Demon Queened - Chapter 13

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I followed Feyra out of the alley, keeping close as she led me through the maze of sidestreets. She set a fast pace, her hands tucked into her trouser pockets and her head bowed as if trying to shut herself off from the world. At first, I thought she might be impatient to reach the relative safety of a major road, but, even after leaving the sideroads behind, she refused to slow down.

The buildings grew steadily nicer as we traveled, at least in cleanliness, if not in architecture. We were still far from the wealthy parts of the city, but the people around us seemed well-fed and healthy, at least compared to Feyra. Back in the slums, my relatively well-kempt appearance had garnered quite a few looks of surprise and suspicion, but now the locals’ stares were split equally between Feyra and me, as if unsure what either of us were doing there.

While I certainly stood out more than I’d intended, I was relieved to see that my choice of attire wasn’t too far from what the locals wore. My skirt, which stopped right above my knees, was perhaps an inch or two shorter than that of those around me, and while my sleeveless green top was certainly outside the norm, it seemed to inspire mild surprise rather than full-on shock. I was a bit relieved to find that the eyes upon me were filled with curiosity rather than offense. I thought I saw a hint of anxiety as well, from those whose attention lingered, but at the speed we were traveling I had no time to check.

Still, I was undeniably drawing more attention than I’d hoped. I briefly considered buying some more traditional human attire once I had the funds, but quickly dismissed the idea. The curiosity of the human locals’ was vastly preferable to the suspicion of my fellow demons, should anyone discover clothing of foreign make and materials in my possession. Instead, I turned my attention to a much more pressing concern.

“Must you walk so fast?” It wasn’t as if I had any trouble keeping up. No matter how fast Feyra moved, I could in theory go faster and further. However, she was rather tall at five foot nine, and her long legs naturally led to long strides. I could only match Feyra’s pace by resorting to a jog. I was managing that well enough for the time being, but my heels made it all too easy to misstep when traveling at this speed. Between this and my earlier slip, I was becoming more and more aware of the complications they could cause when I couldn’t compensate with my wings.

“S-sorry!” Feyra stuttered out, coming to a halt so suddenly that I almost slammed into her backside. “I’ll go slower, okay? Just please don’t get mad.”

“I hardly see myself getting angry over something so trivial,” I protested. The way Feyra flinched in response made it clear just how much she feared my displeasure. Had my handling of her assailants truly been so brutal?

“It’s only that I won’t be able to pay you if you lose me in the crowd,” I explained, forcing my face to a neutral state. A gentle smile would have been preferable, but I doubted I could make it look sincere. I was used to faking indifference in the face of fear and hatred, but I was not confident in my ability to force a smile.

“Right. Wouldn’t want that…” Feyra stared at the ground as she spoke, pointedly denying my attempt to look her in the eyes. For some strange reason, her voice sounded almost wistful to my ears. Did she not want the saints I’d promised her? This girl was an enigma to me.

“Well, we’re pretty much here, anyway.” Feyra gestured to her right.

The shop Feyra indicated was a two-story-tall building made of gray stone. It was largely indistinct from the buildings surrounding it, except for a small wooden sign that hung from an iron pole. Devoid of lettering, the sign’s only decoration was a rough carving in the shape of a gem, colored a pale red. It had been commissioned long ago if the peeling paint was anything to go by.

“This is the Ruby Shop,” Feyra continued. “Sorry, but I’ve never been anywhere fancier than this…” Her face was filled with anxiety, as if she expected me to object.

“You needn’t worry so much,” I chided. “A gilded appearance does not always translate to better service.” My words did nothing to reduce the terror in her eyes, and I couldn’t stop myself from grimacing. Wanting to escape the expression she bore, I turned to the establishment and opened the door. 

Although the shop had seemed quite large from without, the interior was surprisingly cramped. Cabinets lined the walls, containing downward slanted shelves with interspaced ridges that held various accessories in place. Although I saw a large selection of jewelry, with a wide variety of designs, the majority of them were constructed of copper or brass. Most likely the ‘stones’ set inside them were nothing more than pretty glass. 

