Apparently Autumn had a wife. An alraune named Eytelia. And apparently the petals Autumn wore around her wrist came from her. Specifically, from the large flower bud that served as the lower half of her body, while the upper half looked like a beautiful woman with pale green skin and a mix of blue and violet hair that grew long and loose down her back. She also wore a violet dress, done up all fancy and lacy with a ruby pendant set over her chest, and had bright blue eyes–interestingly, the whites of her eyes were green.
Thankfully, Eytelia–Telia to her friends, apparently–was actually nice to Julius, a gentle smile gracing her features as they all “sat” and had lunch at one table in her huge garden, set at the bottom of the Black Tower and extending out into the courtyard beyond it. It also helped that being around her seemed to keep Autumn from glaring at him.
It was actually pretty calming, having tea and fruits and just chatting about what their home regions were like. Though that sense of calm probably had something to do with the pleasant aroma coming from Telia, something she said was common among alraunes. He wasn’t sure why that would be, but it was nice, so whatever.
“I must say, you certainly aren’t anything like Autumn has described,” Telia spoke up again as she set down her tea cup, smiling kindly even as her wife stiffened.
“Well I was acting like an ass on purpose during our fight,” Julius explained as his hand wandered over the fruit pile, “I had to catch her off guard, after all. Never really fought a dryad before, so I didn’t have much of a plan there.”
“Ha, yes, Autumn certainly stands out amid dryad kind. Shame I wasn’t able to recruit anyone else like her,” boasted Claire with a hair flip, like the silly, adorable goof she was.
“H-Hmph…Even if you did, they wouldn’t match up to me,” Autumn added, getting over her surprise, though her cheeks looked a little green. Not in the sick sense, but more like…well, that probably confirmed that dryads had green blood?
“Of course, my Autumn is one of a kind~,” Telia said as she held her wife’s hand. “All the dryads in the world couldn’t match up to her~.”
“…N-Not in front of the disgusting meatbag and our lord.”
“Hm. Good to hear I’ve gone from ‘revolting’ to ‘disgusting’,” Julius muttered.
“Oh don’t worry about it, Autumn’s like that with everyone,” Claire said, grinning as she passed him a couple pomegranate seeds, “You should’ve heard the things she used to call me before I got her used to me.”
“Like ‘this was a lovely conversation and luncheon and I’m sure you and our lord have further business to attend to elsewhere so please leave immediately, meatsack’,” Autumn deadpanned, earning a giggle from Telia.
“That’s definitely a weird thing to call her.”
“Must you always be this annoying?”
“Comes with experience. Besides, I’m sure Claire is still preparing herself.” And now it was her turn to go stiff and bright red.
“Oh? And why is that?”
“Ah, J-Julius, d-”
“She recently realized Ariel has feelings for her.”
“…Really?” Autumn asked as she looked over at Claire.
“…Sh-She never said anything,” Claire ‘explained’, huffing and glancing away from the two of them- “Telia, stop giggling!”
“Kihihihihi~! Ah, my apologies, my lord~. Your reaction was simply too cute, it reminded me of how my Autumn can be~.” And now both ladies, Demon Lord and Demon General alike, were blushing.
“Telly,” Autumn muttered, almost pouting at her wife.
“See~? Isn’t she the cutest~?” Telia giggled again and wrapped her arms around a blushing Autumn, pulling her in close and giving her a kiss on the cheek. “Mmm, my sweet and scrumptious cherry~!”
“And that’s our cue to leave!” Claire abruptly stood and grabbed Julius’s arm, yanking him out of his chair and tugging him through the garden with a wave over her shoulder to the two lovebirds. “Thanks for the meal, enjoy your flirting, don’t be too loud, bye!”
“Goodbye Lord Valondrac~! Enjoy your time with your own paramour~!” Eytelia waved back, then swept Autumn up into her arms, earning a surprisingly cute squeak from the dryad that was quickly muffled by her wife’s lips-
And then the door closed and they were out in the courtyard. “…So they seem nice together.”
“You say that now, but wait until you decide to visit the tower while they’re feeling frisky,” Claire muttered, the red slowly leaving her face as she calmed down.
