Chapter 9 – Family and Friends

It was weird, sitting in his sister’s office like this.

Leaving aside the fact that it felt weird knowing his own older sister, whose childhood dream had been to become a Pirate Queen, had a fancy, upscale office right above a dock right outside her manor–her manor–in the first place, Graves clearly hadn’t expected she’d need to host six people at once. 

As a result, Julius was seated next to Adrien in front of her fancy white desk while Sue, Sophia, Sergio and Maria were all sitting in some chairs from the waiting room/lounge, graciously provided by Margrave’s firedrake assistant, Torna. Which was another thing. Apparently his sister had assistants and servants.

She would, of course, being the archduchess and all, but it was still a weird disconnect. At least she seemed to be treating them well. 

“So, to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?” Margrave asked, now changed from her swimsuit into a fancier outfit consisting of a steel-gray vest, a white, long-sleeved blouse, matching white pants, and calf-high black boots. She had her hands folded on the desk and was sitting as straight as ever. Her scars, along her cheek, above her eyebrow, over her lips, had faded a bit and she had some more wrinkles around her eyes, but she looked as strong as ever.

“Well, as much as I’d like to say that we were visiting so I can show off my students, we do need a boat.” 

“And here I thought you just wanted to see your dear old sister. Such a tragic shame.” 

“…You know, if you’re trying to guilt me you really need to stop looking so bored.” 

“Boo hoo. To think my little brother would be so mean.”

“…At least change your tone.” 

“Um… Not to be rude,” Adrien interrupted as scratched the back of his head, “But we really do need that boat… I don’t suppose you’d give it to us for free?” 

“Hm… Well, lending you a boat is no trouble. But I can’t just give it to you. I have a reputation to uphold, and even if Jules is my brother, I can’t just give my property away for free,” Margrave said, before she opened a drawer in her desk and began to dig around in it. 

Julius sighed. “Come on, Graves. Can’t you just count this as a favor? I can pay you back late-” 

“Oh silly me, I appear to have dropped something.” Margrave tossed something over the desk towards Adrien. He caught the folded piece of paper, then unfolded it. 

Julius winced. On the piece of paper was an extremely crude drawing of someone. Gaunt skin, ratty blond hair, sneering lips, and perverse looking eyes. Everything about them only seemed to accentuate that they were a person of ill repute. And underneath the image were a set of words. 

‘Wanted Dead or Alive: Julius of the Brown Hares.‘

‘Reward: 1,000gc.’

Adrien stared at the poster, then very slowly turned to look at Julius.

“…Why do you still have that?” 

“Because it’s hilarious.” 

“It really isn’t.”

“Hm…what do you say, boy.” 

Adrien glanced at Magrave, then back at Julius. “…I think if I say anything I’ll be worse than dead.” 

Julius rolled his eyes and tried to ignore how his other students were craning their heads to try to look at the poster. “First off, that wasn’t how I looked like when I was younger. Second, what do you want Graves?” 

“Heh heh. I’m so glad you’re so willing to help.” 

“Um…I probably shouldn’t be asking this, but what exactly did you do?” Adrien asked.

“Nothing that bad.” 

“He stabbed the former archduke.”

“He deserved it.” Julius tried to ignore how his students were staring at him now.

“Yes, he did, and then the old asshole decided to eschew a normal bounty picture in favor of his own interpretation of Jules.” 

“…So…he didn’t actually look like this?” Adrien, for some reason, inquired.

“Nope, he didn’t.”

“Huh…so why are you showing it to us, ma’am?”

“To remind my dear brother of the debts he already owes me.”

Julius sighed. “Yeah yeah, I get the point. So can we just-”

“One moment.” Margrave held up a hand, then pointed behind Julius. “You, pale bluehead, you look like you have a question.”

“Eh? Oh, right, uh, I was…kind of wondering if you could explain that one a bit more,” Sue explained, “I mean…it feels like we’re missing context.”

“Do we really need to-”

“Now Jules, be nice. Your students are asking for information.” Margrave was smiling. It was never a good sign when she started smiling. Thankfully, it was just a small smile. Unfortunately, small smiles meant she was having fun messing with him. “Back when Jules was doing his ‘heroic adventure’ with his little friends and our younger sister-”

“You have a younger sister?” Adrien interrupted, staring at Julius.

