Shioneri had some nice food. It was to be expected, since it was a resort island, but it was a nice thing to note. Lots of good mutton and fish, plus this “rice salad” stuff was pretty good.
Even the group he came with seemed to enjoy the large meal, though Ariel did say Claire’s chef was better. Thankfully, none of the workers seemed to mind her comment. Though whether that was out of fear, or because of how much money the restaurant was making, Julius wasn’t sure, and it was kind of a moot point since she left after having some fish. Apparently she was supposed to check in on Lightning, who’d been pretty good on the ride over but definitely did need constant supervision on a populated island.
“I must say, Charlotte has told me about all of you, but you are quite different from stories.” Also of note, Charlotte hadn’t arrived by herself. Sitting next to the goliath–and looking tiny beside her, being a good two feet smaller–was a snow elf–a common sight in the Frost Lands–named Nia Fyodorovna Altukhov, some kinda diplomat who’d come to Shioneri to be the mediator between the Light and Dark delegates, with Charlotte as her bodyguard.
She had short, white hair–cut close and professional–with a somewhat narrow face, lithe body, and two black antlers extending up from her head, and was wearing light-blue robes and a teal tabard decorated with those same icy crowns. Also, contrastingly simple brown pants and boots.
“Is not my fault I didn’t know Julius turned into romantic!” Charlotte protested, though she was still smiling with a large tankard of liquor in front of her, “I thought he would be like safer and less promiscuous Cyrus!”
Well…if they were talking sheer numbers in both how many kids he would have–and shit, that was still a big thought that he really should address but also how the fuck would he even do that–and how many people he slept with, then that wasn’t an incorrect statement. Speaking of the bard, he thankfully hadn’t been flirting with Nia, most likely because Mira was there to keep him in line, mainly via glaring at him from the table she was sharing with Douglas and Hans whenever he tried. She had a weirdly good sense for it…
“I would think most people are safer and less promiscuous than him,” Julius said with a dry tone.
“Aw, why must you all be so mean to me?” Cyrus complained, mock-pouting as he tuned his guitar, staring right at it instead of any of them.
“Because you apparently had no idea you have seventeen kids in the world,” Tisma replied, trying to ignore the two dragons still glaring at each other even after they’d moved to Arancoda’s table. Which, still hadn’t addressed that thing with Arancoda. Still had not. Things for later. He definitely wasn’t putting that off. Peace conference was more important, right? Right.
“Don’t your parents have twenty-seven filles?”
“Yeah, but my ma and pa know who all of us are.”
“Huh. Fertile.” Claire no.
“So, sex talk aside, anyone have anything to bring up?”
“I still wish to punch Vocula,” Charlotte said as she drank from her tankard, earning a scowl from the Pontiff in question, who was still sitting alone, “But since that is not possible, tell us of your journey in Dark Lands, Julius!”
“Oh, Julius discovered he’s a masochist-” Thankfully, Cyrus’s leg was within kicking distance.
“Oh? Well, I always suspected he was.” Dammit Charlotte.
“I’m not. I just…misunderstood the instructions, is all.”
“Yes, Julius isn’t a masochist.” Thank you Claire. “He’s an idiotic masochist.” Why.
“Can we move on from making fun of me.”
“…Well, if you wish for us to be impressed, you never did show off your flirting skills.” For a brief moment, Julius wondered how expensive it would be to just toss Cyrus out a window. Would it be better to just jump out? There was one nearby…
“Your what now?”
“Before we met you, dear Demonic Lord, Mira and I had a small competition, and I asked if Julius wished to join, though he declined.”
“Oh really~?” Claire no-…Actually, screw it.
“If I get this over with, can we move on?”
“Yes, you may and we shall.” Julius sighed, then turned to Claire– “Ah ah ah, now now, it wouldn’t be fair for you to flirt with your lover. She may just pretend to be swooned by your charmless ‘charms’.”
Julius would’ve sent a silent, pleading look to Claire, if it wasn’t for the fact that there was a wide, almost sadistic grin on her face.
“Well, it’s only fair,” she agreed, damning him to his fate, “So who shall be the lucky person that my fiance shall flirt with~?”
