Julius took a slow breath to steady himself. The Finja was drifting over a small Tramontavan town at the moment, and he needed to take this opportunity before they crossed the border. If he waited, his task would just get harder and harder…
He frowned. For some reason, that didn’t sound right. Well, whatever. He shook his head, took another breath, and took the first step forward.
Well, more towards the right. Very slowly, very subtly, until he reached the yellow wingdrake scanning the skies with a telescope. “Hey, Kruger.”
The drake paused, and lowered his telescope, glancing down at him. “…Hi? Sir Goldforge, right?”
“…You need something? Captain’s over by the helm right now, and I think Nadine’s ‘round ‘ere somewhere. Probably up.”
“No, that’s fine. I’m not looking for them.”
“…Alright? So…uh, well, all’a the magic people all over thataway, and Adrien and his other pals should be down below deck.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“…Uh…So…” Kruger started scratching his neck. “…Er, are you lookin’ for Jancha? I think she’s up in the nest…”
Julius just stared at him.
“…Then, uh…Pash is…probably in the kitchen. Doin’…cook stuff. His turn ‘n all.”
“Thanks.” And then he promptly turned and walked away, very carefully not looking back at the clearly uncomfortable drake. So, Jancha and Pash, that would be the other harpy and other drake, so if he saw a harpy that wasn’t Nadine, it was probably her, and if he saw a wingdrake that wasn’t Joral or Kruger, it would be him. Nice, mission accomplished, and all without having to admit that he had no idea who anyone was. Take that, Douglas, you smug prick.
“Hm?” Julius stiffened, then glanced over where Douglas was meditating. He had one eye open and was staring right at him, so…either Julius muttered that last thought out loud, or Douglas could read minds now.
…That wasn’t a thing people could do, was it?
“Do you need something?” Oh, right, he was still looking at Douglas.
“No, I was just…” Hm… fuck it might as well. “Actually, yeah. Can you teach me how to play chess?”
“I suppose, sure. Why the sudden interest?”
“A certain lady likes it and I don’t know how it works.”
“Ahh.” Douglas nodded, then pushed himself to his feet and glanced down at the three girls meditating with him. “Syl, you’re in charge for now. Soph, Ria, ask her if you have any questions, she’ll probably know the answer and if she doesn’t she can ask me, so it all works out.”
“…You’re surprisingly easy going when you’re teaching.”
Douglas shrugged. “In my defense, I’m not allowed to attack them with magic while we’re on the ship.” Behind him, Sylsa twitched slightly.
“…Yeah, never mind about the easygoing thing.” Julius walked with Douglas over to the door to the lower deck, undoing the safety rope around his waist once they were close enough. “So how does it feel going on another heroic quest?”
“Quite good, actually, especially with the ship. Now we don’t have to walk or ride everywhere like last time, though it does mean proper training has to wait.”
Julius nodded as he held the door open. “Yeah, I know what you mean. There isn’t any room to actually chase someone up here.”
With that, the two of the headed down below deck and towards Douglas’s hammock. They passed by Sue and Adrien on the way, the latter helping the former train her punching with a couple of sparring mitts.
Meanwhile, Sergio seemed to be taking a nap, while Mask was casually juggling their knives in their own hammock. It was pretty interesting to see, actually.
Mask had told the rest of the crew the truth about them, and received generally apathetic responses in turn, so they were more comfortable showing off some of their slime abilities. Currently, they were tossing their knives up and snagging them as they fell with a variety of multi-colored tendrils that extended from where their hands usually were. As a result, there were currently about twenty knives up in the air, arching over each other until they were expertly caught before they could land.
Of course, that wasn’t what was important at the moment, so Julius and Douglas just continued on their way to Douglas’s backpack.
“I don’t really have chess pieces, so we’ll need to make do with vials.” Pulling out several vials, about half of them filled with various liquids, Douglas sat on the floor and Julius followed suit. “To begin, you do know what the pieces are, yes?”
“Oh, yeah, I do. There’s the one that’s a horse, which is apparently a knight. The pointy one that’s a bishop, apparently, and-”
“Good good, since you know the basics that will make things easier.” Setting the vials between them in two rows, the empty ones in front, Douglas continued, “Okay, first to begin, we have the pawns.”
“The one in the front right?”
“Yes, the pawns, the footsoldiers, they can only go forward one space, but, on the first turn they can move two spaces and, for some reason, they can only attack diagonally forward one space, never behind or at the sides unless you set up a very specific instance where one is next to the other in a specific position but that isn’t important right now and isn’t always valid depending on the rules.”
…Maybe he made a mistake here. “…That’s weird.”