“Boy.” And then he flinched.

“Right. Sorry, ma’am.”

“Hm. As I was saying, Jules and his posse-” Adrien mouthed ‘posse?’ in confusion, but was smart enough not to vocalize it. “-needed access to the Water Temple. To facilitate the travel, they needed permission from the Archduke of Orindaco. At the time, that was Cornelius Gallun, a daft idiot who had been born into the position and was doing a wonderful job of running the city into the ground with his brood of boorish bumblers. They were all arrogant idiots, of course, so when a young street rat-” The kids all flinched at the sudden venom in her tone. “-came by asking for passage to Mesa Island, the ingrates had the audacity to laugh in his face.”

“It wasn’t that clean,” Julius muttered. Those weren’t pleasant memories, but it was nice seeing how incensed Margrave still was by that shitshow.

She nodded, frowning by this point. “Things happened, the archduke was stabbed, and my crew and I transported Jules and his group to the Water Temple.”

“…I feel like you left a lot of details out there,” Sergio muttered, then stiffened as Margrave glanced at him.

“Ask a question then.”

“…Kay. So, why did Teach stab the fancy duke?”

“Ask Jules.”

“…” Sergio looked at Julius. Julius stared back. “…I think I’m good.”

“Good. Small girl, you’re up next.”

“H-Huh?”

“Everybody gets a question. Remember, I know nearly everything there is to know about this doofus and my city, so think carefully about it.”

“Graves, can’t you just tell me what you want me to get?” Julius asked, already sure he knew what the answer would be.

“That’s your question then, and I’ll answer it at the end. Small girl gets this next one.”

“U-Uh…Who is Mr. Goldforge’s little sister?” 

“Hmph. Couldn’t even choose a fun question. Well, you kids may know her as the Silver Archer.” 

Silence fell on then as the novices all tilted their heads in confused unison. 

“…I’m sorry who?” 

Even if she wasn’t there, Julius could feel his younger sister’s sorrow. 

“…The Silver Archer. You know, Ellen Silvershade.” Silence met her statement. “…The archer who single handedly took down one hundred soldiers before they could even see her.” 

“…” 

If it was anyone other than Julius, it most likely would have been left unnoticed, but for a single fraction of a second, Magrave’s lips twitched downward. “…Well, this has been nice and all, but I really must get to business with Jules.” 

“Hey, wait, I didn’t get to-” Maria stopped mid-sentence as Margrave turned her gaze on her. After a few seconds, Maria stood up and walked right out of the office.

“Oh for the-Graves, don’t intimidate my students,” Julius chided.

“What. All I did was look at her.”

He sighed. “Okay, who wants to go get-” Sophia was out the door before he could even finish the question.

“Huh. Good instincts on that one.”

“…Hey, old-…uh, sir,” Adrien corrected himself, “Your sister’s not going to murder us, right?”

“…Why couldn’t you be this wary when we talking with the actual damn dragon?” Julius asked, frowning at him.

“For one thing, she wasn’t an older, scarier version of you,” Sergio answered, then winced at Graves’s sudden, harsh bark of laughter.

“Don’t worry. None of you have given me a good reason to kill you,” Margrave ‘reassured’ them, her expression immediately going back to neutral after her little slip. “Anyway, Jules, I want you to get something for me.”

“I’m not stealing a temple core.”

She blinked. “…I wasn’t thinking of that. That’s stupid. Who would do that.”

“Dragon.”

“Ah. East Ebkai Trading then. Hm. Decent company, wide selection of goods, representative is cute…” She considered that for a second, then shrugged. “Point is, my sources have informed me that certain individuals in my city are in the possession of an Ancient Gem.”

Julius felt his eye twitch. “Of course. Sure. Why wouldn’t there be? And I’m guessing that means you want me to get whatever type of gem this is and bring it to you?” 

“Hm…well, you don’t need to bring it here. I just need you to get it so I can have some leverage. The Furies are starting to get a bit too sure of themselves, so I want some ammo to pluck their wings with.” 

“…So you’re asking me to steal a ridiculously powerful artifact from the Reds. For blackmail.” 