“Hm…” Cyrus glanced around the room, humming a little tune to himself as he decided on who he would choose. And who his eyes stopped on made Julius wish he’d joined Hans and Douglas in whatever it was they were doing with his sword.
The Dragon Lord Galinori “Many-Names” Arancoda finally seemed satisfied after the huge meal she’d inhaled, leaning back in her chair and picking her teeth clean with an extended claw as Bonifaci helped the waiters carry away the large set of plates, and Cyrus was smirking wide as he gestured towards her. “Well Julius? Get to it~.”
…That window certainly seemed inviting right now. He glanced at Claire–She shook her head, smirking, and shooed him on. So no help from her. Welp.
Well, might as well get it over with or else Cyrus would just try bringing it up over and over again until he wound up doing something even more ridiculous than if he’d just agreed to the first stupid idea. Julius was well aware of how this song and dance went, so he stood right up and began to walk on over, his brow furrowed as his mind raced with over a million thoughts on what to say.
And all of that was thrown out of the metaphorical window–much as Julius wished he did for himself literally–as Galinori stood up and began to walk away. As for what happened next, well, Julius had no fucking clue.
Just as he adjusted his walking speed to cut her off from leaving, his foot stepped right on top of a poorly placed sheep bone–definitely dropped from one of the plates or just tossed by Gali when she was busy eating–and he was sent stumbling forward. Naturally, his hand went up to keep himself from face-planting into a wall, and he did actually brace himself properly. Success!
So that was good. Less good was the fact that his hand had made a loud BANG when it hit the wall–almost definitely catching everyone’s attention–and he just so happened to shove it straight into Galinori’s path, stopping her in her tracks.
“Oh?” An amused smirk crossed Gali’s face as she turned towards Julius and leaned her back against the wall, meeting his stare with those deep, crimson eyes of hers.
Damn she was tall…the top of his head didn’t even go past her chest, and he did know firsthand that she felt fantas–Fuck, okay, focus, he was focusing, he had a thing to do, but also it felt like his face was frozen and he was pretty sure he was just glaring at her but fuck it, alright, commit, do not panic, do not show weakness, what the fuck was he thinking??
The silence was stretching by this point, trapped between two solid anvils of determined staring and getting absolutely flattened into a pancake of awkward stubbornness as Galinori started looking less amused and was staring right at Julius with a whole lot more…something in her eyes. He had no idea what that thing was, but she seemed focused and he was very stubbornly trying to keep himself from blushing.
In this instance, he defaulted to one thing he was very good at: being ludicrously determined when it came to staring contests. So he kept his eyes narrowed, his brow furrowed, and did his damnedest to keep up the glare he had on, even when Galinori…gulped? No, do not show confusion, confusion means he fucked up. Just do not remark at all on the fact that her face was starting to get kinda red actually–why was her face getting red, what?
Julius didn’t let any of his confusion show and just kept up his fierce glare into Galinori’s eyes–she hadn’t blinked at all either, huh–which may have contributed to why she seemed to start fidgeting, her face very definitely red by that point and oh wow, okay, she just licked her lips…That was just because she just had a meal, right? Maybe her throat was dry. Yeah, there were good explanations here, definitely–
Julius didn’t look over as the cafe’s door opened, ringing the little bell over it, nor did he look when a familiar voice let out a curious “Hm?” and started asking in a still very familiar but more quiet voice what was going on, and he definitely didn’t look when Cyrus let out a surprised “Namita?!” and Charlotte growled “Loren.” but thankfully that actually got Galinori to break the staring contest and glance over, so praise Marrow for that one, whew.
With victory in tow, he also glanced over and was pleasantly surprised to see Archdruid Namita Loren standing in the doorway, with a few other wood elves behind her.
Thankfully, all of them were dressed or that would have made the situation all the more awkward.
“Oh, hey there-” Julius stumbled back as Galinori shoved past him and rushed straight out of the restaurant, grabbing Ursiati on the way out–which earned a yelp from the other dragon–and nearly pushing over the group of elves as she left. Well, at least he didn’t keep up the staring contest any longer…
“Did I miss something?” Namita asked, watching Galinori leave for a moment, then looking back at Julius.