In the center of the room were four long counters pressed together, positioned to form a rectangle. Rather than solid tops, these display cases were covered by wooden slats. Stepping forward and peering between them, I could see pieces made with silver and gold. There were hinges on the counter’s inner edge and a small locked latch on the side closest to me.

“If you want a proper look at something, just ask,” called a gruff voice from the far-right corner of the room. Turning in that direction revealed a rather squat man, whose feet did not reach the ground despite the short stature of his stool. The bushy black beard that covered half his face was streaked with gray, and there were wrinkles around his red eyes. Was this the shopkeeper, then?

Before I could inquire, the man’s attention shifted away from me towards my companion, and his lips pulled into a scowl. “Oh, so she’s with you, brat. We can skip the useless chatter then - Amessa’s in the back.”

“She’s here for you, old man,” Feyra spat back. “Be happy you have a customer for once and treat her with a little respect.”

“A customer, eh?” The jeweler looked me up and down, but the frown never left his face. If anything he seemed even less pleased with my presence. “You go daft, brat? What’s the point in bringing a high-class lady here? You think I got anything of interest for someone who could buy up my shop on a whim?”

Feyra stepped forward, but I held up a hand to stop her progress. The withering look faded from her eyes in an instant, and her mouth snapped shut. She stepped back, exiting my sight as I stifled a tired sigh. Seeing how Feyra behaved towards those who didn’t scare her drove home just how much of her true self she’d been hiding from me. What exactly had I done to make someone with such an abrasive personality turn timid? Unfortunately, this was neither the time nor place for a heart to heart chat. Instead, I reluctantly shifted my attention back to the shop’s proprietor. 

“I’m not sure how you guessed my status, but I won’t try to deny it, nor will I feign interest in your wares. I came in the hopes of selling my own goods.” 

The shopkeeper’s frown had not relaxed at all, but at least it hadn’t grown any worse. Although he was still glaring at me, I thought I saw a spark of curiosity in those red eyes. The seconds ticked by without a response, however, and I began to wonder if I had imagined it. I glanced back at Feyra, hoping that she could tell me whether his silence was meant as a rejection, only to discover her staring at the man too intensely to even take notice of me. For some reason, despite her scowl, the look in Feyra’s eyes could only be described as pleading.

Unable to read the intentions of either party, I saw little choice but to press forward and hope for the best. Reaching into the Empty Bag at my waist, I pulled out two gems, a ruby and a sapphire, each small enough for me to close my hands about them both at once. I had little idea as to their worth in human lands, but I hoped that they would net me more than three saints between them. If not, I would have to draw out one of my larger stones.

“Those…” The word was uttered in a low pitch, his voice far softer than it had been so far. I fought to keep myself from smiling, knowing he’d spoken too quietly for a human to hear. My brief happiness faded however, when the man went quiet, simply staring at the gems. 

The silence dragged on, my anxiety growing stronger with each passing moment. Were these stones perhaps more valuable than I’d anticipated? I was starting to regret my choice to take out two at once. I cannot say how long the shopkeeper’s silence lasted, but I felt nothing but relief when it was finally broken with a grunt.

“Never thought I’d see something like those in this dingy shop,” the man admitted, again speaking under his breath, before raising his voice enough for everyone to hear. “If you weren’t so obviously highborn, I’d be telling you off for trying to fence your stolen goods in my shop. As is, I’m just gonna ask what the hell made you want to sell them in the outer edge of the city? Nobody who shops here could afford those things.”

“But surely you have contacts who could take them off your hands?” I raised an eyebrow as I spoke, trying to seem confident while resisting the urge to curse. It was clear that the gems I had taken from the vault really were of higher quality than I’d intended. Still, I thought it would be preferable to avoid larger establishments, where I might draw the attention of those familiar with wealthy families. I had no idea how I’d handle it if they started questioning me about my lineage.

The shopkeeper let out another grunt in response, sliding off his stool. He was a little taller than I’d thought, now that I could see him upright; he measured perhaps five feet, or at least somewhere close to it. The look in his eyes, however, remained unpleasant. The only difference was that wariness had joined his mixture of curiosity and anger.