“No. It appears the gem is no longer in their possession. They’ve been sending out many of their kind around my city. Even harassing some of the Hares as well. So I want you to find who took it from them, and make sure they’re safe. I’ll even let you take whoever they are with you.” 

“…And why would I want that?” 

“Well, if they’re good enough to steal from the Furies and not get caught by now, then they’ll likely be helpful in your quest.” 

“Hm.” Well, he would like a ‘rogue’ to balance things out a little. None of his students were very subtle, after all, and he knew enough knife-fighting, pickpocketing, and lockpicking tricks to at least have some things he could probably teach them . “What type of gem is it?”

“Jules, which type of ancient gem would the Furies go out of their way to have.”

He frowned. “…They could want any of them. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the rubies.”

“Well it is.” Dammit. “Boy, you look like you want to ask something.”

“A-Ah, uh…no, I think-”

“Boy. Ask your question.”

Adrien gulped. “…What’s, uh…an ancient gem?”

“Hm. I thought Luceneva had public schools.”

“Huh? Uh, it does.”

“They don’t really cover weird artifacts,” Sue explained.

“Hm. They should. Or Jules should have told you.” Julius frowned at the amused smirk Graves gave him before she continued with her usual bored tone. “The Ancient Gems are fragments of the Ancients that were left over after each one was sealed away over the course of however many eons ago it was. You know what the Ancients are, right.”

“Er, yes? They’re the demonic equivalent of the elder gods,” Sue answered, a bit nervously.

“Good girl. Jules, make sure to give her a gold star on the way out.”

He rolled his eyes again. “So that’s it then? We go find your ruby, and then you lend us a ship.”

“Precisely.” She smirked. “I’m glad we could help each other out like this.”

“Yeah, sure…Okay, c’mon kids, we’ve got a ruby to find.” He stood, nodding to Margrave as his students started leaving the room a little too quickly.

“Heh.” Graves grinned a little more fondly once the kids were out of the room. “My little brother, mentoring a new generation of moronic do-gooders. Makes a lady feel old. Well, not as old as you must feel every day around them.”

“Yeah, well, you’re the one that’ll hit fifty before me,” Julius replied, smiling back as she chuckled. “Hah…stay safe, okay?”

“I should be the one saying that to you, Mr. Adventurer. You tend to flirt with death far more than I do. Or flirt with Demon Lords, I suppose.”

Julius’s face immediately fell as he winced. “Oh…uh…you heard about that.”

Her smirk got wider. “Of course. It’s very important to know when my little brother might have a crush. You certainly aim high for your choice of partners though.” 

“Look. Just.” He fumbled for a moment, then sighed. “How do you even know about that?” 

“Oh, you know, people tend to be loud when they’re drunk. One charming old man at a tavern I frequent was very eager to share that little story.” 

“…And you believed him?” 

“Not until your reaction.” 

“…Oh.” 

“Heh heh~. Aaah, I missed teasing you this much, Jules.” 

“Feh.” 

Reaching into her desk, Magrave took out a round, pale pink stone about the size of her fist. Tossing it up to Julius, she leaned back into her chair. 

“Make sure to inform me when you find the gem.” For a brief moment, she frowned. “While I may have appeared apathetic there, I will admit, I am worried about the ruby’s presence in my city.”

Julius raised an eyebrow. “That’s rare. I get it though. Something like that, especially around all these wooden buildings and ships…”

“Precisely. And the Feathers are all arrogant idiots to start, so you can understand my concern.”

“Yup. Well, no need to worry.” He grinned. “Your heroic little bro’s gonna solve all your problems easy.”

“Hah!” she barked, then gave him a genuine grin. “Try not to burn anything down this time, Jules.”

“Sure sure. See you.” Giving her a small wave, Julius left his sister’s office and met up with his students, minus Maria and Sophia, outside the building. 

Hm. Minus Maria and Sophia.

“Kids, where are Maria and Sophia?”

The three of them exchanged glances, then shrugged in unison.

“…Well fuck.” Julius scratched at his cheek for a moment, considering things, then frowned at his students. “They went to Dock Five, didn’t they.”

“…See? He does it too,” Sue said, turning to Adrien and Sergio. “That was clearly a question but it didn’t sound like one at all.”

“Huh. Guess he got it from his sister?”

