Leguna disembarked, covered his face, and departed -- much to the coachman's.
"Is Miss Annie really that amazing? She sent Sir Leguna scurrying away in tears! Tsktsktsk... I never would've imagined..."
Annelotte left while the coachman murmured to himself, sparing him only a cold glance which sent shivered dancing up and down his spine.
"Don't let your imagination run wild. I don't want nonsense rumours spilling from your mouth, understand?" she said over her shoulder.
"I know nothing! I saw nothing! What is the mistress talking about?" the coachman cowered.
Just brushing the air above Leguna's swollen eyelid was enough to make him gasp in pain.
"Why's Annie still so violent..." he sighed.
"Instead of complaining about me, why don't you watch your stinking mouth?!" a frigid voice said out of nowhere.
"Yes, yes, alright!" he shouted, standing up in a panic and instinctively guarding his face.
He couldn't help himself even though he knew saying certain things always earned him beatings.
Annelotte stared at him for a moment, half abhorred by her own tastes, then sighed. She tried her best to turn him from a pig into at least a proper pet, but even that she now knew was futile. He could be smart at times, he'd even proven downright intelligent once or twice, but those were few and far between, and all the time in between he was dumber and stubborner than a rock.
"When are you leaving?" the boy asked eventually.
"Depends. When the laboratory is ready. I won't be able to achieve it with only help from Perelia. I have to ask a few alchemists in the association for help, too."
"So soon?--" Leguna forced a smile. "--The sooner the magic cannons can be deployed, the sooner things will improve. I bet the emperor can't wait. Apart from that, being able to replicate those cannons would definitely be a huge deal. I bet the association's people would answer your call without a hassle."
"That should be so," she nodded.
"I had to search so long and so hard to find you again after you left. Eirin is gone this time, so are Boss and Sis Vera. I'll be all alone when you leave again. I feel like I'm losing you guys."
He made a point of sounding casual about it, but Annelotte knew him too well.
"You're still a kid..." she smiled suddenly.
Annelotte's hand strayed to his head for a single, short, gentle pat. He was much taller than her, despite his own diminutive stature, but her movement felt much like she was patting a pet down by her knees, or like she was an older sister comforting a crying little baby brother.
Leguna didn't dare comment on it, however. It was rare enough for her to show even the tiniest hint of gentility without him ruining the moment by reminding her of his existence.
"We're always by your side, me, Eirinn, boss, and Sis Vera... We're all here for you, just like you are there for us. Didn't you cross the empire for boss because of just one letter from him? They'll come to help you if you ask, I'm sure."
"What about you?"
Leguna almost didn't want to ask the question. His ice queen had become a lady of the lake, gentle as flowing water, and he didn't want to risk freezing it over again, but he just had to ask her, he had to know.
"Me?" mischief flashed across her eyes, "You have to ask?"
Leguna's face paled.
Annelotte tapped her lips with a finger, then tapped his chest. She felt the egg beneath his shirt, and her eyes smiled secretly.
"As long as you wear this--" She pressed the egg against his chest a bit harder. "--I can find you wherever you go."
He chuckled -- a lovestruck fool.
"Take it out."
"Why? Don't tell me you're going to take it!" he begged, but he still took it out like a puppy told to let go of a favourite bone.
She took it, infused some of her mana into it, then handed it back.
"Done," she said, her pale skin paling even further.
"What did you--"
"A single-use formation," she explained, wiping her sweat off, "You can send a burst of impetus to me. Think of it like a signal flare. I'll come."
"Isn't this like a contact crystal?" he asked, staring at the lines glittering like small cracks on the gem.
"It can only be used once. Don't use it frivolously. Only in an emergency."
He wasn't proud of the fact that he might have to rely on a woman's charm, strong woman or not, but he dared not turn the walking ice bomb down.
"I have things to do. I'm leaving."
"Okay," the boy nodded meekly.
"You're back." Arikos teased.
He knew the brat hated those councils the most. Arikos himself didn't fancy them either.
"Speak up if you have something to say."
"You don't seem surprised."
"I was expecting it, given her attitude and all--" Arikos stretched. "--Ah, damnit. And I was enjoying a rare rest as well... This afternoon's going to be busy!"
Leguna stared at him, words failing him. He knew Arikos wasn't particularly attached to Annelotte, but he didn't expect him to be this indifferent to her departure.
"You have to take over her duties--"
"I knew you were going to try that. And no, I'm not taking over her duties. I'm already busy enough as it is."
"I'll go to Wayerliss!"
"Ugh... Fine. Do you really think threatening me with you 'daddy' is going to work forever?"
"I don't, but I'll damn well use it for as long as it does!"
Leguna was determined to never lose a match of pettiness. He dealt with Mistress Annie every day. What little shame he might have had before meeting her had all been careful smashed into powder and flushed down the drain. Did Arikos really think he could win a match of pettiness with someone who had no sense of shame?
"You..." Arikos's eyes reddened and his nostrils flared threateningly, "You'll never make real friends with that attitude; you know that, right?"
"What do you know? And who asked you to be a jackal?"
"Well, threaten me with the chairman all you want, I'm not doing her work. But I have a way you don't have to either."
"...Let's hear it."
"Get someone to replace her."
"Xeno!" Arikos suddenly shouted.
The door opened and a boy popped through it.
"Mister Leguna, Mister Arikos," the boy greeted.
"You? I haven't seen you since that night. I actually forgot Arikos took you in!"
"I didn't expect you to remember," Xeno said, head respectfully low.
He'd been under Arikos's wing for just a year, but he was already more mature than Leguna.
"You're suggesting him?"
"Yes. He's pretty good; reliable and sharp, too. He's more than capable of replacing Annie."
Leguna glanced at Xeno carefully, but didn't voice an objection. Arikos, for all his flippancy, was never so when it came to work, so Leguna had no doubt Xeno was more than up to the challenge.
"Give him a day or two. See how it goes," Arikos chirped.
Why did it feel like the bureau had no rules? Everyone was just doing whatever they wanted! But, Arikos had made the suggestions, so he could always blame him if something went wrong, so Leguna caved.
"Fine. I'll give him a go."
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