Douglas wasn’t actually back at the ship when he checked, weirdly enough. Joral said he had shown up, but just to get some books and wandered off somewhere afterward, muttering about research. Joral also mentioned how Julius really should start telling him when they were going to be bringing more people onboard, because they only had so much space on the ship.
Thankfully, Tarin and Fredo declined to stay the night, so he didn’t have to deal with them. On the other hand, Issei apparently decided he would stay the night. At least Julius’s students seemed to tolerate the younger teenager.
In other news, Leicester, thankfully, hadn’t gone on a rampage. The arachne was sleeping by the time he got back, tied up in chains while she slept on a cushion Joral stuck in the brig. Her hands were also more properly bound so she couldn’t try and claw her way out.
However, it also looked like his students had called it a night, so he wasn’t able to talk to Maria about her step-family. Half-family? Either way, maybe he shouldn’t have stopped for dinner on the way back…Well, it was probably for the best. He wouldn’t want to make her sleep unpleasant.
Sadly for Julius, an unpleasant rest was definitely in his future.
“Gah!” The instant Julius fell asleep, the wind was knocked right out of him as he landed hard on the floor. He laid there for a moment, staring up at Claire Valondrac, her clenched fist outstretched, glaring down at him with an intensity that would make the Butcher back down.
“What. Did. You. Do. To. Ariel?” she snarled.
“We took her prisoner,” he immediately and honestly answered, very aware of how quickly this could go bad otherwise.
She still glared at him. “And that’s all you did?”
“Yes, that’s all.” Ah, wait. “Well, I mean, my students and old teammate fought her, so I don’t know exactly what happened yet, but I do know they captured her.”
“Really?” Claire suddenly sat back in a chair that materialized behind her, then cocked an eyebrow. “And why weren’t you there?”
“After the fight with Fergus, my sword and armor got pretty messed up. And since I don’t keep a ton of spares around, I have to reforge my gear.” Julius rubbed his stomach to get rid of the sore feeling and stood up. Actually…he didn’t seem to be feeling any real pain. There was this weird idea that he should be feeling something, but his actual body…well, this was all mental…
“Hmph…” Claire continued to stare at him for a few more seconds, then slowly let out a sigh. “Then I suppose I got lucky. As strong as Ariel is, she’s far too arrogant and far too killable for my liking…makes me worry.”
“Ah, yeah. Good that nobody killed her then.”
“Quite.” Claire looked away from him and let out an irritated huff. “There goes my cathartic tirade…I didn’t really have anything else planned.”
“…See, I feel like we can’t build a relationship going forward if you jump right to yelling if I piss you off.”
“I thought you killed one of my fr-…generals.” Her eyes flicked towards him, but her face was still turned the other way. “Really, you’re lucky I didn’t jump right to violence. Wouldn’t you do the same if I killed one of yours?”
“…I don’t have generals-”
“You know what I mean.”
“…I’d like to think I wouldn’t.” He really didn’t like considering that idea at all, actually.
She snorted and went back to staring at the dream wall.
“…So, there’s only two more generals left, right?”
“Hm? Oh, yeah. Only two more to go and then you and your bunch of morons will come to the Dark Lands…actually, no, three generals.”
“You’ll find out later…Feh, not even in the mood to play chess.” Resting her cheek on her hand, she turned back to Julius, looking like an empress on her throne. Actually, did she raise that chair up so she’d be above him? “Talk.”
He blinked. “Uh…about?”
“Whatever, really. I didn’t have anything else to bring up, but I don’t want to end the meeting so soon.”
“Oh…” He was…actually pretty happy about that. “…Well I may or may not have ended up screwing myself out of ten thousand gold.”
And now she blinked, her other eyebrow raising to match the first one. “What?”
“Oh, well my team and I were hired for something. But I kinda pissed off the employers. So we might not get the payment and might even have to give back what we were already given.” Sighing, Julius rubbed the back of his head. Actually, where even was the temple core? Douglas didn’t seem to have it when he saw him, and nobody brought it up…Whatever, it was something for later. “I don’t really regret making them mad, but even with just the share, I would have gotten quite a lot of money.”
She snorted again, but actually grinned this time. “If it’s money you want, why don’t I just bribe you onto my side? I could always make room for another general~.”
“Heh. Sorry, but I don’t think any amount can bribe me. Money’s not that important to me.”
“Hm…how about a hundred thousand?”
“What,” Julius squeaked, his voice cracking for the first time in over a decade.
“A hundred thousand gold. How’s that?”
“…I…A-Ah…W-Well, uh…that’s…a lot. I-I mean, sure, as the leader of the Dark Lands, you must have…lots.”