“Hmph. Well I’m going to go ahead and drag them back before anything happens. You kids should go back to the ship” 

“Nope.”

Julius frowned at Sergio. “Nope?”

“Nope. We’re going with.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yeah we are. Either you let us go with you and see what’s up with your hometown, or we go wander off, unsupervised, and you can just hope that we’ll go back in the ship instead of, I dunno, going to see what’s up with those mercenaries you were mentioning.”

“And why would you do that?”

“We would cover more ground if we split up. It wouldn’t take long for us to search around Dock Two while you go and find Ria and Soph,” Sue suggested and it was at that moment Julius knew he lost. 

Dammit, Sue was supposed to be one of the responsible ones…then again, she did go into that stupid fight club. She might genuinely want to see all the mercenaries…

Hm. Take his team of young adults to the literal sex district, or leave them unsupervised in Orindaco?

“…Ah, dammit. Okay, fine. I’m confiscating all of your money while we’re there though.”

“Sticking to the ‘scammer’ story then?” Sergio asked with a raised eyebrow.

“No, I just doubt your self-control.”

It took a few minutes of grumbling and arguing, but his students finally did pass over all of their coin. A few more minutes later, his reasoning was proven as all three of them stared with wide eyes at the decorated streets of the Fifth Dock. 

Or, more specifically, at the barely decorated people of the Fifth Dock.

“So, do you want to go back to the ship now?”

“No?? Why would I want to go back?!” Sergio immediately replied, staring very obviously at a group of men and women of various races wearing essentially armored swimwear. Some kind of adventurer-play thing.

The Fifth Dock was an interesting kind of place. One where people of all races could come together and show off everything they had for as much gold and silver as the visitors, local and traveler alike, were willing to give them.

He sighed, trying not to notice both Adrien and Sue turning to stare at a male city elf walking past them in what could loosely be described as a top and shorts, the spotted ribbon around his bull-like tail marking the ebony elf as a worker at the Leopard Club. Kinda funny that they were still open.

…Right, memories for later.

“Right. Time to look for the two of them. And try not to stare too much. Last thing I need is for one of you to get dragged off while you have no money.” 

“…Yeah sure.” 

“…” Sighing, Julius began to guide the group forward, making sure all three were within sight at all time. At least looking was free, or else they would’ve been bankrupt with how much they were staring.

Speaking of staring…

Julius frowned as he saw an unpleasantly familiar sight. High elves–tall, golden-skinned people with pointed ears and lion-like tails–in red tunics and jackets–emblazoned with a feminine figure made of flames and spreading her wings wide–were walking around and talking to some of the workers. 

It was rare to see any Feathers this far out. Most stuck to the 1st Dock, bodyguarding rich pricks, or the 3rd to act as legbreakers for merchants. Both positions were often filled by their competitors, the Sapphire Serpents and the White Furs, so they weren’t really popular with any other groups. Didn’t help that most of them were merchant- or noble-class pricks from Zemava, looking thrills down south.

Anyways, the 5th Dock was a bad place for them. It was essentially owned by the Coral Silks, another guild who provided protection for the workers of the dock. If they were willing to risk pissing them off…

A couple of Feathers were eyeing his students. Maybe interested in the obvious outsiders, maybe thinking worse things. Either way, Julius stepped into their gaze and glared right back at the assholes. One flinched and immediately turned while the other eyed him for a second, then rapidly paled as recognition crossed her face.

Julius watched them both run for a moment, then shook his head and walked over to someone who was decently dressed and loitering by one of the clubs. Hopefully, they’d be able to give him some information on his missing students’ whereabouts. 

“Excuse me, sir. May I ask you something?” 

Looking over at Julius, the tan-skinned, goateed man in a green jacket glanced at him up and down, smirking a little once he got a good look at him. 

“Sure thing~! I know the perfect place where you can ask me anything~.” Hooking an arm into his, the guy started to pull him toward a building. 

“Uh, no, I’m just looking for some people.” 

“Hm~? I’m sure there’s someone free inside that can join us~.” Ignoring the stares from his students, Julius planted his feet firmly in the street, causing the other man to stumble a bit. 

“My apologies, but I’m looking for some of my students who wandered into this dock. They’re a dark-skinned half-elf and a dark-skinned human, both female. The human’s shorter and a little darker-skinned, and the half-elf has orange hair. I don’t suppose you’ve seen them?”