“Huh. So you’ve participated?” And that brought it right back.
“No! I’ve just-It’s awkward to walk in on those two because Autumn barely wears clothes-”
“So you’ve gotten plenty of eyefuls, got it.” Julius tried his best to keep his expression neutral as he gave her a thumbs up. Judging by the flustered scowl she shot him, he probably failed to hide his grin.
“You shush. Come on, last stop, and hopefully this one won’t be as embarrassing.”
“Isn’t the last stop the tower Ariel lives in?”
It was adorable seeing her stumble, and Julius didn’t even bother hiding the smile as she glared at him this time. “…You’re lucky you’re cute.”
“I know I am. My looks helped me wind up with you, after all.”
And that was another blush earned, though she did smile too, so double points. “Alright, come on. Keep it up and I’ll wind up acting like Telia back there.”
“Really? You seem more Autumn-y to me.”
She turned, walked right up to him, and grabbed the front of his shirt, pulling him up towards her with a smirk. “Really now~? Then how about I remind you who’s in charge~?”
“…I’m not saying that idea doesn’t appeal to me.”
Claire smirked, then let him go and patted his head. “Then I’ll make sure to do that later. For now…ugh…I really want this to go easy, but I know it’ll be agonizing.”
“Then I’ll try to help out and make it less painful.” Julius took her hand, pressing up beside her. “I know you’ll do fine here.”
“Ha…Thanks.” And off they went, through the paths of greenhouses surrounding the Black Tower and straight to the dragon’s lair…Literally.
Very literally. Julius could see Seth in full dragon form just lazing on top of the huge, ivory tower taking up the final corner of the castle.
“…This feels like an Outlander story.”
“Hm? Why’s that?”
“Sophia told me about how in her world, there were a bunch of stories about dragons keeping maidens and princesses locked in towers and castles where a knight would have to come and save them.”
“…A singular knight?”
“From a dragon who’s keeping someone trapped and isn’t actually protecting their own stuff?”
“Yeah. Ah, but she did mention seeing some stories where the dragon was actually her friend that was trying to keep her safe.”
“Hn…odd. Dragons in the outlands must have been very odd when they were around.”
“Yeah…Hm…Speaking of, I need to talk to you about something. When we’re done with our tour anyways.”
“Sure thing. For now, let’s just get this over with then…Do you have any advice for how to deal with this?”
“Unless you want to hear ‘just talk with her about it’, you’re better off asking nearly anyone else in my team for romantic advice.”
“Hmph…well shit…” She frowned, then gave him a little glance. “Just so we’re clear, you’re…fine with her having romantic feelings towards me, correct?”
Julius blinked, then grinned a little. “Should I not be? You did say this was your ‘harem’.”
“…Y-You shut up. I-I’m…S-See if I don’t…Shush.” Claire spun on her heel, facing forward again, then took in a deep breath and started heading towards the final tower.
And, if nothing else, she was able to regain her composure on the way. Standing tall and proud, she almost looked like she was on official business there; well, if it weren’t for the blush on her face.
Regardless, they soon arrived and walked into the tower, a dim, orchestral sound echoing out through the interior.
“Guessing she really enjoys conducting her orchestra,” Julius said, glancing around at the bright, white decorations around, mixed with a lot of gold and yellow. Kinda reminded him of Divica, actually…
“That she does. She’s been infatuated with orchestral music ever since I introduced her to it,” Claire replied, still trying to stand straight and proud.
“Is that so?”
Arriving at a set of wide double doors, Claire pushed them open. And as she did, not only did the sound of music fully encapsulate them, they also saw Ariel–in full arachne form, her lower half totally spidery–dancing with herself as she conducted the music, a peaceful smile on her face.
However, the music soon came to a slow halt when Ariel caught a glimpse of her ‘guests’ walking in and lowered her hands, a genuinely cute, cheerful smile gracing her face for a moment before she schooled her features into a more politely neutral look.
“Ah, my lady Claire, to what do I owe this pleasure of your visit?”
Her polite smile dropped into a little worried frown. “Is something the matter? Are you not feeling well? Did your…guest do something to make you feel ill?” And there came the glaring.
