied me for several long seconds, almost as if judging if I was insulting him. Finally he relaxed and nodded slightly, motioning for us to rise. He praised Olga for her service, Garm and Lyon for protecting her, and us for saving the town of Eld, proving that he had already heard from at least one of his sources. Yumina handled the monarch’s questions, speaking for out group as was her right and duty, then introduced herself and presented her credentials, causing a bit of a stir among the gathered court and the soldiers who’d escorted us, since only Olga and Lyon had known her identity. Even Garm was a bit shocked.

King Jamukha laughed, then regarded her with his big serious eyes as he asked, “What business brings the princess of Belfast into my domain?”

“I have come as an act of good faith to show just how important my house considers our potential alliance with the people of Mismede. My father has included a personal missive for your majesty. I implore you to read what he has written and consider his words and what he proposes.” She handed over the diplomatic pouch to the King’s secretary who reviewed them, reading the public parts aloud, but not opening the sealed document from monarch to monarch. Jamukha then read the sealed letter as the court watched in silence.

“Interesting…” he rumbled at last. “I believe I understand the situation. Give me time to consider what I’ve just read. Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to provide you with my response soon enough. Until then, feel free to make yourselves at home in my palace.” He passed the letter over to his aide, as he rose from his throne and descended the many tiered dias.

“Right, now that we’ve got the formalities outta the way…” His tone switched abruptly to a lighter one as he looked at me… no, at Byakko. “There’s something I’ve been dying to ask… Is that white tiger with ya?”

We confirmed that, yes, Byakko was a white tiger, and no he was not pet but more a servant (the difference being one of ownership, you see), and yes, someone ‘blessed’ with a tamed white tiger had defeated a dragon. That seemed to amuse the king greatly… so greatly he asked if I wanted to spar with him, much to the annoyance of his courtiers. He also called me ‘Boyo’, much to the annoyance of my companions.

“I’m a girl,” I pointed out, not particularly annoyed myself and almost laughing as his face fell, then he looked at my entourage and his eyes widened a bit.

“Oh ho? So it’s like that, is it?” He asked, chuckling.

I had no idea what he was thinking, but I nodded. It seemed safe enough. “Something like that… but sure. I’ll give you a bit of thrashing, your majesty.” The ministers all gasped in outrage.

“Ha! I admire your pluck, young lady! Very well! Let’s be about it!”

Behind the palace it turned out was a gigantic arena, just as out of place as everything else. The thing looked roman and was about 120% the size of the Colosseum. Madness. As the King and I (heh) descended to the sands, the courtiers gathered in their little cliques, staring down on us, the monarch and the upstart human who dared face him in combat.

A gray-winged avian with an altogether too humorous moustache (you could have used it as a hat-rack) had followed us down and now he took the king’s heavy mantle from his shoulders and turned to me, offering to take my coat as well.

I shook my head and smiled. “I wear this in combat, actually,” I explained.

“Very well,” the birdman said, then bowed a little to me and said, “Do forgive us, miss Jouya. His Beastliness never could resist testing himself against anyone he views as strong. In all honest, we find it quite troublesome.”

“Nonsense Glatz!” the King boomed goodnaturedly. “Everyone loves me for my straightforward nature!”

Glatz, who was in fact the Chancellor… essentially the Prime Minister of Mismede, frowned, then said to me, “We would truly be grateful if you’d take him down a peg or three.”

I laughed at that. “He is your king, you know? Are you certain you should be asking a stranger to soundly thrash him?”

Glatz shrugged. “I didn’t vote for him… and anyway, he always looks down on the importance of state affairs. Always running off without telling anyone. We find him later, ‘training’ with the soldiers or brawling in a tavern. Fight as you please.”

One of the other courtiers yelled from the stands, “Don’t forget the grand tournament that totally blew the budget!” Another added “Or the time he walked out of council to go speak to the blacksmith about a new weapon he’d just thought up!” A third, a mouse lady, squeaked, “Or the time he ordered all the bulls from the surrounding farms brought to the capital so he could wrestle them!”

I facepalmed, then chuckled. “You poor people.” I took the wooden sword that I was offered and gave it a few experimental slashes, watching as Jamukha flexed and stretched, holding a much larger wooden sword and a matching shield in his own hands. I’d been offered a shield, but I turned it down, taking a second sword, this one shorter and a bit thicker than the first, instead.

“The contest will proceed until one of you lands what would be a killing blow were these true swords, or until one side admits defeat,” Glatz announced. “The use of direct offensive magic is banned, but all other magic is allowed. Do both parties agree?”

I considered, then shook my head. “Better give me a handicap. If his majesty can land any blow on me more than once, I’ll yield.”

Jamukha sputtered, “Nonsense! I’ll do that with ease!”

I just smirked at him and waggled my eyebrows. “Say that after you’ve done it.”

With a grunt, he charged at me. He was fast… incredibly fast. I could have stopped him any number of ways under the rules. There were too many non-offensive magics I could have used that would have given me the win; [WALL OF STONE/WIND/FIRE/WATER/ETC], [PITFALL], [QUAGMIRE], [SLIP], [SLIDE], [TRIP], [JUMBLEQUAKE], [SLUGSLICK], [GRAVITY TRICK], and [STATIC FIELD] just to name a few… but that wouldn’t have been within the spirit of a duel and I didn’t feel like cheating. And, like I said, he was fast! I doubt I could have managed an entire spell incantation without running backwards.

If his speed was remarkable, his skill was just as impressive. He knew where to aim, and how to do so to cut off all the most reasonable responses. Any normal person would have lost instantly, and even with my millenia of practice in some of the hardest schools in existence (Seireitei’s Shinigami Training, Dune’s Ginaz School, Metal Gear Rising’s endless waves of swordcyborgs, Alera’s Metalcrafters, The Princess Bride’s Fencing Schools, the Juriya Empire’s martial traditions, Star Wars’ Jedi and Sith lightsaber styles… DC’s Deathstroke…) I would not have been able to beat him were my own speed not nearly as inhuman as his own.

For the first time in… I didn’t know how long, I was being pushed back, forced to give a fight more than cursory effort. This was… fun! I grinned as I felt his blow almost brush my ear. And then I went on the offensive, my dual blades flashing through the air in lightning fast arcs and jabs, my body twisting in a way that few living things could match. The King was good. Not merely peek human good. He was superhuman in both speed and skill… but so was I. I could feel my heart racing and I calmed myself with a thought, twisting as I used tiny puffs of air to push myself around behind him, preparing to line up a ‘killing blow’…

When he whispered [ACCEL]… and his speed went from superhuman to what, to anyone with senses less acute than my own, must have been a blur. I barely twisted away from a blow which would have flattened me, his sword hitting my right wrist hard enough to cause me to drop the sword held in that hand.

“That’s the first touch,” He growled, grinning hugely.

“And last,” I agreed, then leaped back as he dashed in again. My leap was low, a shallow arc, and I bent like a bow as his blade passed over my head as his speed carried him past, my smaller form sliding right between his legs and I whispered a spell of my own as he passed. “[BOOST]!” I hissed, twisting myself around and launching myself nine meters straight up rather than leaving myself vulnerable as he spun and charged back.

He looked up at me as I reached the height of my arc and raised his shield just in time as my blade launched down toward him, pushing me even further up and the wood of my sword exploded against his shield, driving him to his knee with a grunt. I flipped, then invoked [APPORT] to pull my other blade to me as I fell. I hit the sand a dozen paces from him just as he was coming out of his crouch and we met in a clash of blades as he tossed away his ruined shield with a roar of joy and combat glee.

The blades had been well made for wood… but they were just that, wood. They had not been enchanted, and after the fifth heavy pass, my own blade snapped cleanly in half, right at the hild. Jamukha had not been expecting that and his weight carried him forward just a step too far. Had I been similarly surprised, I would have taken his sword full force to my shoulder, almost certainly earning myself a broken clavicle if nothing else. But that was not the case.

I’d felt the blade going on the the fourth blow, had been forcing it to give out in exactly the right way at the right time and I twisted my shoulder so his sword hit nothing but air as I grabbed his tunic with my suddenly empty hand and twisted, my own slight frame far stronger than it should have been thanks to my body mod and magic, and I lifted the Beastking and twisted hard, slamming him into the ground on his back, catching the falling chunk of sword as it fell and plunging it down into the sand a millimeter from his cheek as I landed on his chest.

“I believe that’s the fight to me?” I asked as he grunted, his eyes wide.