“You didn’t answer my question,” he pointed out, angrily walking toward me.

“Does it matter?” I replied flatly. Although I couldn’t see my expression, I was certain that it was indecipherable. After having spent many nights absorbed in self-pity and misery, I had gotten quite adept at hiding my true feelings.

“Do you think I’m an idiot!?” the shopkeep roared, his expelled spittle landing by my feet. “Being highborn doesn’t mean you’re not trouble! If anything, your kind brings more problems than most! Why should I stick my neck out for someone who’d treat me like dirt if she didn’t need me?”

Anger flared to life within me, matching the proprietor’s own fury. I could accept the hatred of those who I had wronged. I knew full well that I deserved that and more from my own people, but this man’s harsh judgment, based purely on the perceived circumstances of my birth, was different. It brought to mind the treatment my kind received from humans for the simple crime of existing.

The shopkeep took a step backward, almost tripping over his own feet in his haste to get away from me. Only then did I realize I was scowling, my fists tightly clenched. I did not want to imagine how terrible the look in my eyes must have been to have inspired such fear. To think that I would have so little control of myself! Despite Abigail’s continual insistence that I had become a better person, it was clear that in my core I remained unchanged, as terrible as I had ever been. 

This time I did not bother to supress my sigh. Letting my hands relax, I shook my head in disappointment with myself. 

“It seems I’ve let my anger get the best of me. I would ask that you refrain from making assumptions about others with so little evidence, but I doubt it would mean much coming from me, considering how my actions have likely strengthened your opinions. I am sorry for my rudeness, for the record.” I gave Feyra a bitter smile. “I apologize to you as well. It seems I’ll have to drag you about a little longer than I intended.”

I put the stones back in my bag, and walked to the door. I didn’t dare look at Feyra as I passed her by; I had no desire to see how much her fear of me had grown. Even if she hadn’t seen the anger on my face, she couldn’t have missed the shopkeeper’s reaction, or my fists. I could only hope that she’d still be willing to guide me, in light of her promised reward. I wanted to end the day as quickly as I could. Hopefully I'll have better luck pretending to be a good person tomorrow.

“Wait a damned second!”

My hand, which was already reaching for the door, hesitated for a moment, before falling to my side. I turned back, not bothering to hide the mix of curiosity and regret running through me. I doubted the shopkeeper would believe the sincerity of the latter, but I couldn’t muster up enough energy to hold my emotions back.

The man was scowling, his eyes focused upon the unadorned stone floor. I watched him in silence, as the expression on his face grew darker and darker, his jaw becoming so tense that it seemed like his teeth would break under the strain. Finally, he glared up at me, anger burning in his eyes. Knowing he could do nothing to harm me didn’t prevent a thrill of fear from running up my spine. Was this how I had made him feel? I had truly done something terrible.

“You…” The shopkeep took a deep breath, then pursed his lips and released a loud sigh, the anger visibly melting away as the air left him. “I was never very good at being polite. My pa always claimed I could go places if I got better with it. Ma said I was more likely to get myself killed if I tried. Say the wrong word to a highborn, and your head’s on the chopping block, y’know? Always thought that was better than having to suck up to some brat, though.” He shuffled his feet, slightly, and rubbed the back of his head. “Figured if doing business with you was gonna get me in trouble, one way or the other, I might as well go out the way I wanted to… Regretted it pretty damn quickly when you looked at me like that, though.”

My heart twinged as my guilt grew. I still had no idea how he’d pieced together my high status - surely my clothes weren’t that much of a giveaway!? - but I should have reconsidered my plan the moment he realized I was from the upper echelons. Judging by this man’s reactions, it seemed that human nobles were far from kind. By failing to take that into account I had caused him to fear for his life.

“Didn’t help that your girl there looked like she was gonna faint by the time I finished speaking.”

I glanced back at Feyra, surprised and ashamed to see that she looked pale as a ghost. If the proprietor was to be believed, her fear had started with his words, rather than my reaction. Was that a sign that she’d shared the shopkeeper's expectations? If she’d suspected I was of noble lineage from the start, it might explain her behavior so far.