“Ah…er…sort of?” Oh wow, that was a heavy glare sent his way by the arachne. “Look, just uh… can we talk in private real quick?”
“Hmph…Very well.” Waving her hand to dismiss the arachnid orchestra, Ariel walked off to the side. Giving her a thumbs up when she glanced back at him, Julius waited behind as Claire also walked away to one little corner of the room.
And now that he was left to his own devices, Julius remained silent as he kept an eye on the two. And it seemed to be going…slowly.
Whatever she was saying, it looked like Claire was going in a slow, roundabout way of breaching the subject. Hm…wonder how long this would-
“Do you really love me!?” Oh, there it was. Well, guess Claire must have been really embarrassed to just shout that out.
Well, better to give them some privacy, considering how heartfelt this seemed to be getting. So Julius turned and walked right on out, to do…something.
As for what that something would be…well Seth probably didn’t want to talk with him, and considering how Cyrus was, Fergus and him were probably lounging in bed today…
Well, guess that left exploring the castle on his own. He’d already seen what most of the castle was like, so it wasn’t like he’d get lost easily.
So with a shrug, he walked off back towards the main castle. There wasn’t anything new to see, but there was one difference.
Now that Claire wasn’t by his side, he could feel more people glaring at him.
It wasn’t everyone, but he knew that, given his status, there were bound to be people who didn’t like him.
“Hello there, Sir Goldforge!” Pausing, Julius turned to find a trio of black-armored guards approaching him. “May we have a moment of your time?”
“Yes? Did you need something?”
“Well~ we’ve always wanted to spar against someone from the Light Lands. And they’re not too many people from the lightlands around here. So we were hoping you’d be up for a match or two~?”
“Well, I guess that would be okay. But I’d need some gear and my sword.”
“Oh no, don’t worry, we’ll provide you with the proper equipment~. Ah, but do you mind doing us another favor~?”
“…And that would be?”
“Well, we’d rather not anger Lord Valondrac in case you get hurt. So~ do you mind swearing by the Miser that if she asks what happened, you tell her it was only a friendly spar~?”
“…Sure? I swear by the miser.” And as he spoke, Julius felt a heavy weight settle on him for a moment. “What the…?”
“Ah, I’m sorry, I thought you would have known~. If you swear by the Miser you have to keep the promise, or else she’ll be after you~.”
“…Is that so.”
“Of course! Ah, don’t worry, as long as you keep that promise, you’ll be okay~.” Feeling a heavy hand on his shoulder, Julius turned around to see a few more guards behind him. “So let’s go have that spar~.”
“…Hm.” Well, might as well get this over with. With a small sigh, Julius walked along with them group of guards and soon enough, they arrived at an indoor sparring arena where some more guards were already waiting.
“Come over here, Sir Goldforge, I’ll help you get your gear~.” Looking around as he followed the lead guy, Julius counted fifteen guards in total ready to spar with him. This was going to be fun…
And with leather armor and a wooden sword acquired, Julius was as ready as he could be for them.
“I hope you don’t mind if I go first~.” Hosting a wooden spear, the lead guard readied himself.
“Whenever you’re ready.” Holding his sword, Julius prepared himself as the guard rushed forward.
And he took the blow head on to the face.
Rubbing his jaw as the guard jumped back, Julius eyed him. Even with the full face-covering helmets on, he could tell the guards were surprised.
“Is that it?”
“…And just why did you take that attack?”
“What? Didn’t you want to beat me up? Just get it over with.”
“…What are you talking about~? This is just a friendly spar~.”
“Then feel free to continue the spar and work out whatever aggressions you have.”
“…That’s a very scary thing to say, Sir Goldforge. Who ever said I had aggressions?”
“You’re in full plate, I’m in leather. It’s pretty obvious where this is going.” He shrugged. “Just have your fun and let’s get it over with.”
“Oh? And then we turn you back over to our Lord Valondrac, beaten and bruised, so you can tell her you obtained your wounds in a sparring match?” The lead guard sighed and straightened, leaning on his spear. “That’s a very tidy way of circumventing our little agreement here. I’ll admit, you’re more clever than I gave you credit for, Goldforge.”