“Blessed Heavenly Tiger… you’re something else!” he roared, lifting me up and standing, laughing hard. “I’ve never seen anyone fast enough to dodge my blows when I use Accel!”

“That’s a Null Spell, right?” I asked as he put me down.

He nodded, “Aye. Makes the body a bit faster. Creates a magical barrier around me that eats my manna like crazy though.” He eyed me. “You got faster too… stronger as well. You got something similar?”

“Boost,” I agreed. “Doesn’t give me as much speed as your Accel does, but makes me stronger and tougher.” I brushed the sand off my coat and then smiled. “Just so you know… that is the closest anyone’s come to hitting me twice in longer than you would believe possible.”

“Get a lot of first hits in, do they?” he asked, wondering at that.

I nodded. “All the best fighters out there tend to have one or two really good tricks. You pick them up over the years and hone them for emergencies. Most people don’t start with them, however. Not sure why. When I’m actually trying to kill someone? I always start with one.”

He grunted in agreement. “True battle is different. You don’t give an enemy a chance to surprise you if you can help it.”

“Agreed… but in the spirit of fairness… I’ll give you a glimpse of why you shouldn’t ever try to face me for real.” I apported another shield and sword from the racks and tossed them to him. “Ready yourself,” I told him. I waited until he was in a combat stance, and said “[ACCEL+BOOST],” casting the two as if they were a single spell.

We’d started five meters apart. I crossed the distance between us so fast his eyes could not even complete a single blink and my palm tapped him right in the middle of the chest, not hard… but with my speed it was enough to knock him ass over teakettle.

Glatz looked astounded as the Beastking came to a rest against the wall of the yard, looking a bit like a puff adder as he struggled to get off his own head, tangled up as he was by the haft of his wooden sword and the bulk of his shield. Eventually Olga and Garm helped their monarch up and Glatz raised my hand, announcing “The winner is Lady Sochizuki Jouya!”

====

The evening there was a state dinner, a fancy buffet party with some very nice champagne (hey, I was only playing up the age of majority thing to push back this marriage silliness. Other than that, I could give fuck all a care for the laws of any nation besides the one I was currently in… and this one had damned fine sparkling wine!).

I was just complementing Lyon on how nicely he’d cleaned up, and was just about to ask him if he had any idea where the girls were (especially since Yumina was the titular guest of honor) when I heard someone call my name and felt someone hug me from behind. I looked down and back to see a part of small, fox-like ears. “Why, hello Arma. That dress is adorable!” I looked at the well-built gentleman standing behind her and, noting the family resemblance, said, “And you must be Olba. I’ve heard about you from your daughters.” I offered my hand and he shook it.

“This is Lyon, Knight of the First Belfastian Order, and son of General Leon, one of King Belfast’s most trusted aides,” I added, pushing Lyon forward towards what I suspect would sooner or later be his father in law. The knight, clearly not expecting it, stumbled over his words but managed a greeting as Arma and I smirked behind his back. I stepped in again to rescue the brave but oh so painfully young nobleman and asked, “So. How’s trade?”

Olba, one of the most important merchants in Berge, smiled as I brought up his second favorite subject. “Good… Good! Though recently, I’ve heard of an explosion of new amusements coming out of Belfast and haven’t managed to get my hands on any of them! Go and Chess and Draughts and Catan and City on Two Rivers!” he enthused. City on Two Rivers was a variation of Monopoly I’d created that was a little more straightforward and fun, replacing some of the clunkier mechanics (taxes, community chest and chance, mortgages… utilities) with similar but streamlined effects, and the railroads with actual rivers with boats you could take to get around the board, which was circular. Instead of collecting funds when one passed Go, one simply got a smaller amount of funds every turn, making doubles especially nice. “You wouldn’t happen to have brought any of them in your luggage?” he hinted.

I laughed. “I’m certain Arma has told you that I have. And they’re yours. I’ll leave them all with you when we leave for home. And, since I created them all, I can provide you with an exclusive contract to sell them in Mismede… though of course, counterfeit copies will be relatively easy to make for some of them,” I admitted. “In fact, I can send over Leon with a copy of Go and Chess and he can teach you how to play both… tomorrow?”

Olba nodded enthusiastically, even as Leon stammered that he wasn’t very good, but I elbowed him and he realized that I was trying to help him.

He opened his mouth to agree… just as a commotion rippled through the hall and the girls (Olga included) made a collective entrance with His Beastliness. Olga was dressed in the height of Belfastian styles, looking like a fairy-tale princess… while Yumina, Elze, Linze, and Yae were all dressed in gorgeous saris that revealed quite a nice amount of skin at calf, chest, and belly. Mmm nice. Yae’s purple was probably the nicest, but Yumina’s white was the most revealing. Of course, all of them looked lovely, even though red wasn’t really Elze’s color and the shade of blue on Linze’s wasn’t quite dark enough to offset her hair. Someone had even brushed and washed Byakko, who looked so fluffy he could have been the dream of a pillow.

Arma pouted a little as my attention was immediately fixed by the quartette in front of me, but I gave her a little hug and ruffled her ears. “Don’t worry. In another year or two, you’ll look just as pretty.” She blushed furiously and ran over to Olga who was currently draining all of Lyon’s brain meats as he struggled to make his mouth work.

I spared the man a smirk and willed some of my luck to him, then turned back to look at my friends again… all of whom were now clustered around me… very closely clustered. Oooh… they smelled lovely… like night blooming jasmine!

“I love your outfit, Jouya. You look wonderful,” Yumina practically cooed, running her fingers over the fancy Princess Jasmine outfit I’d decided to wear for the occasion.

“Yup,” Elza added. “It just works sooo well..”

“…I-It shows a different side of you…” Linze muttered.

“Amazing, Jouya-dono! It’s very sexy on you,” Yae added… then blushed. “Pretty… I meant Pretty!” she stammered.

“Nonsense,” I said, brushing that away. “You all look wonderful… though if I can make one change?” I said, pulling four slender platinum chains out of the pouch that wasn’t holding my phone. “I thought you all might like these,” and, one by one, I placed the tiny cameos around their necks, each featuring their astronomical symbols carved in scrimshaw. “Now… get together so I can take a picture.” I said.

And then I had to explain about photography to everyone in the room and spend most of the evening using [DRAW] to print pictures for everyone… but it made the party a nice memory for everyone… even if the girls looked a little annoyed at having me stolen from them… so much so that, when the dancing started, they dragged me away so each of them could have a dance with me… even little Arma got her turn on the floor. All of them knew the local dances… I just stumbled along as best I could.

After I finished that dance, and moved over to a balcony to enjoy the night and catch my breathI felt a taptaptap on my arm and looked down. A very large teddy bear was standing there, looking up at me.

Staaaaaare!

“Uhh… hi?” I said.

Staaaaaaaaaaaaaare…

“Did you want to dance too?” I asked.

Staaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaare… Then it turned around and waddled away, turning back when it was about six paces away, then waved for me to follow it.

“Ooookay…” I muttered, looking around to see if anyone else was seeing this… but there was no one around. I shrugged, then figured… “why the hell not. Let’s follow the strange suffed animal. Things can’t possibly get any stranger, can they?”

To Be Continued in Part Five!

Next: Another Ancient Lolita

Resources:Build, Undertale Document, Smartphone Document

If you like what I do, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’d especially like to thank Parzival, bearblue, and Ryune, but all of you who read my work and comment are wonderful.

I also have an original Novel (it’s space opera) in very slow progress here. Please check it out. Let me know if I should create a Blog for it too. I also have a very silly second chain about a Jumper named Zed, temporarily on hiatus. It isn’t very long.

AN: Sorry again for the long delay on this chapter. Winter takes a lot of my energy from me. I hope these 18,000+ words make up for my writer’s block. If you haven’t read it yet, you should also be aware that I added a second part to my Touhou Jump. It’s another 7,000+ words and (in a SFW way) covers some of the events of that decade from the perspective of Squirmo Jukki. If you’re not aware, I’ve been going through and revamping all my old jumps in a process I call Reduxing, and Touhou is the most recent one. All the jumps before that have been cleaned up, expanded, and hopefully improved. If you haven’t given them a look again, you might want to… or you could wait until I catch up. I try to Redux a new chapter every week, but I’ve been slow this winter. Again, sorry for that.