I wanted to ask her, but it would have to wait. She was shuddering, her pink eyes desperately avoiding mine. That, combined with her silence, told me she had no desire to enter this conversation. For now, I turned my attention back to the shopkeeper.

“I truly am sorry for putting you under such strain. I did not fully consider how my presence here would look.” As tempting as it was to lay some of the blame at Feyra’s feet, she had only been driven by a fear of retribution should she fail me. If I’d put more thought into why she was so terrified of me, none of this would have happened.

For some reason, the shopkeeper's mouth twisted up in displeasure at my words. “Never thought I’d hear a highborn apologizing,” he muttered. “Yet alone twice… Something unnatural about it. Makes my skin crawl.”

I opened my mouth, only to pause. Since my contrition was the very thing I wished to apologize for, I wasn’t entirely sure how to proceed. Lost in my thoughts, I almost missed it when the man began to speak again.

“Worst part of it is that I’m the one who did the insulting, and yet you’re saying sorry like it’s natural. And Goddess help me, I think you mean it.” He scowled again. “What’s your name, girl?”

I gawked at the man, my brain on standby as I attempted to process his words. While I wouldn’t say the shopkeeper had been right to judge me sight unseen, I had most definitely overreacted to what was ultimately a minor slight. Why was he speaking as if he was in the wrong?

“I-” I opened my mouth to correct him, but the words caught in my throat when he glared at me again.

“Your name, girl.” The shopkeeper’s tone matched the anger in his eyes. It would brook no argument.

“Eena…” I paused for a moment, before adding, “Divington.” I was grateful that I’d already decided upon my false identity’s family name, even if it was as simple as copying Jacob’s. Although I had no intention of spreading it around, a human noble would almost certainly be expected to have one.

The man grunted in response, then ran his hand along the base of his beard. “Divington, huh? Don’t know that name… Never seen clothes like yours either. You not from around here?”

“No. I’m not.” I kept my tone neutral, and my reply terse, hoping to get my message across. I had no knowledge of human kingdoms or cities; making up a homeland was far too great a risk, with no discernable reward.

The shopkeep grunted in acknowledgement. “Name’s Gerard. Let that girl out for some fresh air, eh? We can talk business while she’s gone.”

I nodded in agreement. Feyra must have noticed, since she was already heading for the door by the time I turned around. The way her hand trembled when she reached for the handle convinced me to focus on Gerard instead.

“Earlier, you seemed to think dealing with me would be too great a risk. May I ask what changed your mind?”

“Well, the fact that you’re not from around here helps a bit… Don’t know your reasons for coming here, but I’m thinking your problems are less likely to bite me if they’re not rooted here.” The corner of Gerard’s mouth curved upward in the first smile I’d seen from him. “‘Sides, you don’t act like any noble I’ve ever heard of, begging my pardon like that. Too bad I value my hide too much to spread the tale. Might have earned me a couple drinks at the pub.” He was grinning broadly, now, which made it clear that he was mostly joking.

“Well, I can worry about that when this is done,” he continued. “For now, why don’t you show me one of those pretty stones?”

“Just one?” I asked, reaching back into my bag. I decided on the ruby since it was a close match for Gerard’s eyes. It was rather flimsy as reasons went, but for a choice as inconsequential as this, it was as good a reason as any.

“Just one,” Gerard confirmed, his lips turning downward again. I couldn’t help wondering how could manage a business like this when he was so quick to show his temper to clientele. “Getting rid of this thing is gonna be trouble enough. You must live with your head in the clouds if you think I know anyone who could buy them both.”

Taking the ruby from my hand, Gerard walked back to his starting corner and climbed atop his stool. Grabbing a lit lantern from the wall, he held the gem up to the light and examined it from every angle. Then he put the lantern back and hopped down, walking back to me. His lips were pressed together so tightly that I could hardly tell where one ended and the other began.