Her grin was getting wider. “You know, that wouldn’t even put a dent in my wealth~.”
Julius couldn’t hold back his surprised laugh. “Y-You’re joking! That’s-”
She just giggled in reply. “Goldforge, I have ten million gold.”
“…Do you need to sit-”
Julius felt his eyes bulge. “….Excuse me???”
“…Hmph. It’s not exactly ten million gold.” Oh. Oh, okay- “Probably a little more, actually.”
He actually did sit at that. Well, more like fell back. Thankfully, a chair popped up behind him, so he didn’t fall on his ass.
Claire just continued speaking, but she was smiling a little wider. “I’d have to check the exchange rates for platinum to gold, but it should be around there.”
“Truth be told, it’s all specifically war funds. About half of it was donated or taxed from the various factions under my command and the rest came from selling off all the treasures with no real significance to me that belonged to the Valondrac and Claimond families. You’d be surprised at how much piles up over the years.”
“…What are you even going to do with that much money!? I don’t think you could use that much in even an elven lifetime!”
She chuckled, still grinning at him. “You did hear me say they’re war funds, right? So we’re using them for the war. Soldiers need food, clothing, shelter, weapons, medicine, all that fun stuff. And afterwards, all that money’s going to go into aid and relief. I can’t rule over a ruined Light Lands, so if any cities or provinces need to be fixed up, there it goes. I was also planning on putting public schools around, but then I learned that you lot figured that out, so congrats on that.”
Julius was still stuck on the ten million gold thing. He could build a castle for a hundred thousand. Ten million was…insane. Really insane.
Claire snapped her fingers and he blinked, staring back up at her. “Huh?”
“Wow, you really get distracted easy.”
“…When we’re talking about that much money, sure.”
“Oh? And here I thought you didn’t care about money.”
“…I did say something like that, yeah.” Julius sighed and scratched his cheek. “It’s still weird hearing you have that much money. I know kings that are poorer than you. Is that a Dark Lands thing, or just you?”
“Hm…I’d say it’s just me.” Claire smirked. “I am the ruler of a continent, you know? Not just a country~.”
“…I guess so, yeah. It’s just weird to me.” He shrugged and leaned back in his seat. “I never had much money growing up.”
“You mentioned that. Orphan and all.”
“Yeah. Our…I don’t know exactly what to call her…our boss, I guess, was nice enough to make sure we stayed fed, clothed and sheltered, but we didn’t have much in terms of personal luxuries.”
“Oh? You never mentioned a boss before.”
Julius sighed, leaned back in his seat and stared up at the black void above him. “…Ivet is a weird person for me. She was…She probably still is the leader of the local thieves’ guild, though my sisters and I haven’t been able to find her for decades now. Anyways, her group’s called The Brown Hares.” He grimaced. “People used to call us The Vermin.
“We stole for her. Small things like coinpurses and easily hidden goods. And in exchange, she and the other ‘senior members’ kept us all safe. Anyone came for one of her kids, she’d punch them out in a second. ‘No slavers in Orin’ was one of her rules, and damn if she didn’t enforce it. I remember the first corpse I ever saw was one she showed me. I think he lured in people looking for work…
Julius took a low, quiet breath, and tried to ignore the red he saw in the void. “Every bit of his skin was gone. It was also the first time I ever saw Ivet scowling. She always smiled around us, but that time…she looked angry. Warned me never to trust someone promising me the world. And Ivet never did that. Just…she’d take care of us, but nothing more than that. She was a cheerful person, but like a friend. Not a parent. She helped us, we helped her.
“Blake, my mentor, was different. He was cheerful too, but he genuinely cared about both me and Ellen in a personal way. He was shit with money though. Spent it easy and without a care. Ivet never said what she did with the guild’s money, but everyone was always provided for.” Julius chuckled. “With Blake, we always had to keep him from spending too much. We knew how much we had better than he did.
“Then the curse came true and Blake died.”
“Yeah. The ‘Mentor’s Curse’. It’s a stupid thing, but…apparently true. This idea that every chosen hero has a mentor. A starting mentor, a guru, a guide…someone who gets them going on their journey. And then that person dies.”
“…They always die?” Huh. There was something weird about her tone.
Julius sat up straighter and looked back to Claire. She was frowning. It was a small frown, and her eyes seemed…flat. “…Yeah, that’s the gist.”
“So why did you take the job?”
“…Good question. I guess…I thought it should be me.” Julius leaned forward, sighed, and locked his fingers together, letting his hands hang between his knees as he stared at the floor. “When I was asked to lead Adrien as his mentor, I went right for it. It just…made sense to me. I was there. I wouldn’t want anyone else to take it. And…really, why not me?”