World 27: Touhou Project Pink, Part 2

CHRONICLE ONE: SAGA OF THE JUMPER

JUMP 29, Part 2: YOU ASKED

Previously: Don’t Ask

Themesong: I am a Cat by Shonen Knife

Amusement Makers

Okay, okay… I guess I owe some kind of explanation, something to relate just how messed up things were in Gensokyo and surrounding environs. First thing you have to realize is that, aside from a few human males in the Human Village (I’ll get to that in a bit) Gensokyo has a total of one significant male. His name is Rinnosuke and he is a half-human, half-youkai who runs Kourindou Shop… which is only technically a shop, since he seldom sells anything. The shop specializes in objects from the mortal realm and is mostly a collection of curios.

Second, Gensokyo’s population of ‘named’ characters is both huge and varied… but what doesn’t really change is that all the ageless or nearly ageless individuals all take the forms of attractive young women at least most of the time. The apparent ages rage from perhaps eight to mid-twenties… but that’s all they are… apparent. Some of the oldest beings in Gensokyo are vampires, taoist hermits, ghosts, or oni. And even the younger ones, like most fairies, are serial reincarnators who remember their past lives perfectly well.

Third, Gensokyo is pretty large, for a community… but not particularly large as a place to explore. It covers a couple hundred square kilometers in total, making it about the same size as a small national park… which in many ways is what it is. It’s a safari park of Japanese folklore, a safe-haven for monsters and monster-hunters mostly sealed away from the outside world of mundanity by the power of Yakumo Yukari.

Yukari is by far the most powerful Youkai in Gensokyo, and it is she who maintains the Hakurei Barrier that keeps Gensokyo separate from the mortal realm. She is also the oldest being in Gensokyo, and uses her power of barriers to troll the others… and teleport around using gaps into another space that very much seems to resemble one of HP Lovecraft’s nightmares.

Her counterpart is the Miko of the Hakurei Shrine, Reimu, who is very very naughty as well… and who generally gets roped into solving all the various problems the often terminally bored and deeply weird residents of Gensokyo get up to. Reimu is human, but thanks to her control over a set of powerful magical items known as the Yin-Yang Orbs, she can stand toe to toe with even the most powerful of the Youkai. The Danmaku battles are largely her way of keeping the chaos from getting too severe, and between her and Yukari, things usually manage to be resolved with minimal harm to anyone.

Highly Responsive to Prayers

-I met Reimu when I woke up in this strange new world. I was in my more humanoid guise (as a Ferret Tengu, I can shift between very furry and very not furry… I can even become an apparently normal ferret if I really want to.) and naked. Thankfully, this form is fairly mature looking, giving me the power of boobular intimidation over many of the more flat-chested or less gifted residents. One of whom was looking down at me and leering a bit as she wrung out a washcloth.

“Oh, good,” the Miko grinned. “You’re awake!” I cannot express how creepy her tone was… or how confusing it was to have no idea where I was, who I was, or why a strange shinto priestess was giving me a sponge bath. “You hit your head,” she said, as if that explained everything.

I ended up staying at the Hakurei Shrine for about four months as I figured out what was going on and all about Gensokyo. There was only one major incident, aside from an uptick in the amount of petty theft (a problem that was fairly common in this madhouse). Of course, that incident involved the forces of Hell and Makai (the demon realm) clashing inside a rift in the middle of the Hakurei shrine, which resulted in the shrine being heavily damaged and Reimu having to run off to get revenge… unfortunately, there were two groups who needed punishing and only one of her, so I got drafted to go to Makai while Reimu went to Hell.

In actuality, I didn’t actually do much. I went to Makai and took a nap. At some point, someone ugly and weird tried to interfere with my nap, but my third eye told me they were bad so I froze them solid and went back to sleep. That happened a couple of times… then I woke up and went back to the Shrine. Reimu is very poor, but I have lots of shiny stuff in my secret storehouse so I gave her some and she paid some nice humans to rebuild the shrine.

In the end, the day was saved in spite of Squirmo Jukki!

The Story of Eastern Wonderland

During the reconstruction period, I found a little Tanuki wandering in the forest and decided to keep it as a pet. I named him Ziggy because the name seemed to fit. Ziggy is excellent at napping, which is good, because that’s mostly what we do. He can reshape trees to make them more fun to climb, or to make secret places inside them where we can nap unmolested (unmolested is important in this world).

It was while we were napping that a strange girl with a magical tank powered by flowers and this little witch girl attacked the shrine for no good reason. It definitely wasn’t my fault, cause I was asleep. Anyway, while Reimu went to the World of Fantasies to fight the tank girl and some magical stones, Ziggy and I, having been awakened by the noise, decided to play chase-and-pounce with the little witch girl, whose name turned out to be Marisa. She didn’t like being pounced, so she kept using a mega-huge laser attack called Sparky-Something, but it was really slow and hard for her to aim.

Eventually the three of us got really lost from where we started, because we’d been flying around (she has a magical broom just like me… I mean, I can fly without it… I think so can she… but my broom is faster than I can fly by myself). We called a truce and landed to ask directions back to the shrine, and found this cute little girl wandering around named Rumia. She kept trying to bite us, but she was super cute, so I just hugged her and ignored being gnawed on… apparently my skin is thicker than she’s used to because she was annoyed she couldn’t draw blood. Weird kid.

We took her back to the shrine with us, but Reimu was fighting Rika the Tank Girl again, so we all had popcorn and watched. The shrine was damaged again, but Reimu and her flying turtle Genji won. I paid to repair the temple again, because I am nice. Then we took a nap.

In the end, the day was saved in spite of Squirmo Jukki!

Phantasmgoria of a Dimensional Dream

So one day, while Reimu and Marisa were off having some big contest to see who got to explore some boring old ruins, Ziggy and I went wandering down to the river to find someplace to have a nice romp and maybe a picnic. There we met a grass fairy with a big scythe who was a bit annoyed to have hir ‘domain’ (really a big field of long green grass) trampled. We fought and there was some grass-tentacles, but eventually we became friends and I added Ajax to my group of friends and shi gave me some of hir treasure.

While we were recovering, we watched the river flow down into the big lake (it’s called that cause it’s the biggest lake in Gensokyo)… and while we were watching, this goddess’s body floated by. At first we thought she might be dead, but we asked her if she was and she said no, that she was Hina and floating down rivers was her purpose in life and we should stay away from her or we’d be jinxed. We agreed that that would be bad, but I figured she might want a sandwich (I’m really good at sandwiches) so I froze the river long enough to give her a snack before she continued floating down the river.

Apparently, freezing the river annoyed this pair of local fairies (Three in one day! New record!) named Great Fairy (Daiyousei) and Cirno (Chir-no). Cirno is an ice fairy… well, she claims to be ‘THE’ Ice fairy, and a genius… but when she saw how powerful my ice magic was, she demanded to become my apprentice… she might claim to be a genius, but (if anything) she’s even dumber than the gnawy girl. I mean, her main source of amusement seems to be freezing frogs. And not for any medicinal reason.

In fact, Daiyousei and Cirno reminded me so much of Rumia, that I decided to take them back to the Shrine and introduce them. When we all came back, apparently Reimu had just gotten back from fighting some perverted humans in a peeping tom time-machine and most of her clothing was missing… but she’d emerged victorious, with her armpits unmolested.

In the end, the day was saved in spite of Squirmo Jukki!

Lotus Land Story

About a year after I woke up in this weird and definately hentai place… was the rest of the world this depraved? I couldn’t remember… probably not important… a bunch of Youkai attacked the Shrine. I don’t know why they did it, but it probably wasn’t my fault… I was out shopping for new hats. Anyway, when I got back, I found that Reimu and Marisa had both gone off to deal with it, both of them leaving notes telling me that it was my responsibility to watch the shrine / storehouse of many treasures (Marisa too collects things. We trade… i.e. she borrows from me, I borrows from her, is all good).

Graced with such an important task… I took a nap… or tried to. Instead, I ended up being captured by a pair of Youkai with a magic net. Big meanies. Their names were Endra and Whaler and they spent all their time arguing about if they should eat me here or drag me back to the mansion where their unspeakable master dwelt to be eaten.

The debate was, frankly, annoying, as it made sleeping hard. I had Ziggy turn into a mouse and squirm through the holes in the net, and bite each of the pair on the ankle. That made them drop the corners of the net and I escaped. Then I beat them up and made them have tea with me.