“Hmph… ruin my fun why don’t you.” Letting go of Julius, the man turned toward him, raising a hand up. “Info isn’t free.”

“…Is Percy still around?” 

“I don’t know, is he?” He brought his hand closer to Julius, raising an eyebrow. 

“…” Grumbling, Julius reached into his satchel and deposited sixteen silver in the man’s hand.

The worker looked over the coins, moving them around in his hand. Once satisfied, he smirked. “Pleasure doing business with you. Percy’s still over by the Leopard Club, took over a year or two ago. As for your girls, haven’t seen anyone like that around. Not one for female clients, y’know?”

Julius shrugged. “Sure, I can get it. Thanks for the info.”

“Yeah, you’re welcome. Now move along. If you’re not paying, I’m not getting anything out of this chat.”

Well, at least things hadn’t changed much since he left. Rubbing the back of his head, he turned to his students. 

“Well I’m gonna visit an old friend of mine. You kids better not get dragged off by anyone.” 

“And why can’t we just go in with you?” 

“I’m not going into a brothel with you three.” 

“Can we at least have our money back?” 

Staying quiet, Julius could only stare at Sergio. 

“…Yeah, fair enough.” 

“Don’t worry, teach, I’ll keep them in line.” Julius would almost feel glad that Sue was being serious, if she wasn’t staring a scantily clad bunyip all the while. Granted, it was kind of unusual to see one of those furry lamias this far west, and she did have a very nice-No, focus.

Sighing, Julius turned around, and made his way to where he remembered the Leopard Club was. Thankfully, the small strip club still seemed to be in the same place it always was, tucked away at the back of an alley, its faded sign of a painted leopard still above the door. 

Really, looking at it, the club looked like it hadn’t changed in any of the years he’d been gone. Though the inside seemed to be a bit cleaner, and the greeter standing in the entrance lounge was definitely new.

“Greetings valued customer. Would you care to view our current line up, or do you have a certain someone in mind?” the orc asked, his leopard-print jacket complementing his pink skin.

“I need to talk with Percy.” 

“…My apologies, but Sir Shel isn’t a worker. We do have other dwarven workers if that is what you’re looking for.” 

“I just need to talk. Can you at least tell him that Julius wants to speak with him?” 

“Again, I apologize, but unless Sir Shel informs me of anyone coming to visit him, I can’t let you meet h-” 

“I’ll take it from here, Maro.” Looking over to the new speaker, Julius saw an older, classy looking-woman, wearing a crimson gown that reached the floor and barely covered her busty, pale chest, her straight brown hair falling over her bare shoulders in well-coiffed ringlets.

“Hello Holly.” 

“My my, not even a thank you? Time sure aged you poorly, Julius.” 

“Kinda busy right now, so the sooner I can talk to Percy, the better.” 

“I see~. To think you’d be in such a hurry to meet back up with your favorite dwarf~.” 

“Holly, please. I just need to talk with him.” 

“Oh poo. You poor dears get so serious when you get older. No time for fun at all~.” She pretended to pout, before smirking, a hint of fang poking through her lips for a moment. “Lucky for you, he’s still in his office. Try not to drag your feet.” Turning around, Holly began to lead Julius towards the back. “So, how long have you been in Orin?” 

“Got here this morning. I didn’t really plan on visiting, but my sister has me running some errands.” 

“Hm hm~. Always at her beck and call, huh?” 

“Out of everyone on Estus, I know better than anyone that I have to pay her back whenever I owe her.” 

“Hmmm, true. Even if little Graves wasn’t who she was, getting on the bad side of the Archduke is an idiotic idea.” 

“If you’re gonna insult me, at least be direct about it.” 

“Hm~? I don’t know what you’re talking about~.” Staring blankly at the back of her head, Julius followed in silence as the two passed by several workers and clients, and through a red curtain that separated the ‘staff only’ section of the brothel from the rest of the building. Greeting some of the familiar faces as they passed by, the two soon arrived at a simple wooden door. 

“Thanks for the help Holly.” 

“It was my pleasure, and if you’re ever free, I’ll make sure to give you a discount if you ask for me~.” Leaving him with a wink, Holly turned and sauntered back towards the front of the building, very deliberately swaying her hips along the way. 