Oh. Was that what he was doing? He was just gonna let the guards beat on him for a while. He’d gotten used to it with the Blood Church people, so he was used to it.
“You say that as if a bunch of guards that need to gang up on someone to beat him up can leave a scratch on me.”
“And you say that as though this is anything more than a friendly spar~. It doesn’t need to turn into anything worse, does it?”
Julius shrugged. “It really doesn’t. If you really, honestly want to spar with me, I’m up for it. I have nothing else going on, and it might be fun. But if you’re really going to try to drive me back so your pals can hit me from behind, then we’re gonna have a problem.”
The lead guard stared at him for a few seconds, then jerked his head towards the wall, apparently as a cue for his cronies to start heading over that way, most of them grumbling under their breath as they cleared the floor. He rolled his shoulders, then got into a stance, his spear pointed straight for Julius. “Ready now?”
“Sure. Come at me.” That time, the guard tried being a little more clever, letting his grip shift and swinging for his chest instead of stabbing for his face, but Julius still ducked it–kinda showing off a little with how low he got–twisted, and swung straight for the guard’s head, though he made sure to halt the motion before he made contact-*CRACK*.
Julius blinked, his wooden sword a couple inches from the guard’s temple. That didn’t sound metallic… “Huh.”
He pulled the sword back and frowned as he looked it over. There was a massive, vertical crack right in the center “blade”, splintering all of the wood across it. “Huh. What, did you guys give me a cheap sword?”
He glanced back at the guard, but the guy was just staring back at him. And for some reason, he dropped his spear? “…H-Holy shit…”
“…D-Didn’t you…feel that?”
“The wood breaking? Not really, it came as kind of a shock-” And then the sword crumpled completely, the blade dropping off of the completely crushed hilt. “…Okay, one of you needs to get me a better sword if we’re actually doing this.”
“…Y-Yes sir.” Okay, now he was really confused. Where the hell was this respect coming from?
Well, anyway, one of the other guards got him a new sword soon enough, so it really didn’t matter. Though these guys really needed to maintain their sparring room better. There was a weird gash in the wall behind the lead guard that really stood out.
He didn’t really have time to focus on that though, because he had way more important things to focus on after the lead guard decided to try another round and some of the others chose to join in. Namely-
“Why the fuck are you this terrible!?” he complained, almost lazily blocking an obviously telegraphed overhead swing and jamming his sword in the fourteenth idiot’s ribs as a punishment, while the rest of her pals groaned on the floor in varying states of consciousness.
“Gah! F-Fuck, I think you broke a rib-How the fuck did you do that?! I’m wearing full plate!”
“Oh walk it off, jackass, it’s not that bad! I don’t hear wheezing, so I didn’t break shit.” Ugh, this was pathetic. “Lead guard, help this dumbass out.”
“Ah, yes sir!” At least one of these morons knew how to use healing magic. Consequently, said lead guard was the only one of the bunch who seemed halfway competent…
“Okay, I need a name for you.”
Julius rolled his eyes, then pointed his sword at the lead guard. “I can’t keep referring to you as ‘lead guard’ in my head, so give me a name to use. I don’t care if it’s a nickname, a given name, or a chosen name, I just need something, got it?”
“…Er, it’s Bacol, sir.”
“Fantastic, you’re my assistant now.” As Bacol immediately straightened at attention, Julius folded his hands behind his back, standing straight and glaring at the rest of the louts in front of him as he channeled every ounce of his rage as an educator looking at a bunch of inadequate adults who had no excuse for failing this badly. “As for the rest of you dumbasses, this effort was shit, and you’re all pathetic. You’re the godsdamn palace guards here! You should be elite at fucking minimum! My kids back home could kill half of you with a pinky with this lackluster crap you’re showing me! One of them is a pure healer and I guarantee she’d literally crush you weak shits!
“You know you should be better than this, and clearly whoever trained you morons half-assed the job, so guess what?! Starting today, every last one of you who doesn’t meet my standards is training with me until you surpass them! Is that clear?”
There was a complete silence as the guards stared at him, half of them still on the floor.
“I SAID IS THAT CLEAR?!”