Our tea party was so much fun that one of Reimu’s friends, a powerful Youkai named Yakumo Yukari, who has a really floppy hat-head-scarf thing, showed up with her pet fox, Ran, and her pet kitty, Chen. We had a sleepover and watched Ziggy chase Ran, cause apparently Tanuki and Kitsune don’t get along very well.

When Reimu got back, she was annoyed I’d had tea with Youkai and I got spanked. I think she was jealous she didn’t get any tea.

In the end, the day was saved in spite of Squirmo Jukki!

Mystic Square

Some months later, I decided to have a party, so I sent out invitations to all my friends… well, technically, I hired some human lady from the village named Kamishirasawa Keine to do it because I was too busy nap… I mean planning the party, which was scheduled for the full moon so we’d have plenty of light without having to have the party during the day.

Anyway, I needed some maid-types to serve my friends at this party, and so I put an add in the local papers (the BunBunMaru Shimbun and the Kakashi Spirit News) and a few days later, this girl named Alice showed up and volunteered to do serving… well, she said she’d handle it, which is pretty much the same thing, right? That all handled, I took a nap.

So, day of the party comes and there are like… a thousand more guests than I was expecting and it turns out the Keine just kinda invited all the Youkai in Makai, the Demon Realm, instead of just my friends… which is a problem cause I’ve only got so much foods and also it turns out that Alice’s way of handling it is to send robodoll-maids to the party… robodoll maids with very very unusual protocols involving shibari and… look, things might have gotten out of hand, but it totally wasn’t my fault!

Reimu didn’t see it that way, and Yukari got upset when Keine turned into a cow with horns and yelled “CAAAAAVE” and tried to molest her. I managed to get everyone to calm down… but there might have been a bit of punishment that was almost totally undeserved.

But, in the end, the day was saved in spite of Squirmo Jukki!

Fantasy Kaleidoscope

This one time, Team Nine, that’s what Reimu calls the special needs club that consists of Cirno the Ice Fairy, Daiyousei the Great Fairy, Wriggle Nightbug (a firefly Youkai), Rumia the Biter, this bakemono named Chen, and Mystia Lorelei (a night sparrow Youka) were all over at the Shrine’s Lakeside Pavillion for a spot of showing off… I mean having a lantern festival, when part of the moon exploded.

Now, it’s important to point out that this was, in no way, my fault. I hadn’t even been aiming at the moon. I’d been aiming at Cirno and she dodged. Anyway, some Lunarians apparently got a little annoyed at whoever blew up part of the moon, so they came down to pick a fight.

It’s a bit of a trip though, so they only arrived like five days later. Their Leader, Zhane, was already drunk when they showed up, and he started picking fights with, like, everyone. Normally, I’m sure Reimu would have handled it, but she didn’t want to, so I had to go and calm things down. Unfortunately, this Zhane guy is really really sneaky, so I had to hunt down his second in command, a Lunarian Magicienne named Furanzhiin and his servant, an orange moon bunny named Jina. Unfortunately, there was only one of me, so I sent Ajax to keep an eye out for Zhane while Team Nine went after Furanzhiin and I went after Jina. I’m such a good leader, delegating and all that.

Jina tried to confuse me with her scary weird eyes, but I got the drop on her and gave her hugs until she passed out, then went to see how the baka-squad were dealing with the mage they outnumbered at least two to one… maybe more. Of course, she’d managed to get them fighting each other using the power of large words, but I’m not a member of Team Nine, and Ziggy doesn’t understand most words anyway, so I stuffed him down her blouse while distracting her by throwing lots of panties I’d stolen… er… borrowed, from various clothes lines around Gensokyo. Then I blamed her for the theft and she got beaten up by the townsfolk, which was funny.

Two of the three dealt with, I checked in with Ajax, only to find out that he and Zhane had gotten drunk and passed out while trying to flirt with the Mermaids in the Misty Lake. I figured that that wrapped everything up, so I took my new friends back to the Shrine and asked Reimu if she minded them staying for a bit. She got mad at me and punished me, which was, frankly, mean of her! I’d been useful! Right? You believe me… right?

In the end, the day was saved in spite of Squirmo Jukki!

The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil

So, you know how I told you that there’s this huge mansion on the shore of the Misty Lake, right? Well, it’s called the Scarlet Devil Mansion and its got a really nice library… which is guarded by that most fearsome of all creatures… a boobymonster! Her name is Patchouli, which is wood shavings that make you sneeze when you smell them. Anyway, Patchouli Knowledge, this great and terrible boobymonster, owns the Scarlet Devil Mansion (AN: she does not) and has enslaved all these Youkai and even a couple of cute little lolis and a lot of fairies to serve her.

There’s even a Chinese Lady named Hong Meiling who guards the gates of the Mansion and tries to stop you if you sneak in… and if you get past her, there’s a crazy monster-hunter lady named Sakuya who throws knives at you… but she’s kinda pervy and doesn’t mind if you tie her up and whip… anyway, Patchouli will sic the lolis (Flandre and Remilia) and this silly devil girl (Koakuma) I think she’s why the place is called Scarlet Devil… on you. They’re surprisingly good fighters for glorified book cops. So I decided it’s probably better not to borrow books from that library. The fines are outrageous.

But apparently, I’d annoyed Patchouli or something, cause she covered the whole of Gensokyo in red mist. It totally became dark and cold… but I don’t mind either, so joke’s on them. Ha! But apparently Marisa and Reimu don’t like dark and cold as much as I do… they need more fur, clearly… and so they went and spoke to Patchouli… who of course blamed it all on me, but agreed to get rid of the mist if I agreed to entertain the lolis for a while… those are very weird girls! Why to people keep trying to chew on meeeeee!?

In the end, the day was saved in spite of Squirmo Jukki!

Perfect Cherry Blossom

Okay, so, at the end of my second winter in Gensokyo (that I could remember), Spring refused to show up. Now, of course, people blamed Cirno first. But she’s not powerful enough to maintain winter all over Gensokyo by herself. So Marisa started beating up the Yuki-Onna Letty Whiterock and even harassing Lily White, who is a Spring Fairy, but none of them knew anything about it… so she came after me, but I was sleeping under the Kotatsu in the shrine where it was nice and warm and occasionally Reimu would feed me satsuma pieces… mmmm citrus.

Anyway, Marisa demanded that Reimu do something about the endless cold, but Reimu didn’t want to because it was cold out, so she made me go with Marisa to make certain Marisa didn’t get into trouble. I totally didn’t want to go, so I jokingly suggested that maybe hell had frozen over… so Marisa dragged me off to the Netherworld… I dunno why there instead of the Underworld… that’s where Hell is… maybe my Japanese is bad.

Anyway, we got to the gates of the Netherworld, where we ran into a bit of a problem crossing over, since there was a whomping great ghost mansion blocking the ferry.

I asked the guy in front of us, this Fairy Dragon named Bao, what was going on, and he said that, apparently, the owner of the mansion, one Layla Prismriver was dead, and her three sisters, who were poltergeists haunting the mansion, were demanding her back from the Netherworld, but since they couldn’t leave the house without an invitation to play somewhere (they’re a band… Lunasa plays the violin, Merlin the trumpet, and Lyrica the keyboard), they’d brought the entire mansion with them to the edge of the underworld to demand that Shiki Eiki Yamaxanadu (the judge of the dead for Gensokyo) give them Layla back.

Unfortunately for them, Komachi, the shinigami who runs the ferry was like “No way… my boat can’t take an entire mansion.” We tried jumping the queue (which got us into a fight with the sisters, but not the dragon, who was in no real hurry) but once we dealt with them, the lazy ferry-lady also told us that she wouldn’t ferry living people, so we tried flying over the river Sanzu… which meant we had to fight her too.

That ended up taking so long that, by the time we got to the Netherworld, we discovered Konpaku Youmu who was some kind of ghost gardener and samurai-ko, looking all beat up and a little stabbed. We asked what had happened and she explained that that Sakuya, the stabby maid of the Scarlet Devil Mansion, had shown up and attacked Konpaku, who was a kind of half-phantom serving the Princess of Hakugyokurou (Tower of White Jade, a shrine in the Netherworld where artists go when they die).

Said Princess, Saigyouji Yuyuko, was in the middle of fighting the stabby maid lady in front of a giant skeletal cherry tree standing over the shrine’s cemetery as all this spiritual energy flowed into the tree. Marisa, who is a smart cookie, instantly figured out that Yuyuko must be the one stealing the power of spring to make the tree bloom, but before we could do anything, the maid defeated the Ghost Princess and spring was returned to the overworld… But, I guess, technically, we helped? That has to count for something, right?