“Nothing that I want to talk about. Also hi, didn’t realize you were also coming.”
“Well, someone did have to come represent Naloriva, and I am the closest person to someone in charge there.” Looking around the room, she paused as she noticed the table where Julius had been sitting at. “Oh, hello there, Cyrus, Charlotte.”
She waved cheerfully at them, like the former didn’t look ridiculously flustered–which was a rare look for Cyrus–and the latter wasn’t glaring at her like she was still their team’s “rival”. Actually, did Charlotte even know Namita wasn’t a bandit anymore? Someone mentioned the “archdruid” thing before, right?
“What, no hi for me?” Tisma drawled, smirking over at the dark-skinned archdruid, who grinned right back.
“And hello to you too, Tisma. And hey Doug!” Oh, there’s Douglas, still looking tired but alert and walking over with Julius’s sword in hand.
“Hiya Namita, thanks for coming.” Douglas smiled back at Namita, handed Julius’s sword over, sat down, and very casually starting taking potato wedges from Cyrus’s plate. Because sure. Huh. Did they add a lion head to his pommel? Weird decoration, but…no, wait, it had four eyes and horns, so–
“Well that letter you sent seemed rather urgent, not to mention I did want to see my daughter again. Though I must say, I didn’t expect to see most of your old team here.” She turned her grin towards the others again, giving Cyrus a little wave that he awkwardly returned.
“I choose to focus on the important stuff, though I’m sure you have plenty to talk about,” Douglas continued, explaining nothing about what he did to Julius’s sword. On another note, Julius wasn’t sure which was funnier: Charlotte’s obvious confusion or Cyrus’s blatant nervousness.
“Oh for sure, starting with Cy here, because it’s been ages and seriously, you never thought to write?”
“A-Ah, w-w-well, that…Er, th-the life of a bard is v-very active, and, well, sometimes certain things slip the mind?”
“Aw, what?” Namita leaned towards him, pouting, her eyes wide and teary. “You forgot about me?”
“Ah-Non non non, no, no, I didn’t! I was just busy! Very busy!”
And her face immediately went deadpan. “For nineteen years?”
“…Eh heh…ah…oui?” He swallowed nervously and looked around the table for help that would not come. “…I think I was technically banished from Naloriva, also? Because of, er…w-well, maybe it was only from Barton. And Surton. And Wodton, and Kavton…s-suffice to say, I may have an active bounty on me there, alive hopefully and most likely, BUT I am also very sorry that I haven’t been around?”
“Hmmmm…” She stared at Cyrus for a few seconds, looking serious, then smirked, satisfied. “Apology accepted. Also I’m literally an archdruid, I could get the bounty dropped.”
“…Hey, can I move in with you?”
“You are archdruid?” Ah, now Charlotte was speaking up, frowning. “Since when was this?” Okay, so no one did mention it. Shit.
“Oh, it’s a long story, plenty boring, lots of apologies and soul-searching stuff that doesn’t really–” She abruptly paused, then looked right at Claire, who smiled back. “…How long have you been there?”
“A while. I’m surprised no one brought my presence up.” Well, she was being strangely quiet, so Julius just assumed she didn’t want to be noticed. “Or the fact that you didn’t say hi to me.”
Namita snorted, then gave Claire a little bow. “Then my sincere apologies, Lord Valondrac of the Dark Lands. It’s nice to finally meet your acquaintance.” She straightened, still grinning. “I’ve been hearing a lot of mixed things about you.”
“‘Mixed’ is an interesting word.” Claire smirked. “Would you care to let me know what I’ve been doing wrong with my future subjects? Oh, and what I’ve been doing right, if you would.”
“Well, the vocal majority who claim you’ve done ‘wrong’ are simply those who dislike darklanders in general. Though some of your soldiers can be a bit aggressive in return.”
“I expected as much. Have they caused you and yours any harm?”
“Thankfully for them, no. My druids haven’t had any issues with your people, and I made sure your troops couldn’t approach Chloraton,” Namita replied with a light chuckle, “Even if they meant no harm, I couldn’t take the chances. Our town and Temple do hold the Faith of Chlora, after all.”
“Well, I cannot blame you for your thinking. I myself am not particularly fond of the Rakuli.”