“SIR YES SIR!” All of them immediately snapped up, or at least tried to scramble up, and saluted.
“Now then, everyone form a line, side by side.” Within a few seconds, all of them were ready to begin as they stood at attention. “Now then, first things first, I’m gonna need to check how fast you are.” Bringing up his sword, he pointed at the wall. “I want to see how long it takes for all of you to get over there.”
“…I-Is that all, Sir?” Bacol asked from his position in the middle of the group.
“One of the most important things someone needs in a fight is being able to move quickly, doesn’t matter how strong you are if the fight is finished before you even get there, or you get taken out from behind in the event you need to retreat. So get to it!”
“Sir Yes Sir!” With that, they all immediately turned around and began to run.
And almost immediately, Julius rushed forward and began to strike those slowest in the back.
“Gah!” And amidst the confusion of them getting attacked from behind, the others stopped moving, only letting themselves get hit by Julius as he moved swiftly and rang each of their helmets.
“W-What the hell you asshole?! Was your plan to just hit us all from behind!?” Bacol said as he held his head.
“Didn’t you hear me!? I said it doesn’t matter how strong you are if you get taken out from behind while retreating! War isn’t so simple that you can focus on one thing and get away without a scratch, you need to be able to pay attention to your surroundings, which includes soldiers trying to blindside you while you’re retreating!”
“S-Still what kind of training is this!?”
“The type of training I’ve given my students since they were fifteen! So unless all of you want to spar again, get up, and start running!”
With a yelp, they all got up and began to run again; this time, a few actually managed to get to the wall without getting hit. Well, at least now he had something to pass the time by, something the guards didn’t seem to enjoy.
“This is what you get for running your mouth, Adrien.”
Blinking, Julius looked down to see Bacol breathing heavily on the floor as he held his side.
“…Sorry, got confused for a moment.”
“…Right, sure.” Bacol huffed, pushing himself to his feet and finally pulling his helmet off, sweat visibly pouring down his scaled skin, which came as a little bit of a surprise. So he was a bald, blue-scaled drake with pale blue eyes and slit pupils, instead of any kind of dark-haired human. Probably should’ve expected that, but still. “Haaahh…this feels way too good…”
Julius snapped his fingers as the thought hit him. “Oh, you’re an icedrake. Or snowdrake? The ones from…Brunza?”
And that got Bacol to blink. “…Yes, but…no? Close. A lot closer than I thought a lightlander would get…I’m a frostdrake, from Brunzaba, sir.”
“Right, that was it. Like Seth?”
Bacol straightened slightly, smiling. “Indeed. I am actually General Seth’s cousin. We grew up in the same village.”
“Huh. Well, that should probably explain why you’re slightly more competent than the rest of these morons.” And that got the smile to drop, which got Julius to grin. “Don’t worry though, I’m sure a few more days of this and we can bring you all up to my student’s old standard.”
“…A few more days?”
“That’s right! Though I’d say a week is a more likely estimate, and probably more if I really want to get you all better than that. In fact, why don’t I train all of you guards around here? Standards are clearly lacking if your group here thought they were good enough to take me and get away with it.”
“…” Bacol blinked. “…Er…’get away with it’?”
“Yup. What, you didn’t think there’d be consequences if your plan did work? You figured out pretty quickly how just letting you beat on me would go bad, so you should’ve accounted for how Claire would react in general.”
Julius sighed, then slung an arm around Bacol’s shoulders, forcing him to sit down with him. “Right, you’re clearly new to this, so let me give you some advice as a person who’s very familiar with hazing and the issues of it. Now, I get it, I’m the new guy, I’m a lightlander, you have a lot of reasons not to like me, so you figure you can set up a thing where you can beat me up and humiliate me. That’s a standard thing, plenty of idiots do it back home in Orin when, say, some new kid gets special treatment from their crew.
“The thing is, there’s two major issues with that type of tactic. One is the target’s response. If they’re a lot stronger than the hazers’ think, attempts to beat them will go badly ridiculously quickly. Sure, sometimes numbers make a difference, and having a big group means you can overwhelm them, but sometimes, it doesn’t. And that’s how you can wind up getting beaten to a pulp. And even if you don’t, you can misjudge how the target will respond, and they can very easily decide to rat you out instead of stoically taking your abuse.