“Yes, it definitely is, but I didn’t invent the game so I can’t change it. Anyway, they’re the weakest piece, but with a rather important ability! If you can get them to the other side of the board, all the way to the end, deep within enemy territory, you can ‘promote’ them into any other piece.”
“…That sounds like it’d be pretty useful if I knew more about the pieces.”
“Yes, it would! Now before I do show you more, do you mind if I ask a few questions?”
Julius paused, glancing from the board and up at Douglas. “…Sure?”
“Are you sure you want me to come along?”
“…Well, you’re here, so-”
“Julius, I’m being serious.” He wasn’t smiling again. “When we last spoke, you were completely on edge, and I know it was something I said.”
Julius…bit back his immediate response. “…Douglas…I don’t like getting reminded of my fuck-ups in life. I don’t like having you pick at me until I let something slip so you can act like you just did me a favor-”
“No, it is. It’s…the way I see it. It’s why that whole thing bothers me so much. I get you’re trying to help in your really dumb way, and you do! It does help other people! Hell…it might help me too,” he admitted, “I just…there’s stuff about you that I just don’t like, and I’m not going to blow this up into a whole thing, so let me just say…I’m glad I do have someone to talk to about the stuff with…my romantic troubles.
He paused, then held up a finger. “But if literally anyone else from our group shows up, I am dropping you for them in a heartbeat because I guarantee I would be far less pissed off by them trying to play therapist. Except Cyrus. Never Cyrus…”
Douglas just stared at him. After a few seconds, he swallowed, then tried clearing his throat. “R-Right. I fully understand and appreciate that-”
“Did your voice just crack?”
“I-It’s fine! I’m fine! Just…we’ve made so much progress…” Oh gods he was smiling again. “I don’t think I’ve ever managed to talk like this with you before-”
Julius held up a hand. “Okay, shh. Shut up. You’re teaching me chess.”
“Right! Right, yes, that is indeed what I am doing, so, ah, going from the outside in, we have the rooks, the castles, the siege towers, the chariots-”
“Are those all different pieces?”
“No, no, same piece, different names, regional things, you understand?” At his hesitant nod, Douglas continued, “Their purpose is that of the direct attacker and defender, straightforward and stalwart, able to move horizontally or vertically anywhere, so long as nothing blocks their path forward. Allies are not to be harmed and will block them entirely, while enemies will halt their march so they can crush their heads in.”
“…Huh. That was weirdly descriptive.”
“Yes, but I thought it would help. Did it?”
“…In a sense?”
“Good! Now then, next up is the knight, the horse, the rider and lancer-”
As the two continued the lesson, Julius couldn’t help but smile slightly at the warm atmosphere. There was just something oddly comforting about this lesson, even as Douglas droned on with his odd descriptions.
Unsurprisingly, the lesson went on for a long time as Julius and Douglas played a few games once he learned about all the pieces. Each game was a complete loss for Julius, of course. Douglas completely floored him in every match, but he did still enjoy it. Then, after an awkward dinner, mainly because a clearly uncomfortable Kruger had to sit next to him, Julius went off to sleep.
And, of course, what would have been the first peaceful night sleep he’d had in the past few days was interrupted by Valondrac.
Julius sighed, staring up at the smirking demon lord across from him. “…Hi Valondrac.”
“Hello Goldforge~! I’ve been hearing some very interesting things lately~!”
Well, someone was chipper. “Like?”
Her smile widened. “You drew on Mama Marrow’s power.”
Julius frowned, but kept silent. Not just because he didn’t want to talk about that mess, but also because he was a little confused by that ‘mama’ thing. Was that a darklander thing?
“Oh, don’t be like that. You can admit it! Our talk gave you some ideas, huh?”
“…” It did and didn’t. It definitely didn’t have anything to do with why he went berserk in the Wind Temple…right?
“Though I am pissed you decided to unleash that sort of bloodrage on one of mine.” Her tone turned somewhat sour, closer to that kinda irritable side he’d seen of her when they first starting meeting like this-
“What? You’re pissed?”
“You literally ripped a hole through his chest! I could fit my entire arm through it!” Yeah, there was that anger.
“I’m not apologizing. He nearly killed my students. Hell, he charged me the second we walked through the doors!”
“Yeah, but Fergus is like that. He’s a dumbass warrior bro, more set on fighting with an honor code because he’s an idiot.”
“An honor code? What the hell was honorable about blindsiding me?”
“Lycan honor, Goldforge. They have different standards of honor. You, an active enemy, entered his territory, so that means, by their standards, an immediate attack is the only proper response. Talking things out would only happen after he subdued you, or if you subdued him and wanted to talk, get it?”