“I imagined as much. Now, as for what you did right, it seems the people of Naloriva were surprised to see that, provided they weren’t pushed too far, your soldiers treated them with respect and didn’t force their will on them. Allowing cities and towns to keep their own leaders unless they were proven to be genuinely unfit for the position due to corruption or cruelty was an interesting move, certainly, and handing over bandits and other criminals to the people’s own courts instead of meting out justice yourself cut off most accusations of tyranny. It also helps that your forces were willing to pay for supplies or any damages that may have occurred in any battles.”
“They were instructed to do so, and I’m glad to hear the civilians seemed to think they did a good job.”
“Ah… not to interrupt but…” Cyrus spoke up, nervously shifting in his seat, “Namita, may we speak in private?”
“Oh? My my, such an important meeting is coming up and you still want some privacy with me~?”
“…I-It’s actually important, please. I mean, I wouldn’t mind and you are still remarkably beautiful and absolutely ravishing in those–A-Ahem, we have things. Things to talk about, and we should do that now, at this moment, s’il vous plaît.”
“Heh. Fine with me.” She smiled, offering her hand. “Would you escort me then~?”
“…” Cyrus visibly swallowed–which got Tisma to chuckle–then took Namita’s hand and stood up with her. “…I’m going to be better.”
“Oh? Well, I look forward to seeing that.” And off the two of them went, a small, fond smile on her face and a very nervous one on his.
“Aw, that was sweet.”
Julius, Tisma, Douglas, and Charlotte all gave Claire a very confused look. “…What? It was.”
“…Cyrus is deadbeat and Namita is bandit,” Charlotte explained-
“Former bandit,” Douglas corrected, “Though yes, Cyrus is still a deadbeat.”
“And he’s trying to be better. I’m a despot seeking to conquer the world and here I am at a peace meeting. Love changes things.” …Fuck, that hit right in his heart. “And besides, Julius conceived an unknown lovechild with another woman, so it would be hypocritical to criticize Gerrish for not knowing of his own.” And that was much more like a punch to the gut.
Julius winced as his friends promptly turned their unimpressed–though Douglas and Tisma looked unsurprised for some reason–gazes towards him. “…Yeah, I don’t really…have a good excuse. She was offering, I might’ve been…a little weak because of…c-certain traits she has that appeal to me, and that’s not an excuse, especially since I did mean that proposal to Claire, but I-”
Claire sighed, sounding more amused than annoyed. “Julius, I did just say it was fine. I figured it out, you came clean, and while I was a little annoyed, your adorable fumbling brought my mood back up rather rapidly.” Hm. “Though it does still mean I need to factor her branch of the lineage into the dynasty…My point is, one slip up is fine, I’ve already made plans, just don’t spring any more of these on me.” She paused, then frowned. “You didn’t do anything with that dullahan, right?”
“Hn, genuine shock at the suggestion, alright, good.”
Tisma snorted, chuckling. “Damn Jules, I didn’t realize you were such a heart-stealer. You’re making your fiancé worried~.”
“I-it’s not like I’m doing this on purpose! I barely even know how to flirt!”
“Really? You seemed quite skilled at it with Galinori,” Charlotte said, smiling too.
“That was a fluke!”
“You know, if you think about it, it probably was,” Tisma abruptly agreed, apparently turning her opinion around as she looked thoughtful, “For as long as we’ve known him, Jules never really flirted with anyone. Closest he got was when someone tried to pull him into a brothel they worked at.”
“…Did that happen often?” Claire asked as she raised an eyebrow.
“In some cities. Though they usually weren’t successful at it.”
“Well yeah. They were just doing their jobs, not actually flirting with me, it’s different.” Growing up in Orin let Julius know how business was done for brothels, so there wasn’t any reason to get flustered there.
“…Is that so?” What was with that look? “So when a sex worker directly propositioned you, you would…?”
“I’d usually leave at the first excuse. I mean, sometimes they were my type, so I’d chat for a while and go along with it if I thought they were alright. Oh, but I would still leave some silver if I left early. It’s just polite.”
“…” Claire sighed, then stood up and Julius abruptly felt his brain stutter as she gave him a kiss on the forehead.
