Surprisingly, Annelotte didn't voice any displeasure about their trip to Icepeak Mountain. When the group invited her, the glacier girl agreed almost instantly. Her nonchalant agreement surprised even Leguna. He had even prepared himself mentally to hear a logical and cold refusal. With a strong magus like Annelotte on their team, Kurdak no longer had much to say about the trip. They spent the following days buying what they needed.
As Kurdak made quite a bit of money from the casino, he was more than capable of arming them well. He brought Vera and Leguna to Hammer of Flame for a shopping spree.
"Tell me what you want. I'll pay for it," said he as he smacked his chest arrogantly.
"Oh my, thanks, Boss!" Leguna really felt like running to Kurdak and wagging his tail like an obedient puppy.
Just as Kurdak was about to boast about how he could afford to pay for what they needed, he felt a chill run down his spine. He realized Vera was looking at him with mixed feelings of adoration, attraction, and excitement. She pointed at herself without saying a word. What she meant was obvious: since you're being so generous towards Leguna, I should get something as well, right? We're party members, so you have to act fairly. Kurdak didn't say a word and let his cold sweat fall as he clutched his money pouch subconsciously.
After a moment, he finally whispered, "I'll buy what you need for you..."
"What?" asked Vera, having not heard him clearly.
"Well," Kurdak hesitated, "Unlike Ley, if I let you pick what you like... Erm... You know what'll happen..."
"Know what?! How can you treat me like this even though I'm also a party member?! Also, a thousand of the 2900 gold coins you won should belong to me! Don't tell me you plan to keep it all to yourself?!" said Vera, dissatisfied.
"I returned the two hundred gold coins I borrowed already. I earned the rest myself!" countered Kurdak.
He retreated a few steps when he saw Vera's eyes trailing on his money pouch.
"I don't care. If you don't give it to me, I won't leave!" said Vera stubbornly.
She just had to roll on the ground and throw a tantrum and her transformation into a spoiled child would be complete. Speechless, Kurdak compromised in the end and agreed to let her pick her own equipment. At the same time, he shot the dwarven owner of the shop a begging glance.
The owner was a dwarf named Muller who used to be a member of the Blackiron tribe from the Aeon Mountains to the southeast. A twist of fate had brought him to Starfall and he decided to settle down. Given his casual attitude typical of dwarves, Hammer of Flame attracted lots of loyal customers despite its relatively small size, and Kurdak was one of them.
"Worry not, there are some things I won't sell. Dwarves don't take advantage of deals like that!" whispered Muller on tiptoe to reach Kurdak's ear.
"Thanks a bunch. Otherwise, I think Vera will buy your whole shop," said Kurdak as he wiped his sweat.
"Why isn't Cyranos here? Did he head off somewhere?" asked Muller when he saw only the three of them.
As Vera had brought Leguna to the shop once before, he knew about the party's new member.
"He died in our last mission," said Kurdak solemnly.
"Oh, apologies... Cyranos was a fine human," sighed Muller.
"How much for this bow?" asked Vera excitedly.
The moment she saw the bow, emanating a light green glow, she stopped in her tracks entirely.
The dwarf glanced at it.
Kurdak had taken note of the bow as well. It must be another one of Muller's prized works. While it didn't look as refined as Leguna's Flameblade, the elegant design and wind-aspect enchantment appealed to Vera greatly. Kurdak had already wanted to buy it for her earlier, but he was worried it would awaken the demon in her if he took the initiative. So, he waited for her to find it herself, after which he would buy it after pretending to make a pained decision.
"What?!" cried Vera, shocked.
"This dwarf here only gives fair prices. This bow is made of good quality stuff. Not only will the wind-aspect enchantment boost your arrows' penetrative power, it'll even make the wielder's movements swifter and agiler. I paid an alchemist more than 400 gold just to have it enchanted. The price didn't even include the ingredients required. I had to provide that myself!" described Muller briefly.
