A myriad of familiar faces greeted Annelotte when she exited her room. All of them stared at her anxiously.
Leguna, Innilis, Marolyt, Lisana, and Alaine all sighed with relief when they saw that she was fine.
Lisana was the first to react.
"You haven't eaten anything for two weeks, right? Even if you have magic, it should be quite uncomfortable. I'll get you something to eat. What do you want?"
She'd been expecting her exit for a few days now, so she had a servant on standby to get her food.
Annelotte stared at her, at a loss. They didn't meet often, so she knew very little about the young woman. She was used to dominating the room, so she didn't know how to react when she was on the other end.
"Thanks... but I..."
"Don't talk back. Lisana's concerned," Leguna said, "Get Annie a black pepper steak. That's her favorite. Some bread as well, and cheese, and fruit salad. She eats a lot so get her triple servings."
"I didn't think you had my appetite," Marolyt said shyly.
He never realized she was still hungry after their meals. Annelotte rolled her eyes at Leguna, but didn't say anything. She couldn't let people see her scarfing down more than thrice her share, so she held back when in the company of others. While it wasn't nice to eat as much as she wanted, it wasn't a problem since she could supplement her diet with magic. She couldn't believe Leguna would so casually shatter the normalcy she'd tried to maintain.
Lisana didn't appear surprised, however. She simply smiled and nodded.
"Okay. I'll have it here in fifteen minutes."
"Miss. Lisana, wait for me! I'll help!" Alaine shouted.
There was no way she was going to let someone, anyone, else do her job for her.
"That wasn't needed!" Annelotte whispered harshly.
"Um, Annie..." Marolyt whispered, shuffling closer.
His eyes were just as anxious as everybody else, but it was a different angst. And it wasn't helped by the fact that his daughter hadn't so much as glanced at him since she'd reappeared. The atmosphere lost its ease instantly. So that was why the two young women had left so quickly, Leguna and Innilis realized.
Pops was too anxious. Annie wouldn't stop being mad at him this quickly. Ugh, so he had to keep playing mediator, which would put off the reparation of his own relationship with her.
But something incredible occurred.
"What?" Annelotte asked in an irritated tone.
It was a single word, but it struck everyone present dumb. The girl actually responded to her father! This was the first time in months, probably more like a year, that she'd uttered even a single word to that man. No matter how bad her tone was, this was infinitely better than saying nothing at all.
Indeed, Annelotte felt just the tiniest bit less abhorrence at the man that claimed to be her father. She may be a genius, but she was far from a saint, so she had no idea how powerful an emperor whale was… until she absorbed its core.
She knew more or less how the core reflected its creature's power and grasped how dangerous getting it for her must have been. Could he really actually care about her? She'd never allowed the question to even cross her mind before. Of course he didn't! What man, what father, who loved his child would dump them on someone else so they could frolic around as they liked and never even make contact, not so much as a letter, for the child's entire childhood? She wasn't so sure anymore. She was still certain there was no excuse for what he did, he could not give her any reason that might be an appropriate accounting for his actions, but it might just be that he actually cared about her.
She wanted desperately to drown out the uncertainty, or at least to hide it from everyone, especially that man. If she so much as hinted at a crack in her resolute rejection of him, he would never leave her alone -- not that he'd left her alone before, but still. But she found herself answering him, and it was too late to stop herself now.
Marolyt didn't think his daughter would actually answer him. That single word, and the subtle meaning behind it, left him speechless.
"I'm going to eat," she said to no one in particular, her eyes deliberately not glancing at that man, and headed for the door.
She might not be able to stop what her single word answer had set in motion, but she would be damned if she wasn't going to fight it every step of the way.
"Yes, it's late, let's all have something to eat!" Leguna exclaimed deliberately, shooting Marolyt a meaningful glance.
"Yes, I'll tell the two to make food for all of us," the swordsaint said and ran off.
Dinner was heavy, the food and the atmosphere alike. Marolyt was startlingly obedient. One would never guess how rambunctious and vagrant he usually was if this was the first time one met him. He insisted on serving his daughter's food himself, despite Alaine's protests.