“Best I can do for you is a downpayment - and at a fraction of its worth, too. Can’t tell you how much I’d be giving you at the end, either. I’ve got no idea how much it’s worth, let alone what I’ll be able to sell it to another jeweler for. Can’t say when you’d get your money, either - could be a few weeks.” He shook his head, and let out a short, bitter laugh. “Like hell anyone would go for that. Don’t worry, I can name a few shops that could buy it properly.”

“I’d rather sell it here if it’s all the same to you,” I stated, my voice resolute.

Gerard gave me another hard stare. “Just promise me I won’t get beheaded over this.”

I frowned, thinking it over for a moment. I could see apprehension spreading across Gerard’s face; he was obviously disconcerted that I could not immediately respond. “I cannot guarantee the future,” I confessed at last, “but I can come close. The gem is rightfully mine, and your purchase is hardly a crime. I truly cannot see someone hunting you down for something as minor as this.”

Gerard studied me, looking for any sign of a lie as he weighed my words. I was confident in my assertion though. Even if I failed in my own plans, even if I was killed, I had spoken to far too many people - including the Heroine herself - for the church to execute them all. If nothing else, Lucy would never allow it.

After a long while, Gerard lowered his head, and began to stroke his beard, muttering to himself. Although I felt guilty for eavesdropping, nothing short of blocking my ears would prevent me from hearing his words. “She really is trouble but she’s pretty decent for a noble, I guess. Leaving her to stew in hot water by myself… Could get killed if I do it. Likely won’t ever see her again if I don’t. Not knowing if she survived or not… Go down one road I might die, go down the other and I’ll have nightmares for life…” 

Gerard lifted his head and stared into my eyes. I wondered if he could see the guilt in them. I didn’t want him putting himself at risk out of concern for me, but I couldn’t afford to turn down what help I could get. My mission was too crucial to my people’s future.

“...Screw it!” he exclaimed suddenly, displaying the brightest smile I’d seen from him. “I doubt I’ll ever see another stone so clear and flawless, no matter how long I live. Let’s talk shop.”



***

 

I trailed behind Feyra, this time walking at a much more reasonable pace. In the end, Gerard and I had negotiated a downpayment of five saints, paid to me through a mixture of the various coins. I would come back in a month, and would claim seventy-five percent of the profits, minus what he’d already disbursed. I had no idea if that was a good deal or not. I wanted to believe that Gerard wasn’t the sort to cheat me, but my inexperience in such matters had been quite obvious. Honestly, I was just glad that he’d attributed any ignorance to my status. Nobles would normally have servants making their purchases for them, after all. That hadn’t prevented his exasperation when I asked for information on the local currency though. 

Still, the information I’d gained was worth a few eye rolls and exaggerated groans. As it turned out, human currency was quite a bit different from ours. We collectively referred to our coins as ‘fallens’, while humans had different names for each denomination. Golden saints were worth ten silver crosses, which were worth ten copper virtues. These coins were minted by the church, which allowed for standardized currency throughout the continent.

The true value of each coin was still a mystery to me, but even I could see that saints were worth quite a bit. It was hard to believe that Feyra’s debt of five crosses had somehow ballooned to such an extent. This ‘Mama Marion’... Just how desperate did you have to be to borrow from her? I knew there was nothing I could do for Feyra, short of paying her - I had no power to arrest her ‘benefactor’, and I didn’t even know if the woman’s actions would be considered criminal. All the same, the idea of capitulating to her unreasonable interest rates was a bitter one. When I thought about how many others she’d taken advantage of I wondered, briefly, how much force I could put into a punch without killing someone.

That was a dangerous thought, one I had to destroy before it could take root. Compared to the threat of extinction faced by my people, loan sharks were hardly worthy of attention. I was here to deepen my relationship with Lucy, not to fight against injustice within a human city. I needed her to trust me enough to accept my true self. Only then could we forge a lasting peace between demons and humans. Perhaps then I’d be able to do as I pleased… 

“We’re here.” 

Feyra’s voice brought me to a halt, both physically and mentally. Looking about, I quickly spotted our destination: the Queen’s Crown. It was quite close to the adventurer’s guild, which Feyra had shown me a few minutes prior. Its sign featured a yellow crown, with the same color decorating its walls. Its slanted shingle roof, was a shade of orange quite similar to that of Lucy’s eyes. The combination of my title, with Lucy’s coloring, made me smile faintly from amusement. It was almost as if someone had merged our features.

