"According to the guild's report, you decapitated Balor after the duel and left his head in front of the head office," Annelotte said, watching his expression intently.
Something imperceptible relaxed behind her eyes when she decided his shock was genuine.
"I didn't decapitate him! I didn't even kill him at all!" Leguna shouted, "I hurt him pretty badly, and he was still paralyzed by my poison when I left, but he was alive."
"So the guild's lying?"
"I didn't kill him! Annie, you have to believe me!" Leguna pleaded.
Balor was his enemy, but he was also Vera's brother. Not to mention that he'd promised Vera he wouldn't kill him. Why was he now being branded the man's killer and an oathbreaker at the same time? This could not be happening! If Annelotte believed the accusations, she would never talk to him ever again no matter how many good words people like Vera, Innilis, and his Boss put in.
"I'll believe, for now. If you're telling the truth, then I wonder what really happened."
"You have to believe me!" He begged again, less anxious this time.
"Saron tried to attack Sis Vera when we were at Pato. A shadow popped up out of nowhere and blocked the attack. Sis is convinced it's Balor."
"Yes. Balor's third gift is Shadow Double. He can make doubles of himself using shadow aspect impetus."
"I'll ask Arikos about it."
"I'll look for him when I have the chance."
"Fine, let's not talk about this again for now--" Annelotte's eyes were still narrow with suspicion, "Don't tell Sis about this."
"I won't," Leguna nodded, "Let's go, they must be waiting for us."
Leguna opened the door to find Marolyt pacing back and forth. Everyone else was huddled several paces from the door, watching him confusedly and suspiciously.
Marolyt appeared in front of him a moment later, anxiety written on his face.
'How'd it go?' his eyes asked.
'Went well,' he glanced back.
'Good kid!' Marolyt returned.
Annelotte shot the two conspirators a furious, contemptuous glare, then walked to her companions.
Alaine had arranged two carriages for them by the castle entrance. She didn't like Marolyt, but she worshipped Annelotte. Her salary had nearly doubled since the girl had come and she had several times as many colleagues now as just before her arrival.
Marolyt was the galestorm swordsaint, but the people who knew him also knew he was a pauper. The empire had given him the manor, but he couldn't afford to maintain it. His entire income was splurged on all his various mistresses. He'd only had five servants when Annelote arrived, three of whom actually worked for the empire and had only been assigned to him.
When Annelotte moved in, however, she brought a few servants with her, among whom was a gardener and a chef, and she hired several dozen more. On top of that she increased their salary. The ghost house in all but name was quickly turned into a proper manor and Alaine finally felt like what she was: a servant of nobility.
All the servants shared her view. They thought of Annelotte as the real master of the house. Marolyt was the guest. That was a good part of the reason Marolyt was so anxious to get on his daughter's good side. The servants would kick him out without a moment's hesitation if the girl decided she didn't want him there.
The only reason Annelotte restored the place, however, was so she didn't feel like she was living off of someone else, especially not the old crone that insisted on calling himself her father.
Annelotte smiled warmly as she greeted Alaine, who held one of the carriage doors open for her. She liked the maidservant quite a fair bit. Annelotte may have restored the manor, but she had no interest in running the household, so she was grateful to the chief maid for taking over in her stead. And, while she didn't care for material wealth, she had a particularly acute enjoyment of being served.
"It's my honor to serve you, My Lady!" Alaine said, returning her smile equally warm, "I have a request, Miss."
"What is it?"
"I wish to be made… your lady-in-waiting," she whispered, "I don't care for rewards or status, I only wish to serve you personally rather than the manor."
"Because you're amazing. You're a genius and an incredible lady. I want nothing more in this world than to be your personal servant."
None of her words were lies, but her true intent was to protect her mistress from the corruption brats like that Leguna carried with it wherever he went. And that old man the brat called 'Boss' was only marginally better. If she was around her mistress more of the day, they would stand no chance to corrupt her mistress, she wouldn't give that prince a chance either.
"I so no problem with such an arrangement," Marolyt said as he came over.
The maid had a short temper, but she would never do anything that was detrimental to his daughter and he knew it all too well. And he hoped, more than anything else, the excitable little lady would warm his daughter a little as well.
"Then I'll have to trouble you, Alaine."
"Nothing of the sort!" Alaine said scoldingly, but her mouth split her face in an omnipotent smile.
Alaine waited until Annelotte had stepped into the carriage and followed her, closing the door behind her. And the carriage trotted off to the manor.
Kurdak's brigade waited for him some 20 kilometers east of the city. They weren't the only military unit camped in the area, but their camp was set up quite some distance from the cluster of the rest of the units.
Kurdak wasn't too surprised when he saw it. Alissanda had warned him they were all troublemakers, so it was to be expected the rest of the military would shun them.
The camp was shoddy, erected in a hurry and with limited resources and material available. The picket-fence wall was made from bent and malformed trees which left any number of gaps in any given section of the wall. He could make out the forest of tents inside through those holes long before they reached the open gate. Noise filtered through the holy wall just as much as light.
Vera and Eibron tensed as they, too, took full note of the decrepitude of the place. It didn't speak well for the group's discipline, and if there was one thing the military required -- needed -- it was discipline. They weren't as properly concerned with it as Alissanda, being uncultured mercenaries and all, but they were not the ruffians and goons many of the military and nobility considered them to be.
If any of it bothered Kurdak, however, he hid it well.
Their procession trotted into the camp and everyone sighed as they saw they had at least remembered to put a sentry by the entrance, and that the sentry had at least stayed at his post.
"Halt! Who goes there? Identify yourself!" the sentry shouted as he lowered his spear threateningly.
He had stood sloppily, and he threatened them now even more sloppily, struggling to keep his footing.
The carriage stopped and Kurdak got out, waving a hand in front of his nose.
"What the hell are you doing drunk on duty? The sun hasn't even set yet either!"
"Heh!--" the sentry smiled and immediately started chatting, "--I got the short end of the stick today. I lost a rock-paper-scissors match and drew guard duty. On top of that I lost half my salary in a bad bet!"
"Oh? You guys are gambling?" Kurdak asked with a mischievous smile.
"Yip. Blackie and the others have been on a lucky streak. They'll probably keep going until morning."
"Nice. Let's join!" Kurdak shouted to his companions still in the carriage and started into the camp again.
"Wait, who are you?! The camp's off--!" the sentry shouted, suddenly remembering what he was actually supposed to be doing.
Eibron was already behind him, however, and his hand descended on the back of his neck. The drunken sod collapsed into drunken oblivion before he could finish his shout.
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