“…That sounds like bullshit, but I don’t know enough to call you on it.” He leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms over his chest. “It seemed like he was aiming to kill me.”
Valondrac shrugged. “Lycans are like that. They have the natural toughness and regeneration that can keep them alive and moving even when they take wounds that would be fatal to someone else.” She frowned slightly. “To a degree.”
“And what degree would that be?”
“Anything that can get past that toughness and burn out their regeneration, really. Fire’s a bad one, they can definitely drown, most magic still affects them unless they have protections in place, decapitation will put them down though their head can still live for up to a minute afterwards, losing their heart can fuck them up badly, and silver rips right through them, but I’m sure you know that one.”
“…Why would you tell me any of that?”
She shrugged again. “You’re probably not going to fight Fergus again, and it’s not like you can’t just find out those weaknesses somewhere else.”
“…I’m not sure if you’re taking this seriously or not.”
“Little bit of both, really. Oh, and I might as well ask. Have you learned how to play chess yet?” Her phrasing made it obvious that she expected a ‘no’.
She sighed. “As expecte-Oh?” Claire suddenly smiled really cutely, then waved her hand and created a chessboard on the table, one of her pawns already two spaces forward.
“Is it really fair if you conjure the board with a move already made?”
“Is it really fair if you’re a complete amateur and I’ve been playing this since I was six?”
“…Hm.” With that, Julius started playing.
“Wow, you’re terrible at this.” It didn’t go that well.
“Didn’t you just say you have a massive advantage?”
“Yep,” Claire quipped shamelessly with a wide smirk. She waved a hand and the board reset itself, all traces of his many, many missteps gone in a second. “I do appreciate that you went to the trouble of actually learning now. It shows you can be at least slightly thoughtful.”
“Glad my efforts are being recognized,” he replied, actually smiling a little as he jumped a knight over. It was actually kinda relaxing. “So…is there anything else you want to talk about right now?”
“Mm? Not particularly. I don’t feel like sharing any more of my generals’ weaknesses, or even who’s coming up for you, and I doubt you want to share any details about your students.” Yeah, no, that wasn’t going to happen. “Why not tell me about yourself then?”
She shrugged, moving a bishop out. “I told you my story, and now I want to hear yours.”
“…There’s not much to tell. I’m an orphan, I grew up in Orindaco, and my younger sister and I got taken in by a warrior who was interested in an apprentice. He became our mentor, and we wound up getting dragged into the whole ‘hero’ stuff because of him.” He shrugged. “Tradition, really. He was the heroic type, as was his mentor and her mentor and so on.”
“Mm. And then Irascagan happened.”
“Yeah. You know how that went, I’m sure. Smug asshole somehow convinced a sadistic great dragon to play along with his desire to crush people under his heel, so Blake and who knows how many other people paid for it.” Julius frowned, staring right at Claire even as they both kept up with the game. “That kind of thing tends to happen when conquerors start stomping around.”
“That it does. I can admit it, my conquest has had its casualties, though most fatalities really came in back when I was working to consolidate power in the Dark Lands. I won’t say my forces haven’t killed anyone, but most of my ‘invasion’ has involved occupying parts of Naloriva, and you and I both know that region has no centralized power, so, really, I’m not exactly infringing on anyone’s domain.”
“You told me pretty bluntly that you want to take over the entire world.”
“Yep!” She grinned and held up a finger. “With minimal casualties, remember? Though, back with you. I didn’t know you had a sister.”
“I have two.”
“Really now? Sounds like there’s a story there.”
He shrugged. “Not really. Long as I’ve known, my older sister Graves was taking care of us. Anything before that is a blur, so…”
“Well, no one really keeps their childhood memories.” She paused, tilted her head, thinking. “Unless they have an eidetic memory, I guess. Something stupid like that. So, you have a sister named Graves and another named…?”
Claire crossed her arms over her chest and nodded. “I have no idea who either of those people are.”
“…Okay, Ellen I can kind of get, because she gets overlooked pretty easily, but you don’t know about Margrave? She’s the archduke of Orindaco.”
She blinked. “Wait, that ‘Graves’? Margrave Brascul? I thought that was a title…”
“Nope. Well, it might be? She mentioned sometime that it was an old title like Marquis or something. It’s like someone being named Earl or Duke.”
She blinked again and tilted her head the other way. “Who would name someone Duke? That would get so confusing. And probably some type of…well, not blasphemy, but…hm.”
“…So yeah, Margrave is my older sister. About five years older, and Ellen’s a year younger.”
“And you have different surnames, why?”
“Because we chose different ones. Graves named herself after the first ship she captained, I based mine off my smithing mentor’s, and Ellen earned hers by being one of the stealthiest and deadliest rogues on the battlefield.”