Bao, who came along to document our adventure, has returned to the Shrine to chronicle in poetry my amazing adventures.

Immaterial and Missing Power

After the red mist episode, we got into a habit of having feasts evil day, which was really nice, but apparently it’s weird… according to Reimu. Personally, I think it’s nice spending lots of time lazing about viewing cherry blossoms. But apparently some people think we need to resolve it, so there was a bit of a fighting tournament to decide whose job it was to resolve the incident. A pair of human mages named Kani Ishi and Kakudai Suruhasu decided to join the battle, but I sat it out because I like food!

Actually, I wasn’t really sitting it out. I had a cunning plan. I’d let everyone tire themselves out fighting, then I’d ambush the winner and we could have feasts all the time. Unfortunately, Yukari, who everyone thought was secretly behind everything, showed up to watch the fighting and, after she was gang pounced by all the goody-goody-timekeepers, she revealed that it was secretly an Oni named Ibuki Suika who was behind the mess… On the plus side, I did get to borrow a really nice scroll that had like all the spells inside it… though I got punished by the mages for taking it and had to give it back. I’ll borrow it again when they’re not looking.

In the end, the day was saved in spite of Squirmo Jukki!

Imperishable Night

Sooo, like… this one time, I decided to go for a walk. I’d heard that there was a shop that sold mysterious things and that it was someplace near the Bamboo Forest, so I went there… and I got lost… turns out that the forest is called the Bamboo Forest of the Lost and not just Bamboo Forest… they should totally put that on the signs.

Anyway, I found a human named Yuurii wandering about in the forest. He didn’t know who he was or where he was, but this angry squirrel youkai , who’d been following me, said there was a doctor in the forest, so we went looking. We didn’t find the doctor, but we did find a rabbit breeder named Eirin. Well, okay, we didn’t find the place ourselves. We ran into this nice girl named Fujiwara no Mokou who led us to the rabbit breeder, but she wouldn’t come inside because she said a horrid demoness named Kaguya lived within.

We were kinda nervous about the whole demoness thing, but there were so many floppy-eared bunnehs around, we figured it might be safe, so we end up going inside anyway. Inside, we found a Moon Bunny named Reisen and an Earth Bunny named Twei in the middle of an experiment. Apparently, Eirin, the owner of the place, was trying to breed hybrid bunnies… she’s not very good at it since apparently she didn’t realize that both bunnies in question were female. Also, the demoness turned out to be an exiled moon princess. I guess that was a joke Miss Fujiwara told.

Anyway, I left Yuurii at the rabbit breeder’s and went home before Cirno got any naughty ideas. When I got home, I told Reimu about it and showed her the weird documents I’d borrowed from that Eirin lady showing how to make a fake moon. Reimu got annoyed about that and didn’t even reward me… but apparently there was some incident a few days later, so, in a way, I guess I saved the day, right?

Phantasmgoria of Flower View

In my third spring, something weird happened. For some reason, all the flowers of all seasons began to bloom and grow all over the place, cause the fairies were out of balance or something. But that’s not my fault… or the purpose of my story. See, there are two areas of Gensokyo known for their flowers. The Garden of the Sun and the Nameless Hill. The Garden of the Sun full of sunflowers and home to Kazami Yuuka, a flower Youkai (and the chief suspect). She’s a bitch.

The Nameless Hill is covered in poisonous lilies and home to a doll tsukigami named Medicine Melancholy. If Yuuka is a bitch, Medicine is a megabitch. See, Yuuka loves plants and hates people… especially people who pick flowers, and likes hurting them a lot. But Medicine? She just hates people and wants them all to die so dolls can take over the world.

Did I mention that dolls are kinda creepy? Cause dolls are kinda creepy.  And Medicine is super creepy since her power allows her to control poison… you know, like the kind generated by all the poisonous flowers now blooming out of season.

I decide that, with all the flowers in full bloom, I would go see if one of these two were to blame… because flowers make me sneeze. When I got to the fields, Medicine and Yuuka were busy arguing over who got to keep this human they’d discovered named Yoiko who had the power to make the sun shine all the time… which probably meant they weren’t doing it. (In fact, it turned out to be the fault of that lazy Shinigami from before, but I didn’t know that at the time.)

My job apparently done, since I’d followed up a lead… even though it wasn’t the right one, I decided to take a nap. But it was too bright, so I kidnapped the Yoiko girl and that got both flower weirdos annoyed at me and that meant they had to try and beat me up, which was totally unfair. All I wanted was a nap!

So… I learned something that I hadn’t known before. The Nameless Hill’s name was actually The Nameless Hill. It was named for all the babies who died without names. Which is kinda sad… so instead of taking a nap, I decided to name all the flowers as if they were babies. I dunno if it helped… but maybe the day was saved by Squirmo Jukki?

Shoot the Bullet

So… I may have mentioned that there are two newspapers in Gensokyo, the BunBunMaru Shimbun, which is a sensationalist tabloid gossip rag, and the Kakashi Spirit News, which is slightly drier than one’s mouth after eating 20 kilometers of beach sand. Both are single person operations, and both are run by Crow Tengu (who are the biggest gossips around). Also, no one actually pays for either, and (in many cases) the paper shows up whether you want it to or not. Almost no one willingly reads the BBM and even fewer use the KSN for anything other than wrapping fish or cleaning windows.

Part of the problem may stem from the fact that Aya (BBM) and Hatate (KSN) are both photogs…. That is, they’re primarily focused on getting a good picture, rather than telling an accurate or compelling story. The second major part is that there really isn’t much news in Gensokyo, total population about 34,000.

Each of the crows has their own unique issue as well. Hatate almost never leaves her offices, and it takes her a lot of time to come out with a printed version of the news. She can do this because she uses a form of remote photography to get her pictures… but it means her stories lack a sense of involvement and immediacy.

Aya, on the other hand, is fast. Like really really really fast… and she controls the wind, so she totally cheats. Plus, she’s super powerful, occasionally beating the people she’s photographing by accident.

Now, I know what you’re wondering… why is Squirmo telling us about them? Well, it’s because they totally ran an expose claiming everything that had gone wrong in the last three years was my fault! I had to run around for nearly a week getting every copy of both papers and erasing people’s memories! It was totally not fun! And it was Mean!

On the plus side, there was a lovely bonfire at the end of the week.

So things could have gone bad there for a bit, but in the end, the day was saved (for Squirmo Jukki) by Squirmo Jukki! Yay Squirmo! She’s the best! Totally not at fault for anything!

Mountain of Faith

So, one summer, I forget which, I found this girl wandering around looking lost near the base of Tengu Mountain… that’s where most of the Tengu live, but not my peeps because the Wolf Tengu claim that we’re thieves and pests… which is just mean and slander! Anyway, this girl was named Yasaka Kanako and she claimed she was a goddess. So, since there’s a shrine where this other Goddess, Suwako Moriya, lives atop Tengu mountain, I led Kanako to the top… despite all the traps that Nitori (the Kappa Leader) and Momiji (the Wolf-Tengu slanderer) had set all over the mountain.

Look, how was I to know that the Moriya Shrine had been moved to Gensokyo specifically to hide from Kanako? No one tells me anything… which is why I usually have to spy on people to learn stuff.

While Suwako and Kanako were fighting, this Oarfish Youkai named Nagae Iku came down from the Dragon Palace in heaven to inquire as to why the gods were fighting and asking if they could please knock it off since the Dragon Emperor was trying to nap.

She had a really nice hat, which I borrowed while she and the three goddesses of the Mountain were yelling at each other. I went off to show my new hat to Nitori and her Kappa. Then I got into a fight with Nagae, who claimed I’d stolen her hat for some silly reason and she was kinda upset.

I bonked her unconscious with one of Nitori’s books on nucleics… Kappa are really smart and technically minded. Anyway, nothing really happened and I’m certain that these events in no way had anything to do with Kanako going mental a bit later or the Dragon Palace sending down this angry lady with a weather sword or Kanako turning one of the Underworld Youkai into a nuclear furnace. Coincidence. Totally not my fault.

Scarlet Weather Rhapsody

So one day, I was visiting Nagae in the Dragon Palace and totally not trying to steal… anything, when she introduced me to Hinanawi Tenshi, a newly minted celestial. She had this really nice sword that could create weather… that I might have borrowed for a little while. Anyway, Tenshi was really bored up in Heaven and asked what we mortals did for fun, and I said that I wasn’t a mortal, but a Tengu, and we might have gotten into a fight… but then I told her that that’s what the people down in Gensokyo did for fun… I didn’t tell her about the sex cause that’s not the sort of thing you bring up in polite conversation.