Staring at her for a moment as she walked away, Julius turned and knocked on the door. 

“Who’zat?” 

Opening the door, Julius was greeted by the sight of a rather plain looking office. A simple wooden desk and some chairs were the only decorations in there. Kind of odd compared to the rest of the almost gaudy building, but Percy did have an image he liked to maintain.

Of course, what Julius focused on in the room was the dark-haired dwarf in question. Like most sunlanders and most dwarves, he had a thick black beard, but only around his chin, as he had shaved the rest. Short and stout, Percy Shel, now the person in charge of the leopard club with the fancy doublet to go with it, looked as youthful as ever, smiling wide the instant he saw him.

“Hey there, Percy.” 

“Ooooh! Julius, ya shod ‘f told meh ya were camming!” the well-dressed dwarf exclaimed in that horrible accent of his, immediately walking around the desk and hugging him tight. The guy barely went up to his stomach, but damn if he didn’t have a good grip. “Why’d dincha?”

Oh gods, it was still so bad. Julius had met dozens of sunland dwarves and none of them had an accent like it. At most, they had a kind of more husky or gravelly way of speaking, but as far as he knew, Percy wasn’t faking it. That, or he was just completely dedicated to a joke probably spanning decades by this point. 

Well, he wasn’t going to start questioning it now. 

“I just got here earlier today. Also, not to be rude, but could we skip the greetings for now? I actually need your help to find two of my students.” 

“Ach, why’d dincha sai soh! Wha’d dey look like? Ah ken ‘ave a dohzen ey’s ‘n jus’ a’moment.” 

“Both of them are dark-skinned. One is a human outworlder and the other is a half-elf. Black and orange hair, respectively.” 

As Percy began to relay the instructions through the communication stone he was wearing as a pendant, Julius sat down in the guest seat, letting out a little sigh.

“Ah, good news! On’ of me ey’s foun’ ‘hem. S’e was already bringin’ ‘hem ‘ere.” 

“…Of course she was. Well, thanks for that. I’ll go meet them up front.” 

“Issat al’ y’need?” Percy smiled up at him, his hands on his hips. “We cud catch up fer ol’ times saik.” 

Julius considered it. He really did. It definitely wasn’t an immediate decision. “Sorry, but I really do need to get back to my students. Work and all.”

“Ach, noh wurris yeh need ta ‘ave! Ahnytim yer ‘round, fel free ta com ‘round ‘ere!”

“Yeah, sure, I’ll do that.” He was very careful to seem like he wasn’t running out of the room.

A few minutes later, outside the Leopard Club, Julius, feeling his lost headache rapidly come back with a vengeance, stared down at his two wayward students. He slowly put a hand over his eyes and groaned, before dragging it down his face, looking at their apparent companion, the worker who had brought them here already going back onto the streets. 

Their nervously fidgeting companion, who was wearing a dark gray hooded tunic and a blank, porcelain mask with two openings for their eyes. Their blatantly non-existent eyes. Sure, the kid clearly had the forethought to shade them out so people wouldn’t notice, but some people could be observant dammit.

“Heeeeey Mr. Goldforge!” Maria started, trying to grin. “So, uh-”

“Who’s this.”

“Oh, right, yeah, this is Mask.”

“Mask?”

They raised a gloved hand in greeting. “H-Hi.”

“Hi Mask. Any reason why you’re following these two around?”

“Because we saved their life!” Maria asserted firmly and proudly, slinging an arm around Mask’s shoulders.

“…Okay, Sophia, you explain this.”

“Aw, what? But I wanted to tell you about how we fought off an entire squad of mercenaries!”

“Hm. Sophia?”

“U-Um…W-Well, Maria and I…walked over here because, um…”

“Because you wanted to see what was up with Dock Five, it’s fine, skip ahead.”

“R-Right. S-So, um, we were walking around and looking at…a-anyway, we saw some people in red uniforms-”

“A bunch of high elves,” Maria chimed in. Ah. Of course.

“That were harassing Mask. So, um…we stopped them.”

“And how did you stop them?” Julius asked, already dreading the answer.

“…Um…Maria tied them up with vines.”