“Why not you.”
He shrugged. “What have I been doing? I make trinkets for nobles. Sometimes I get some adventurers looking for gear, but they’re few and far between. I have apprentices who can handle the job for me. As far as I can look at it…everyone in my life would’ve been fine if I-”
He really didn’t see the punch coming. Claire didn’t ever strike him as the physical type. She was a mage, right? But there she was, smashing her knuckles straight into his nose with a look of pure rage on her face.
Somehow, he didn’t wake up, but he did hit the ground and roll, barely getting up into a crouch without even a twinge of phantom pain, just genuine surprise. She hadn’t moved on him though. She was just standing there, seething, her teeth audibly grinding together as she glared furiously at him, her yellow eyes burning with a fire he’d never seen before.
“Never say something so disgusting in my presence again.” He tensed, every muscle in his body screaming that ‘DANGER’ in shining red. She twitched, and for a second, her saw her shadow.
It was a massive thing, burning red and black, white leeching off it into the black void the world had become. The white outlined it, gave it a vaguely humanoid shape, but its yellow eyes were all he could make out in a shifting face. They were narrowed in rage, just like hers. Or were they both hers…
“GOLDFORGE!” He snapped his gaze from the shadow to the woman as she bared her teeth at him in pure fury. “ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME!?”
“…Yeah. I am.”
“NEVER SAY ANYTHING LIKE THAT AGAIN YOU BASTARD! YOU THINK YOUR LIFE DOESN’T HAVE WORTH!?”
“I didn’t say that-”
She was right in front of him, yanking him up by the sides of his head and snarling right in his face. “THEN WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT BULLSHIT?!”
“…It was honesty.”
“YES! HONESTY!” he finally shouted, “I was sharing my damn thoughts with you!”
“THAT’S-” Her voice caught in her throat and she looked unsure for a second. Then she shook her head and it was right back to blatant fury as she glared at him. “What the hell did you mean by that bullshit!?”
“I meant I was willing to die, okay!? I was fine with it!”
“HOW CAN YOU BE FINE WITH IT!?”
“BECAUSE IT WAS BETTER ME THAN ANYONE ELSE!” he snapped and grabbed her wrists and held tight, glaring right back.
“WHY?! HOW COULD THAT BE BETTER!?”
“IT’S CALLED SACRIFICE! THE NEEDS OF THE MANY-”
“THE NEEDS OF THE MANY ARE SHIT! WHAT ABOUT YOU!?”
“WHAT ABOUT ME!?”
“YOU DON’T THINK YOU’RE IMPORTANT!? YOU DON’T THINK PEOPLE WOULD BE PISSED IF YOU DIED?!”
“SAYS THE WOMAN WHO TRIED TO KILL ME IN THE FIRST PLACE!”
“AND I’VE REGRETTED THAT STUPID DECISION EVER SINCE!” She suddenly threw him back, her breaths coming heavy and fast as she glared down at him. “…D-Damn it…Damn it, why did it have to be you? Why couldn’t…Why couldn’t you be some stupid asshole, huh? Some…moron, corrupted by his own lust or greed or something! Somebody I…Somebody I wouldn’t…”
Her shoulders shook as she just kept glaring at him, barely restrained fury keeping her body tense and shuddering, her hands clenching and unclenching.
He…He didn’t know what to do. He just…watched her. Looked up at her.
“…Goldforge…you matter. I…I want you to know that. I…” For a second…Claire actually looked…sad? “…You have family. You can’t just…You…It…”
Julius stared, suddenly reminded of their first meeting. She was at a loss for words again.
“…..Sacrifice…It’s bullshit. You shouldn’t…I never had to…” Claire audibly swallowed. “…J-Just…I need…” She lets out a low, deep breath, and those same red wings spread from her back. “…Promise me you’ll see me soon.”
“I promise.” He couldn’t hesitate. He would never.
“…I…Maybe. To your first request. Maybe.” She smiled slightly, a hand on her chest, and then he was awake.
It was still dark, and he sat up, blinking slowly in the…
In an instant, his hand closed around a throat and he stared into the black mask of a black-robed son of a bitch. Their eyes widened behind the mask and an arm came up before he squeezed their carotids into their spine.
“You bastards have terrible timing,” he muttered in the dark as the assassin slumped. He stood easy. About six more of them were in the hull, staring at him in obvious shock.
Two were by the open brig where Leicester was sleeping. Another by the entrance. Three were around the rooms, at the hammocks, where his students were sleeping.
Julius felt his eye twitch.
“Yeah, you bastards have the worst timing.”