Anyway, I borrowed the sword and might have used it to cause weird weather all over Gensokyo, but Tenshi came looking for her sword and then everyone showed up to beat her up cause they blamed her for the weather… and for smashing Hakurei Shrine with an Earthquake, which I’m sure had nothing to do with it being where I live.

Still, I doubt she’s bored anymore. So, in a way, I totally saved the day, right?

Subterranean Animism

Remember that quake I mentioned in the last section? Well, it turns out that it caused this huge geyser to spring up in the mountains, creating a new hotspring… which was just the thing since everyone was really grumpy from having to rebuild the Shrine again. Anway, Reimu and Marisa and us were all enjoying the water and not being punished in any way, shape, or form, when Yukari showed up and told us that we had to go down to the Underworld to investigate why there was a geyser and why the geyser was full of mildly annoyed earth spirits.

We did that… well, Reimu and Marisa did… I just tagged along because it seemed like fun. We ran into this cute spider girl and a little girl who lived in a bucket, and even a bridge princess… all of whom seemed a little lonely, to be honest.  All of them tried to stop use from getting to Old Hell where the Oni had taken over. Turns out that there’s a New Hell too, ruled from the Palace of Earth Spirits.

So we went there and met a pair of girls with tentacle-eye symbiots or something, named Komeiji and Koishi Satori. Koishi’s third eye is closed, so she is kinda zombie-like, but Komeiji and I can totally see eye to eye… to eye… heeheee.

Anyway, it turned out that Utsuho, a Hell Raven who is the keeper of the Flames of Hell and pet of Komeiji, had recently gotten a lot hotter after being visited by Kanako. It turns out that Kanako tricked the raven into eating part of the body of a three-legged crow (a solar deity named Yatagarasu, and envoy of Amaterasu Omikami). This kinda turned Utsuho into a nuclear furnace.

Regardless, I was bored, so I decided to borrow the bucket girl and spider-lady and take them to the onsen… and I figured that maybe a soak would get Koishi to relax a bit, so we took her too. The spider-lady, Yamame, just bound her up in some silk and I teleported us back to Onsen… we weren’t gone that long! But apparently, Komeiji doesn’t want Koishi to have any fun without her, because she sent a huge number of angry spirits to find her sister.

Unfortunately, the spirits didn’t know why they’d be sent, since everyone besides Komeiji and me seems to forget about Koishi the moment they aren’t looking at her, which is kinda weird… and totally not my fault. Anyway, I made certain Koishi got home and Komeiji explained that Koishi didn’t like being hated because she was a Satori (a youkai who can read the hearts and minds of others), so she closed her third eye but it made her all… blank inside… which is sad. I agreed to help anyway I could… cause no one should be hated just because of who they are. So now I have some new friends. Yay! And she has a kitty-demon pet named Rin!

Oh, and apparently, while we were doing something important, Reimu and Marisa resolved the whole Utsuho issue or whatever. So I guess that, in the end, the day was saved in spite of Squirmo Jukki!

Next: Word 28 – In Which I Accidentally the Whole Guild

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AN: This section was added more than two years after the original Touhou Project section was posted. Why? Because it took me that long to figure out what was going on in TOuhou… good lord are there a lot of characters who laze around doing pretty much nothing 99% of the time.

World 77: Honor Harrington – Part 3.02

CROWN OF STARS, Solace of Manticore Book 2

Part 2: Fox Hunt, Chapter 1

Previously: Part 1 – Snake Charmer

-2nd January, 1902 PD-

“You’re certain it was a heart attack?” Solace asked, still reeling from shock. The day had been a miserable one already, with her two full time jobs running her ragged. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a good night’s sleep and didn’t know which group of idiots she wanted to throttle more, be that the opposition in the Commons, the opposition in the Lords, or even the Conservative Association who were technically part of the government… which was why Edward Janacek was the blood First Lord of Admiralty and if she had thought little of him as a commander, she thought much much less of him as the civilian head of the Navy.

She’d finally gotten a break in her schedule when Parliament recessed for the holiday season, but the backlog of correspondence that she’d put off in the face of the Basilisk situation had meant that, when she wasn’t spending time with her family, she was busy dictating responses to her five different secretaries (her secretary as MP, as Whitehaven’s chief-of-staff, Whitehaven’s public secretary, her diplomatic secretary, and her private secretary) or making notes for them. And she’d been working on several proposed legislations that she was almost certain that the Conservatives in the Lords would never approve if they managed to get past the Progressives in the Commons… how those fundamental enemies seemed to always team up to thwart common sense legislation never failed to make her long for the simplicity of space warfare.

She’d allowed herself to relax over the ancient holiday of Hanukkah, which had just happened to run across the Christmas week. Gilly had enjoyed having the fifth night of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve rolled into one and having both of her uncles home for the holidays for once had been a double blessing. They’d even managed to corral everyone together for a family picture; Mom, Dad, Loyal, Solace, Duty, Gilly, Minerva, Uncle Vanya, and all three treecats, though getting Barnabie to hold still had involved a celery bribe. Gilly had insisted that Duty wear his dress Marine uniform, and the twenty-six year old boy had been unable to resist the wheedling from his eighteen year old niece.

Of course, only Duty hadn’t known that his promotion to Captain (Marine, not Navy) had come through and the second picture as Gilly pinned his new rank-tabs on while the rest of the family looked on was a thing of beauty, as had been the stunning blush on Duty’s face. A copy of that picture sat on Solace’s desk and she had blink back tears as she realized that it was the last time every one of those people would be together.

“Yes ma’am,” said the Landing PD detective. “That’s what the medical examiner says. Acute myocardial infarction while operating a motor vehicle,” he said, holding his hat in both hands in front of him as he stood in Solace’s private office. Gilly and Minerva were both out, doing a bit of post holiday shopping, but Solace had begged off so she could finish up her work before Parliament came back in session on the 4th. “If it’s any consolation, the Earl probably didn’t suffer. Looks like he was killed on impact.”

“Was anyone else hurt?” she asked, terrified of the answer and furious at the old fool. They paid perfectly good money for chauffeurs. There was no reason he should have been driving.

“Uh,” he glanced down at his notes, then looked back up. “Yes ma’am. Your brother was in the passenger seat… the younger one. He’s been taken to Bassingford. Your father was in the back seat and has a broken arm and a concussion. We tried to contact your mother, but she…”

“She’s in Basilisk with the Queen. Yes,” Solace said, rubbing the pain from her eyes with two fingers. “Thank you detective. I… I’ll handle things.”

“Couple of bystanders got hit with flying debris, nothing too serious. I can give you their information if you want to do something for them?”

She nodded and he did so, then took his leave as she composed the hardest message of her life to her mother, a second to her brother saying much the same thing, and a shorter one to Minerva and Gilly, asking them to meet her at the hospital as soon as they could.

The next few days were horrible. Duty’s condition went from serious to critical and back twice, and her father had to be sedated when his blood-pressure spiked. Solace found herself angrily snapping at people, including Barnabie, who couldn’t possibly understand the reason she was so upset, but had merely been trying to help when he’d offered her a cookie.

Gilly, who could understand Solace better than anyone, had merely hugged her and somehow that made everything so much worse and, for the first time in years, Solace had found herself melting down and unable to cope. She’d locked herself in her office, alone, in the dark, and wept tears of confusion, rage, and grief in equal measure.

It was jewish tradition for the funeral to be held as soon as possible and practical, which meant that, on the fifth of January, the fastest Mary could return from Basilisk, the family, minus Duty who was now in guarded condition, and Loyal, who would arrive in New Berlin to the terrible news in a couple days time, gathered in the New Temple to inter the earthly remains of one of the nicest people Solace had ever known. Minerva had held her as her grief had poured from her and Gilly had to help support Mary, so strong at the worst of times, but crushed under her own sorrow at her loss and fear for her youngest child.

The body had been ritually washed and wrapped, naked, in a plain linen burial shroud, and though normally, the funeral would have only been for the family, as the chief rabbi, his loss was felt by the entire community and so the temple was full, the sounds of communal grief echoing in the vast chamber.