“That’s all, right?” Feyra asked me. Although her body had stopped trembling, the fear had not left her voice. Her opinion of me was another thing I couldn’t spend time fixing.

“That’s all,” I confirmed, reaching into my bag for her promised reward. Her body tensed when I held out the coins, but she kept her hand steady, positioning it a few inches below mine. I dropped the saints into her palm, choosing to avoid skin contact. She stared at the coins for a moment, then curled her fingers about them and took a step backward, her eyes on me the entire time. After putting a little more distance between us, she turned and fled. I watched her run for a moment, before turning around and heading back the way we’d come.

It didn’t take long to reach the adventurer’s guild. I hadn’t taken the time to study it before, what with Feyra’s clear desire to finish the tour quickly, so this time I intended to examine it in detail before going inside. 

It was fairly tall by the standards of this city, though I doubted it had more than two floors. It was built of red bricks, which matched its red shingle roof. The door was unpainted, allowing it to stand out against the red. I could tell that the building had been built with utility in mind, with little concern for decoration. The unpainted bricks, and large size, allowed it to stand out, while the door’s naked wood made the entrance easy to spot. I couldn’t say for sure whether other branches of the guild followed this pattern, but the residents, at least, would be able to recognize the building on sight. Even if they didn’t, its sign, which depicted two swords crossed against each other, was almost certainly standardized.

Satisfied, I opened the door and took my first step inside.

The interior of the building was just as plain as its exterior. The floors were hard stone, and the walls were constructed of more brick. A long, narrow counter stood at the back of the room, starting at the left wall, and stretching toward the right, ending just short of the opposite side. The remaining space, which was bridged by a plank of wood, looked spacious enough for a person to walk through. Directly behind it was a wooden door.

Looking toward the left, I saw a multitude of papers, attached to the wall by rows of small hooks. A few people were studying the flyers. Although I couldn’t read any text from my current position, it seemed safe to assume they detailed potential quests. I would have to look into it later.

For now, I was more concerned by the way people were responding to my presence. I was already aware that I stood out, thanks to my interactions with Feyra and Gerard, but I hadn’t expected so many strong reactions. About two thirds of the adventurers were staring at me, some with hostility, some with cautious curiosity, most with various mixtures of the two. The moment I looked toward any of them, they would shirk away from me, acting as if they were focused on something else. The remaining third of those present were trying their best not to look at me at all.

Perhaps my clothes really were giving away my status? The material worn by the locals had a much rougher look to them. Most of them didn’t seem to be particularly colorful either. I would have to consider visiting a tailor in the near future, even if it meant taking precautions against my fellow demons finding out. I didn’t relish the idea of purposefully dressing in uncomfortable clothes, but standing out to this extent wouldn’t do. 

Well, it was something I could worry about tomorrow. For now, I moved towards the counter. It had been split into four, with three wooden dividers projecting vertically from its surface. Each segment had someone sitting behind it and with a procession of people before it. I aimed for the leftmost section, as it had the shortest line. Not that it particularly mattered, as everyone immediately in it scattered the moment my destination became clear. It took effort not to pout as I made my way to the now cleared counter, especially as the brunette receptionist sitting behind it was so obviously displeased by my choice. At least she was professional enough not to flee.

“My apologies for the disturbance, My name is Eena. May I ask yours?”

“E-Erina, my Lady.” She pushed her chair back as she spoke, toppling it in her hurry, and performing a clumsy curtsy. “C-can I - I mean, um, wh- Um.” Her face was losing color, paling further each time she stumbled over a word.

“It’s alright, you can take your time. I don’t bite.” I tried to make myself smile, despite knowing how fake it would look. Perhaps it was for the best that her head remained bowed, preventing her from seeing it.

“Th-thank you for… Um… I mean…” Erina trailed off, biting her lip. I watched silently, desperately trying to come up with something I could say or do to help her calm down. It was useless; everything I came up with could all too easily make things worse.