“…U-Uh…th-thanks?” Sure, it felt nice, but–and now she was ruffling his hair, was there something he was missing?
“He is.” “Yup.” Charlotte, Tisma, do not agree with her.
“He’s alright.” Wha-
“Seth, why did you move tables?” Claire asked, frowning at her general, who shrugged in turn.
“The red jackass got carried off, so I’m free to sit by Madam Vlahos.”
Tisma blinked. “…Why am I a ‘Madam’??”
“Aren’t you the oldest one in our group?” Douglas asked, now with Cyrus’s entire plate of food in front of him.
“That-No, ain’t that Yuli?”
“A person having a beard doesn’t mean they’re older.”
“Yeah, but they always act like they’re the oldest.”
“Well even if they are, you’re the oldest of our group here right now.”
“If I may, I refer to her as madam out of respect. Something that red jackass is missing,” Seth explained, which…what?
Julius glanced at Claire and she was looking back, just as baffled as he was. Though she was the first one to speak up. “…Did we miss something?”
“No, my lord, I am simply ensuring that jackasses don’t stake more claim than me.” Tiz, meanwhile, sighed as she rested her head in her palm.
“Just my luck…”
“I must say, this is the oddest set of romances I’ve seen,” Nia said, finally speaking up after some time. Like, wow, she could sit still. Like an elfish ice statue.
“I am with you there,” Charlotte agreed, grinning, “Almost makes me wish I stayed in Light Lands to have seen this sooner!”
“Well, I’m glad you didn’t. You are rather irreplaceable.”
“Ha, and you are as well Nia!” Charlotte grinned and clapped a hand on the snow elf’s back–and wow, she didn’t even flinch–apparently oblivious to the implication in Nia’s words.
Meanwhile–unnoticed by almost everyone–Douglas had moved on to stealing food from everyone else’s plates too. Because of course.
“Well, this has been an interesting meeting,” Claire noted. And it would only get even more interesting as the door slammed open.
A single figure was standing in the doorway, and the instant Julius looked over at her, a feeling of absolute joy and relief hit him all at once. His older sister had arrived on Shio–
Julius blinked, then reflexively swallowed at the sheer fury burning in Margrave’s eyes. Fuck, she was actually scowling.
“…H-Hey, Graves?” he greet-
“Hello Jules. I spoke with your pregnant paramour.” …Ah. Ah. “Now, I know it has been a very, very long time since I had to sit down and have that insipid talk with you because a certain gang boss happened to be a spineless coward when it came to awkward situations. As such, I am willing to accept that you may have forgotten certain things I discussed with you.”
Not likely. Julius remembered every bit of that terrible time. When he’d gotten curious and asked Ivet where babies came from, she immediately grabbed Graves, told her to explain, and sprinted straight out of the Hare’s Den without even looking back. And Graves…Graves was not tactful. Graves was blunt.
And Graves had made three things very, very clear. She didn’t like people who had kids without considering those kids as people. She disliked people that went and had sex with others while dating or being married to another–without making sure their lover was aware and okay with it, since that could be a thing. And she hated people who skipped out on their own child.
And, more than those three, she’d made sure to give him a warning to be careful and use protection, mainly so none of those things would happen. A really, really intense warning. More like a threat than a warning.
…Fuck, he should really talk to Cyrus before that idiot met Graves again.
Also, “I have a perfectly good explanation for all of that.”
“Oh. Really.” Ah. Dead tone. Okay. Shit. She was genuinely angry. And Claire was looking more amused than concerned so welp, fuck, alright, probably gonna use this as an opportunity to tease him and yeah, yeah, not good.
“…” Welp. Time to put an entirely different lesson Graves taught him into practice.
And so, Julius Goldforge, exiled hero of the Light Lands torn from his home, lover to the Demon Lord of the Dark Lands, and, in his personal opinion, pretty decent blacksmith, promptly sprinted straight for the nearest window and jumped straight through it.
In hindsight, he probably should have checked said window to make sure it wasn’t facing a cliff.
In further hindsight, he probably should’ve realized jumping into the ocean was a really shit idea when his sister was a powerful water mage.
Though how the fuck was she at the bottom of the cliff before he got there!?