The Shiva ritual, the seven days that followed the burial were that particular torture that only friends can bring in the wake of loss. The family clustered like trauma victims in the Earl’s home as friends and relatives came and went, bringing food and stories of Vanya’s many lessons and exploits, filling quiet moments with laughter and tears, and many cups of wine were drunk in the old man’s memory.

The cenotaph was unveiled after the end of the thirtieth day, and, in keeping with tradition, the estate was read the day after. Mary, who’d been disowned by her parents for reasons that neither she nor her brother had ever explained, had been left only personal effects, since she’d steadfastly refused any of the New Temple money or property. Loyal, as his Uncle’s heir, became the new Chief Rabbi and Earl. And Solace, the family-less child that the mad old fool had welcomed into his life with open arms, now her childless brother’s heir, found herself suddenly a Lady.

“I should turn it down,” she said at dinner the following night, the sixth of February.

“Don’t you dare,” Mary said, voice back to its normal forcefulness. “Your brother hasn’t the faintest clue when it comes to romance, his head always stuck in books. And Duty doesn’t want it. So you’re stuck with it… and don’t go claiming that you’re not a real Lubyanka.”

“I wasn’t going to,” Solace lied. “But I’m a member of the Commons, Mary. I can’t be a noble and keep my seat.”

“Good,” her father said from the sideboard, pouring himself a stiff drink of aged rum. “It was fine when the Navy had you on the beach, but doing all that and running BuPers for Whitehaven is too much. You’ve been burning the candle at both ends.”

“Nonsense,” Solace said, “Members of the Lords routinely serve in the military, oversee their estates, and… and…” She realized she didn’t have a fourth thing and trailed off.

“They don’t have constituents or have to stand for re-election. They have staffs for that… and often have proxies cast their actual votes for them,” her mother pointed out. “Anyway, it’s a way to gracefully bow out of the Commons.”

“But… my projects…” Solace tried.

“You can hand them off to your allies. You can have Loyal introduce them in the Lords,” Hope pointed out.

“Dad, should you be drinking so much?” She asked, trying to change the subject.

“Got a clean bill of health three days ago, and don’t change the subject, young lady,” he replied, then chuckled. “Lady. Ha! A dad joke!”

“Oh god, why must you try me so?” Solace said, hiding her face in Naomi’s belly furr. The treecat patted her head in commiseration. Solace knew that, while the treecats couldn’t actually understand human wordplay, they had an appreciation of the emotional side of humor that was just as nuanced. They knew the gloating, self-congratulatory glee of a dad-joke well executed. They appreciated it roughly the same way most humans appreciated biting into a lemon.

=====

“This outfit looks ridiculous,” Loyal complained.

“Hush. I can’t believe you’re the Ambassador to the Andermani. ‘My pants are too tight!’ Good lord, grow a pair,” Solace teased. She knew Loyal was complaining out of a case of nerves.

“The fact that I have a pair is why these pants are too tight.”

“Oh wah,” Solace waved away his concern. “You’re the reason I’m wearing this dress. Couldn’t you have found a date?”

“For the last time, Sandy, you’re not my date! I’m here as Earl New Temple, and you’re here as Grand Duchess Midgard.” Loyal frowned, adjusting his cravat. “Does this look right?”

“I have a date,” she said.

“You brought your daughter.”

Solace shrugged, “Minerva was busy.”

“Minerva is a smart woman who realized that she didn’t have to attend what promises to be an absolutely dreadful occasion.”

“It’s a coronation. You’ve been to coronations before. Twice, in fact,” she reminded her brother, who was struggling with his cufflinks. She grabbed his arm and fastened them for him. “Good lord, are you always this helpless?”

“Yes, well… I’m not helpless! And Liz’s coronation was when we were younger… and she was our queen and I was worried about the continuation of power. Gustav’s coronation was funny because you were on stage wearing that idiotic hat. This time, I’m just a foreign dignitary.”

“Glad I could provide some amusement for you,” she snarked. “Gilly, tell your uncle he looks fine.”

Gilly, dressed in a lovely cream pantsuit, looked over at uncle Loyal, frowned, then said, “He looks like a clown without the makeup.”

“Gilly!” Solace snapped, laughing. Mentally, she sent ~He really does, doesn’t he. Whoever decided that frilly sleeves and cravats were the thing in men’s fashion should be clubbed with a book on style.~

The youngest Smythe stretched, then stood from her chair and walked over to her uncle. “You look fine, your lordship. Well, no you don’t. You look silly, but everyone would look silly wearing that, and everyone not in military service will be looking silly. Well, besides the Queen to be. I imagine she’ll look absurd.” Gillian was of a height with her uncle, who was a hundred and eighty-five centimeters to her hundred and eighty-eight, and while she wasn’t as tall as Solace (and never would be thanks to the limiters placed in her system) she was far more muscled than her Sister-Mother. Solace was extremely strong, able to bench nearly three hundred kilos in standard gravity, but Gilly could lift nearly twice that and routinely did, though only in the privacy of her home gym. That was one of the reasons for the suit, since it covered her arms more loosely than a gown would have, and the current style for gowns was off the shoulder.

“Princess Elspeth will not look absurd,” Solace said, flicking Gilly’s braid back off her shoulder. Her own gown was extremely military, very sino-germanic and severe, and in the colors of the house of Anderman. The Star Kingdom had refused to allow her to wear either her uniform as an active duty Manticoran Captain or her Andermani uniform, so the gown was a compromise Loyal and Colonel Mustafa had worked out that pleased neither party, but was close enough for diplomacy. Thankfully, it didn’t show of Solace’s shoulders either, since it had to have a perch for the two ‘cats. “She’ll look regal.”

“How would you know?” Gilly asked. “You’ve never met her and the last picture anyone has of her was from before her parents died.”

“Agnarr and Iduna didn’t die,” Loyal pointed out. “They’re only presumed dead.” The Jewelian monarch, King Agnarr Magnus Kronor, and his wife, Queen Iduna Kronor nee Trontensen, had departed Jewel three years earlier to attend the second wedding of Protector Benjamin IX of Grayson, and had never returned home. A full inquest had been launched, but their ship, the Battlecruiser Kalmar had simply failed to trans out of hyper with the rest of her escorts. When they’d returned to the hyperband they’d just exited, they’d found no trace of the ship or their monarchs.

“Oh yeah,” Gilly said, “That makes things ooh soo much less traumatic for their kids I’m sure.” The King and Queen had ruled jointly, and had left behind five children, the oldest of whom, Elspeth, had been not quite eighteen, while the youngest of them had been the twins, Beatrice and Ariel. And Gilly wasn’t wrong.

The monarchs’ disappearance had left behind a kingdom divided… more so than usual, since Jewel was a binary even more distant than Manticore. Jewel A was commonly known just as Jewel, while the only slightly smaller companion, Jewel B, was known as Corona. For centuries, Corona and Jewel had hosted two peacefully coexisting colonies, but in the time of Agnaar’s grandfather, King Harald Siegfried, Corona’s throne had been usurped by the military who refused to follow the commands of King Christian, known as Christian the Bastard… since he was one. Christian had fled to Jewel with his infant son, Magnus, and pledged union and fealty if Harald would free his people from the traitors. A six year war had been the result, but in the end, Grand Duke Christian Trotensen had bent the knee to King Harald.

Since Harald and Christian both had only sons, it was decided that the union would be forged in the next generation, and so, Carl’s Son Agnarr had married Magnus’s daughter Iduna and Magnus’s son Fredric had married Carl’s daughter Arianna.

The act of union had merged the bicameral legislature of Corona (divided into the elected Volkting and the hereditary Riksdag) with the unicameral legislature of Jewel, the Storting, two-thirds of whose members were elected by the citizenry to twelve year terms, and one third of whose members were hereditary, with the Crown entitled to create no more than 10% life peerages. The constitution of Jewel strictly outlawed the formal creation of political parties. From the entire assembly of the Storting, a Prime Minister would be elected to assist the Monarch in governing the realm, and seven Vice Ministers would be selected by the Prime Minister, approved by the Monarch, and confirmed by the Storting’s seven primary councils: Education, Finance, Resource Management, Security & Safety, Foreign Relations, Labor, and Health & Welfare.