“Wow. Weird naming conventions aside, you have an impressive family there.”
Julius grinned a little and a slight, pleased laugh slipped out. “Well thanks. So, what about yours? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“No, I don’t mind. I don’t really have one at this point either. I disowned all of those disloyal fucks.”
He blinked. “…Huh?”
“Remember the thing I mentioned before where they sold me to some rich pedophile? Or ‘hebephile’ if you want to talk semantics, but let’s be honest, it’s the same level of disgusting perversity,” she said casually, leaning back in her seat.
“…Uh, yes. Yeah, I do remember that part.”
“Well, I wasn’t about to take that lying down when I got powerful enough. Now, I don’t completely blame them. Well, I do, but I get the ‘logic’. My prick parents had two daughters, an heir and a spare, so they could afford to get rid of me when someone rich enough came looking for a bride. Sir Dennis Claimond was one such prick. Newer family, though the man was old; needed prestige, had dungeon mines, that sort of thing.”
“Right. And then you killed him.” Good riddance.
“Oh no, I gave him a number of good years left of life before I finally offed the old bastard. I never touched him, and he learned very quickly that he shouldn’t try anything, but he did live for six more years after our marriage before a sudden, horrible illness took ahold of him.” She smirked. “Funny to think back on just how much that little meeting benefited me.”
“Would that be the meeting with the Plague?”
“Nope! I met her for the first time when I was ten, actually,” she explained with a grin and a flourish of her hand, taking his final rook and putting him in check.
“I may have switched some events around a little to make my story flow better the last time we talked. Though I did technically sacrifice him to her, so there’s that.”
Julius slowly nodded, then glanced down at the board. He really didn’t have any moves that would work…He moved his king, just to keep the game going. “So the rest of the story was accurate?”
“To some degrees. I condensed things slightly, just so they’d all fit better. Anyhow, back with my family, I decided to cut them all out of my life completely. Publically too, so they couldn’t try hooking to my barge. I kept my surname though.”
“Oh, it’s a family name?”
“Yep! One they can’t use, since I claimed it. The lesser Valondracs are officially no longer Valondracs and have no claim to anything they could get from me.” She chuckled and put him in checkmate.
“Huh. Well, I guess I can’t say they didn’t deserve that. Nobles are kinda fucked up, huh?”
“Oh you have no idea. You should have met Claimond’s ‘patron’, ‘Lord Percival Bleaksky~, Grand Count of the Blekhon County~!’”
Julius snorted, barely holding back a laugh at her high-pitched and overly fancy tone. “Patron?”
“Yep. See, in Inrapaba, which is huge and the most central region, for your info,” she explained, gesturing with her hands as she spoke, “Has a different system of nobility than your Light Lands do. Well, probably. Nothing I’ve read indicates you have the same practices as we do, but my point is, there are higher nobles and there are lower nobles. Higher nobles are the vampire dynasties and the aranae coteries, while the lowers are mostly humans, ghouls and jiangshi. Orcish nobles are rare and recognized goblin nobles are even rarer.
“Now, sometimes a higher noble takes an interest in a lower noble, or even a commoner, and decides to elevate them, usually by granting them some authority in their dominion. If they perform really well, they could be adopted into a dynasty or made a honorary member of a coterie.”
“So it’s like a sponsorship?” At her questioning look, he continued, “Basically a noble or royal gives an artist or craftsman money so they can continue producing their work.”
“Oh, interesting. Does it afford the same ability to rise in station?”
“Not really. You can get much nicer stuff out of it, and people interested in buying the kind of stuff you make will be more likely to look for someone supported by a royal, but it doesn’t exactly make you noble,” Julius explained, then paused as he noticed he’d been smiling the entire time.
“Ah, so it’s an inferior version of our own system,” Claire replied, grinning teasingly, “You light landers can’t seem to get anything right, can you?”
“I think we’ve been doing pretty good. Last, what, three thousand years and your people haven’t made it past one mountain range?”
“Ha! Well we’re getting there, jackass. Just you wait and see.”
“Go for it. I’ll meet you there when you do. We can make it a date.”
Claire blinked again, but this time a sudden, cute blush crept up her face. “A-Aha…w-well, yeah! Sure! Fuck it! I’ll break through your dumbass mountain wall and when I do, you’d better be right there for me!”
“You’re on! I’ll kick your generals’ collective asses and be right there, just for you!”
“Th-Then it’s a date!” She beamed, holding her hand out over the table.
“Then it’s a date,” he echoed with a wide grin of his own, grabbing her hand and firmly shaking it.
In the end, Julius had to admit he had a pleasant night.