"It's still far too expensive," said Vera as she shook her head.
The price was truly a little beyond her means. While she knew Kurdak had made off with quite a bit of money, she was well aware that he had to put his life on the line to do so. Though a spendthrift she was, an overboard idiot she was not.
"Can it go for less?" asked Kurdak.
Enchantment aside, its elegant design was quite appealing. He really hoped to see the majestic sight of Vera wielding the bow.After some thought, Muller nodded.
"Alright. Since we're old friends, I'll give it to ya for 700. I don't get to earn much that way, though," said he through grit teeth.
"Deal!" agreed Kurdak without hesitation as he took out a few notes.
They were issued by the Federation and could be traded for gold coins at any of the banks they set up across the nine cities. As the Federation was the de facto governing body Lance's humans, the reputation of their banks went without saying.
"Kurdak..." mumbled Vera as she looked at him, seemingly moved to tears.
"It's alright. The whole point of earning money is to spend it, after all. There's no point feeling bad over it," said Kurdak as he waved his hand.
His eyes seemed to say 'this rich old guy is spending money on the woman I love without expecting much in return. Just remember what I did for you well.'
"No, I was going to say that the longsword over there also caught my eye," said Vera as she carefully pointed at an elegant-looking longsword hung on the wall.
Kurdak was completely speechless.
The day of departure approached quickly. As neither Kurdak nor Vera knew where Annelotte stayed, they left contacting her to Leguna.
As Icepeak Mountain was quite some ways from Starfall, Leguna applied for leave at the odd-job department. Soram agreed without much fuss but still felt rather worried when he learned where.
Having a feast before embarking on a mission was a compulsory mercenary tradition. While Kurdak's party wasn't leaving on an official request, their excursion was no doubt one of the riskiest endeavors they have ever attempted.
So, they found a luxurious restaurant and spent quite a big chunk of money on a decent meal. The only difference between that particular feast and the ones they held previously was the absence of a quiet man and the presence of a beautiful cool beauty. Annelotte wasn't interested in participating in the feast at first, but seeing how excited Leguna was when he invited her over, she found herself unable to refuse for some reason and agreed to attend. No alcohol was served during a feast of departure as tradition dictated. Despite that, the mouth-watering dishes served made Leguna wolf down his meal without any regard for appearances.
Annelotte looked at his horrible table manners without revealing her thoughts.
"What kind of person eats like that?" mused Vera, surprised, after seeing Leguna unleash his wrath.
"Thank you, Miss Annelotte, for agreeing to join us on this trip," said Kurdak cordially, given how he was still wary of Annelotte's presence.
She nodded to him.
"Mister Kurdak, please don't worry about it. All my teacher wanted was that I train and gain experience. Whether it's a mission or not matters not. Also, since I'm part of the party... I should be one of your comrades as well."
Both Kurdak and Vera were shocked to hear what Annelotte just said. While she sounded cold as usual, the fact that she brought up 'comrade' was out of character for her. They felt she'd changed somewhat. Even though they couldn't quite tell what had changed, there was a difference between the current Annelotte and the chilling girl they'd spoken to before. They almost felt icicles forming when the girl spoke in the recent past.
They then turned their eyes to Leguna. Since he was the one who spent more time with Annelotte, he was most probably the one that influenced her behavior.
"Hey, how'd you do it?" whispered Vera with a nudge.
"Huh? Do what?" asked Leguna as he wiped the grease off his lips.
"Doesn't Annelotte feel different from before?" said Vera as she pointed at the girl.
After some thought, Leguna shook his head.
"I don't think so."
"Talking to you really is exhausting sometimes," Vera said while giving the youth a good look, before she mumbled, "I really underestimated your capabilities"
The next morning, the party gathered near the south gate. Annelotte was the earliest to arrive, much to the surprise of the other three who'd almost overslept. However, she did not reveal the slightest displeasure. She was as she always was: neither angry nor happy.
Regardless, they left for their destination with a new member.
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