And it had been in this (in theory) unified government that the problems had started. Collectively the nation contained five lifebearing ‘worlds’; Emerald, innermost of Jewel’s three terrestrial planets, was a verdant wonder, a veritable Gaia with an environment that was practically heaven for terrestrial flora; Sapphire, second of Jewel’s terrestrial planets, the nation’s capital, and if cold, blessed with seas teaming with life and mountains overflowing in precious metals; Crown, the outer of Corona’s two terrestrial planets, which was blessed with decent weather, if not overly graced with natural wealth; and Tiara, Crown’s moon, which was just as nice as Corona, if one didn’t mind a gravity barely 80% of Old Earth’s. The fifth planet was only technically part of the nation, linked like Basilisk was to Manticore via a wormhole junction.

Jokingly named ‘Elysium’, the sole habitable planet in the Atropos system was habitable only if one was certifiably insane. Easily the most hellish planet humanity had ever actually settled, the world was a fungal jungle dominated by megafauna unlike anything in the explored galaxy. Elysium had been settled by a militant cult known as the New Maegi Order, and they had a reputation for being the best mercenaries humanity had ever produced, the kind of people who laughed as their environment tried to brutally murder them every day of their lives and who thus felt that a prolonged war sounded like a vacation. Indeed, even had government service not been absolutely compulsory in Jewel, the Maegi would have happily volunteered anyway. As it was, while a citizen fulfilling their service could normally pick Health, Labor, Education, or Security, 80% of the Maegi signed up for Security… and often complained that service was only four years.

What made the situation difficult was that Emerald and Sapphire between them accounted for almost 71% of the nation’s total population, while Crown and Tiara had only 22% of it and thus felt (right or wrong) like they were being treated as second class citizens in their own nation. Faced with the disappearance of the King and Queen, the Corona faction, backed by some of the hardline reformers among the Jewel natives (mostly from Emerald who felt that their pet political ideals were being ignored), had pushed for the immediate setting aside of Agnarr and Iduna’s children in favor of Frederic and Arianna.

The nation had nearly ripped itself apart before anyone had thought to ask the Grand Duke and Duchess if they had any interest in the throne, and by the time they had weighed in, there were already riots and demonstrations in most of the major cities in the system. An uneasy truce had been negotiated when Arianna stood before the Storting and absolutely lambasted her supporters for daring to think that she would ever steal her neice’s throne. She further pointed out that even if she and Frederic did accept the throne, their only child had suffered numerous health problems since birth and thus Elspeth would be their heir in any case. In the end, she’d called upon the Storting to appoint a Regent to act as temporary head of state, taking the Monarch’s seat in the Storting and heading the interim government.

It was a solution that appealed to absolutely no one, however the law was clear. Elspeth could not ascend to the throne until she reached the legal age of majority, which in Jewel was 21 T-years, but she was the constitutionally protected heir to the throne and to install anyone other than a regent would have taken amending the constitution, which only the hereditary electors of the Storting could do, and there, unlike in the population based volkspeakers, Corona and Jewel were much closer to parity (with Sapphire holding 30%, Emerald 20%, Crown 25%, Tiara 15%, and Elysium 10%).

As a way of keeping the peace, it was agreed that, whoever the Storting selected as Regent would ask the Grand Duke to serve as Prime Minister. Sophia Bellweather, former Vice Minister of Health & Welfare and founder of the Gothel Institute for Transhuman Studies, had been a voice of calm in the storm and had been part of the King’s Privy Council. She was a natural choice as Regent, especially since nobody actually seemed to like her very much.

Still, the last three years had been transformative for Jewel. As the threat of Haven loomed larger on the horizon, the Jewel system had begun to shift away from its belief that the storm would pass it by (never taken seriously by the Maegi, but everyone knew they actually wanted to attack first) and mobilize seriously to defend itself. The vaunted JDF (Jewelian Defender Fleet), long considered the finest cruiser fleet outside of the Solarian Frontier Fleet, with nearly two hundred Battlecruisers in service, had finally begun investing in heavier hulls.

ONI’s estimate was that it was too little, too late, but if there was one thing Jewel did not lack for it was funds, and estimates were that the first of Jewel’s homebuilt SDs would come online within a month of the coronation. JAF (Jewelian Aggressor Fleet) Agnarr Magnus would be the first of eighty Koenig-Class Superdreadnoughts and, from what Manticore’s spies had been able to tell, the ships were based on the Solarian Vega-class. The problem was that all the ships in the universe wouldn’t help the Jewelians with their fundamental problem… which was that they had absolutely no idea how to wage a conventional war.

No doubt they had hired Solarian fleet veterans, but it had been almost a century since anyone had seriously challenged the Solies, while Haven’s People’s Navy had been at war for half a century. Manticore was thus faced with trying to convince the newly crowned Monarch, all of 21 years old and by all accounts extremely reclusive, with exactly zero military experience, advised by people whose only military experience was in cruiser warfare and anti-piracy, to allow the Royal Navy to assist.

That was why Loyal and the rest of the Manticoran Legation was there. Solace on the other hand was there in two roles. Minerva had sensed a chance to make another vast fortune with the rapid uptick in Jewelian military expenditures and had used Solace’s position in the Andermani Empire to found The Brokkr-Eitri Combine, and used Brokkr-Eitri’s connection to Khan Industries in the Solarian League to secure supply contracts to the JAF. A full 41% percent of the systems on all 80 Koenigs were produced by Brokkr-Eitri and BEC had the operations contracts for Draupnir Shipyard they’d built in the Jewel system where a third of them were under construction even now. The other two thirds were being built in the Atropos system, where, much to the annoyance of the RMN, the Maegi had their own shipyard called Hephaestus.

Thus, Solace was there representing a key supplier, but also there to represent the Emperor of the Andermani and to offer Jewel a third option to allying with Manticore or going it alone against Haven. That Manticore’s Foreign Service and ONI considered a Jewel-Anderman alliance to almost be preferable to a Jewel-Manticore alliance was a secret known only to seven very highly placed analysts and Solace. Not even Loyal had been read in on that, knowing it might compromise him at the bargaining table, but everything suggested that the best way to get the Andermani into the war against Haven was an alliance to secure Jewelian neutrality, something very few in Manticore believed that Haven would respect, but something the Solarians and many among the more blind of the Jewelian electorate thought still possible.

The number of Jewelian Nobles moving their money off Jewel and into New Temple’s Beowulf branch was a sign that few of the aristocracy were holding out hope that war was avoidable, but they lacked the votes to do more than push.

“Solace?” Gilly asked, “Barnabie wants to know if there’s going to be chocolate at the reception.”

“Emerald is very proud of the chocolate they produce,” Loyal said, heading off Solace pointing out that the chubby treecat hardly needed more sweets. Thankfully, unlike many earth carnivores, treecats did not have an adverse reaction to chocolate, so it wasn’t a threat to his health (as long as it was dark… too much cream and sugar were still not good for the ‘cats). “So I’m certain there will be. As well as Jewelian gravlax.”

“Gaah,” Gilly said, making a disgusted face.

“You like fish,” Solace said. “And so does Barnabie… and you like salmon!”

“But gravlax is made with diiiill!” Gilly complained. “Barnabie doesn’t like dill.”

“I’ve seen the BB eat an entire jar of pickles, Gill,” Solace said. “I think it’s you that doesn’t like dill.”

“It makes him fart,” her daughter-clone complained. “And burp.”

“Everything makes him burp. It’s cause he eats too fast,” Loyal said, prodding the nearly inert fuzzy lump.

Gilly was about to reply, when Ulrike poked her head in. “They’re about to open the Castle gates.”

The Castle of Kronorberg Palace was the royal family’s inner precinct, a fairytale castle in the middle of a vast government complex. The main gates had been shut for the last three years as the Princess and Prince had mourned their parents, and the rumor had it that, by order of Queen-Mother Patrice Kronor nee Wolcott, no one had entered or left the Castle in all that time aside from the Regent, the Duke, the Duchess, and Princess Charlotte, their daughter. Then again, rumor also had it that Charlotte had actually run away from home and lived in the woods with her nanny for nearly four years where she pursued her artistic muse. She’d been eleven then and was just eighteen now and already engaged to a former small-time thief and ‘adventurer’.

“Okay ladies, it’s time to shine,” Loyal said, grabbing his rabbinical cap and fitting it onto his head. “Let’s try not to start a war, shall we?”

“I’ll do my best,” Gilly said, “But with Solace around, I bet someone’s going to stage a coup or invade or there will be assassins or something.”

“Are you saying I’m a trouble magnet?” Solace half-growled.

Gilly stuck her tongue out at her sister-mother. “Noooooo… A magnet attracts things. You’re like… like a trouble-seeking missile.”

Next: Crown of Stars – Part 2, Chapter 2

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