Julius nodded and crossed his arms over his chest. “How many of them were set on fire?”

“…O-Only one.”

“Eh heh…” Maria grinned, rubbing the back of her head sheepishly.

“Okay. Fine. I can accept that. So you tied them up and then Mask came with you?”

“Um…i-it was more like…Maria picked up Mask, yelled ‘scatter’, and we ran as the red goons started cutting and burning their ways out of the vines. We also sort of…sicked the city guard on them.”

Julius paused for a moment. “Were the guards you got involved wearing pink and magenta?”

“Yeah-…um, d-did we get another gang involved? Ah, did we start a gang war?”

“Probably not.” The Silks were really territorial, but they weren’t about to start murdering troublemakers when it was easier to just beat them and dump them in the canals. “Okay, I think I have a good picture here. I’m still annoyed you two wandered off on your own, and you were going to pay for it later in training-” Both girls winced. “-but you did do a good thing, so I guess it balances out. Nice work.”

As they both breathed a sigh of relief, he turned towards Mask, who was watching them with polite interest. “So, what’s your story? Why were the Feathers after you?”

“Huh? Uh, feathers? Sir?” Huh. Not a local then.

“The Vermillion Furies, big shot mercenary guild, bunch of assholes. Why are they after you?” Julius paused the instant he asked that question. It couldn’t be…

“Oh, er…Before I answer, you’re not friends with them, are you?”

Julius outright snorted, earning a surprised little giggle from Mask. 

“Alright, that says all I needed to know. I stole a ruby from them and now they’re after me for it. Really stubbornly too. It’s kind of weird, especially with how easy it was to take from them. The guy that had it just left it in a box on their windowsill.”

…Well fuck. “Can I see that ruby?”

“…That depends. Can you tell me where I can find a fence for it? Or maybe just a blacksmith?”

“Kid, I’m a blacksmith.”

Mask’s wariness immediately dropped completely as they straightened, their ‘eyes’ abruptly sparkling. “Really?? Ah, hold on.” Suddenly, a knife dropped from their sleeve and they flipped it over, holding it out hilt-first to him. “Can you fix this?”

“…Sure.” Julius took the knife–medium blade, long hilt, curved, made for hunting, gutting, skinning–and looked it over for a moment. It was an older one, most of its wear coming from decades of use. Mask definitely wasn’t the original owner, it was far too old for someone who seemed to be in their early twenties at most, but it was clear they at least tried to preserve it. A quick rush of metal magic was more than enough to fix it, so he took a second to smooth out the blade and sharpen its edge a little, before handing it right back to a clearly awestruck Mask.

They took the blade almost reverently and let out a little happy squeal before slipping it back up their sleeve. “Can you repair a bunch more of these?? Like, really really fast?”

“You know metal magic?!” Oh yeah, Maria was still here.

“Yes, and yes. You didn’t know that?” Julius asked, glancing at her.

“No?! Why would I know that?!” 

“…I’m a blacksmith. Most blacksmiths know how metal magic works. It makes things infinitely easier. Of course, bad blacksmiths rely on it way too much. You need to have a good balance of the physical and the magical or else the energies start building up and you wind up with deformed blades.”

“…Okay, that’s kinda cool and scary and all, but more importantly, why aren’t you teaching me that too!? Ah, us too! Wait, Soph, did you know about this?”

Sophia blinked. “Um, yes?”

“…Why was I the last one to-No, wait, joined the group later, that explains it-But still! Important things here!”

“Okay, so you want me to teach you how to use metal magic then instead of any trained mage who actually knows how to use it for offense.”

Maria blinked. “…Yeeeeeeees?”

“Okay then. Now, since we went a little off topic, Mask, could I see that ruby you were talking about?”

“Oh, right! Of course, sir!” Mask’s eyes were still sparkling as they reached under their shirt and pulled out a large and very familiarly shaped ruby about the size of their fist, holding it up as it glowed with an unholy light. “Here you go! Pretty, isn’t it? It’s probably not that useful, but the glow’s super cool.”

“…” 

“Hey, how much do you think it would sell for anyway? I don’t really get why jewels are so valuable, but rich people seem to like them for being shiny, and this one actually glows.”

Well. At least some of his fortunes seemed to be changing for the better.

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