The crowd couldn't believe their eyes, especially those who only knew the swordsaint in his official persona. The swordsaint who wouldn't show even the slightest courtesy to the emperor himself, now served this young woman like and obedient slave.
The words slipped out of the young woman's mouth before she could catch them, and she cursed herself again. Her curses became even more flagrant when she caught the old man's beaming smile out of the corner of her eye.
"Sis Annie, what strata do you have now? You're much more powerful than you were before..." the little Innilis chirped over the table.
The little girl was just barely qualified to be an apprentice now. She could use spells now, if only the tiniest and simplest level zero and one spells, and if only a few. She had a decent, for her level, grasp on sensing magic, though. She couldn't tell the exact strength of other people, much less match them to the amorphous, to her, concept of strata, but she could at least tell roughly who was 'stronger' and 'weaker' than someone else, or herself for that matter.
"Sixteen," Annelotte said simply, "Once I've had a bit of time to familiarize myself with my new strength, I should be able to dictate level-nine spells."
"I didn't that core had that much power!" Leguna exclaimed deliberately.
A single stratum wasn't that much at the lower levels, but they represented progressively more vast leaps in power as their number increased. The amount of power that might bring about a four or five strata leap when the starting level was just one or two, might only be enough for a single leap once one had 14 strata.
"Of course!" Marolyt bragged, "It wasn't easy to get it, you know. I had to be swallowed by the whale and stay in its stomach for a week to find the core."
Annelotte didn't answer him. The old man had a penchant for telling tall tales. She doubted it took him more than a day or two in reality. But she also knew that he tended to underplay the risks, so though it might only have taken him two days, his life was most likely hanging by a thread the entire time.
Damn that mouth of hers! How dare it act without her permission!
The old man blanked again. Damn him too!
"What is this 'thank you'? It's natural for me to look after you. I'm your father, after all. I'll go hunt you more tomorrow if you want. I probably won't come across more emperor whales, but I know a few creatures that come close. Actually, I'll take one of Larwin's armadas. Getting another emperor whale shouldn't be a problem with them."
Annelotte stared at him.
"Too much trouble," she said simply, this time actually wanting to say the words before they came out of her mouth.
"No worries!" Marolyt beamed.
If all it took to repair his relationship with his daughter was some crystal cores, nothing in the world was easier.
"You can get me one if Annie doesn't want it! A shadow creature, of course!" Leguna beamed as well.
The trick wouldn't work on his woman a second time, in fact, it might undo the progress the first had made.
"Buzz off. Annie's my daughter so it's only natural for me to do it for her. You however?"
Marolyt showed his nasty side again. He had no qualms throwing an old comrade away like a used rug once he had what he wanted.
"Aren't I your stepson?! I can be your stepdaughter if that works better for you!" Leguna joked.
"Scram!" the old man growled in only half-feigned irritation.
The girls laughed.
"I need to talk to you, Annie," the old man turned his attention back to important people.
Annelotte's gaze froze again.
"Talk peacefully," Marolyt stressed, somewhat soured by her reaction, "about joining the bureau."
The room became heavy again. There was little point in bringing this up, Annelotte was not going to change her mind, and everyone knew it, including Marolyt. For him to bring it up despite knowing that… he must be really serious about this.
"I know you're every bit as stubborn as I am, Annie, so I won't try to talk you out of this, however much I hate the thought of you getting involved with those people again," the word came out like someone coughing out a fly, "But at least listen to my warning. Those people are only friendly as long as it benefits them. They're not good people, Annie. I don't know what that elf wants, but I know damn well he's plotting something, and you and Ley are pawns in his plans, which cannot be good for you, either of you."
His daughter didn't so much as twitch at him. She wasn't a fool, but -- and there it was again -- that man had abandoned her with them, and that was where, and those were the people with whom, she'd grown up. Wayerliss was far more her father than whatever this man might claim for himself, and no crystal core was going to make up for that. They, and Wayerliss in particular, had looked after her all the years of her life she remembered. The mere thought of doubting them was anathema.
"I won't fight your decision anymore, but you have to promise me you'll be cautious. Don't trust them, Annie."
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