“Which brings us to the second issue! What do you think it means when the captain favors someone?”
“Captain, Lord, Boss, whatever you want to call them. The point is, a person superior to you, probably the person who’s most superior to you, likes this person for some reason. Call it nepotism or favoritism or whatever, but they like them, so your very best case scenario here is that they don’t care enough about that person to retaliate against you, and that they don’t consider it too much of an affront to their authority to retaliate.”
Bacol had started to gape, his eyes wide with obvious horror.
“Uh…what’s that mean?” Oh hey, somebody else–…Huh. So all of the other guards were now sitting around the two of them, in a little semi-circle, and the one in question had actually raised her hand to ask the question. It actually felt weirdly nostalgic.
“Good question. See, the first option is pretty self-explanatory. The captain likes someone, so they’re going to get pissed off if they get hurt. The second option, however, relates more to their position as your boss. A boss has to maintain their authority over their subordinates, so if they declare someone’s protected, that means they’re protected. And they don’t even have to declare it sometimes! If they’re showing favor to someone, that should imply that person is protected. Which means if someone in their own crew then decides to harm that person, it’s a direct challenge to the captain’s authority, and at that point, they need to retaliate in order to keep that authority. Would you follow someone who can’t keep their promises?”
“…Oh. So…us tryin’ to beat you up…means we’re challengin’ Lord Valondrac?” Wow, that earned a lot of sudden flinches.
“Basically!” Julius replied with a grin, “Which is why it’s a fantastic thing that you didn’t try to beat me up, and actually just wanted me to train you and show you how to be better, and it’s also why you’re all going to keep on coming to train with me because seriously, this was pathetic and you all need to step it up.”
“…Yeah, alright.” That one guard just shrugged while the rest seemed a whole lot more uneasy, especially Bacol, who was cringing pretty hard next to him. So Julius decided to let go of his new assistant and pat him on the back.
“Don’t worry about it. Seriously, don’t. I won’t say anything, and as far as I’m concerned, we’re starting fresh here.” Julius paused, then frowned. “Well, we’re starting from the point where you’re a bunch of inadequate guards who I’m going to train until you’re better.”
“R-Right. Er, u-understood, sir.”
“Good. Okay, class dismissed. We’ll figure out a schedule for training tomorrow. For now, back to your duties, all of you.” And much to Julius’s amusement, every single one of them immediately stood and saluted him, before heading off. “Heh.”
Well, that was a fun…hour? Maybe more? Probably more. Maybe he should ask–And the last one just left the room, okay, should’ve spoken up sooner. Hm.
He shrugged to himself, then got to his feet and brushed his clothes down. Well, time to–
“Well that was interestin’.” Oh. Okay, someone else was here, alright.
“Question, do you know the-”
Turning towards the woman as she spoke, Julius immediately gripped the training sword tight in his hand and aimed it straight at the speaker as he felt a pit drop in his stomach.
“Heh, good to know you still got fight in you.” With a devilish grin, the blood demon Tenvoc stared down at him. “You’ll need better than that twig though.”
“…” Gritting his teeth, Julius prepared himself to fight–
“Seriously though, drop that shit, Mama sent me.”
“The god that gave you power to fight me, even though I’m her subordinate, sent me to get you. So are you coming or what?”
“…” Blinking in confusion, Julius just…stared at her, slowly taking in the fact that the blood demon wasn’t wearing armor, simple or fancy, but instead seemed to be wearing a crimson suit. Like the kind a noble would wear, with a jacket and pants and a waistcoat of all things. It actually looked kinda good on her, really fit her muscular body well and was even fitted right with extra sleeves for her extra arms but also what the fuck? “…Why-”
“They have something planned for you, so they wanted me to dress up. Now come on so I can rip this thing off already.”
“Will you just shut up?” Reaching out, she grabbed him by the collar of his shirt, and pulled him closer. And immediately, Julius found himself somewhere new.
“Welcome Julius,” Marrow said with a smile, “We have much to talk about.”