I was considering whether it would be best to leave, and come back later in some sort of hooded cloak, when I heard the back door swing open, drawing my attention to the left side of the room. A giant of a man, a little over six feet tall, walked through it. He had the look of a warrior to me; a strong one by human standards, though it was hard to describe why I felt that way. His physique was actually quite slim, without any visible muscles. He’d shorn his blue hair close to his scalp, but whether that was a fashion choice, or a way to prevent his enemies from gripping onto it, I really couldn't say. There was a rough looking scar across his right cheek, but I had no way of knowing whether or not it came from a fight or an accident. If I was forced to give a reason for my impression, I could only say that there was a certain confidence in the way he held himself. He was walking into a room full of adventurers, some of the strongest humans to be found in this city, and yet he didn’t seem nervous at all. In fact, he was glowering as he looked around. At least until he noticed me.

The moment he realized that I was looking in his direction, all traces of emotion disappeared from his face. It was actually a little unsettling; if that was how I looked, it might be better to show my emotions more freely after all.

We kept our eyes on each-other as he walked forward, maintaining perfect eye contact. I found myself wondering how he’d handle it if an obstacle was placed in his path. Would he even notice it, while staring so intensely? The thought made me smile, despite the rough day I’d had so far .

The man came to a stop behind Erina and reached out to lightly tap her on the shoulder, never taking his eyes off mine. The receptionist jumped in surprise, a look of pure panic on her face, but the moment she saw the man her expression changed to relief. 

“G-Guild Master! I-I…” She cast me another fearful look, then turned back to the man, silently pleading for release.

“It’s alright, Erina,” the guild master said, his voice softening. “Why don’t you take your break?”

“Thank you!” She ran straight for the door the man had come through, not once looking back.

“I apologize for Erina’s behavior, My Lady.” His voice was soft and polite, but the warmth he used when speaking with the receptionist was nowhere to be found. His voice, much like his face, was completely devoid of emotion. “How can this humble establishment help you today?”

I grimaced, deciding it might be best to let my discomfort show. “Please, call me Eena. I prefer not to stand on formality.”

The guild master’s brow furrowed for a moment, before smoothing over just as quickly. “I would never dream of being so disrespectful, my L-”

A glare from me pushed the words back down his throat. I let my glower fade once I was certain my message was clear, but kept up my frown. “My name is Eena. I won’t force you to use it if it makes you uncomfortable, but please don’t use rudeness as an excuse. If you truly wish to respect me, Guild Master, then you should extend that same respect to my request.”

The man fell silent, his eyes briefly losing their focus. I could only guess at what was going through his mind; his expression was as impassive as ever. After a moment, his eyes moved to meet mine again. There was an edge to his gaze that hadn’t been there before.

“If you’re certain Eena…” His eyes sharpened further as he trailed off. I smiled in return, pleased by his acquiescence. “In that case, let’s drop the titles altogether. My name is Denden.”

“As you wish.”My smile grew. Denden was obviously suspicious of my intentions, but it was a step in the right direction, nonetheless.

“So what can we do for you, Eena?” His tone was as courteous as ever, but at least he’d dropped some of the formality in his speech.

“I wish to become an adventurer.”

“We’ll need to fill out some paperwork then, and discuss the ground rules. We can make use of my office, if you’d like.”

That…was odd. I’d expected another expression of surprise, but the guild master responded without any hesitation.

“That would probably be best. I assume it’s past that door, yes? Shall I head to the far right side, or would you prefer me to hop over the counter?”

This time the guildmaster responded with a frown. I could tell he was confused as he looked me over once again, his gaze lingering on my hands a moment or two longer than anywhere else. Whatever Denden was looking for, he seemed to find it quickly, as he soon met my eyes once more. “I think climbing over the counter would be too much of a shock for people. If you don’t mind, I’d prefer we both walk to the other side.”

“As you wish,” I replied, turning to follow his instructions. Denden was obviously underestimating me, if he thought I would need to clamber over an obstacle that only reached partway up my chest, but perhaps that was for the best. I wasn’t entirely certain what the average human was capable of in this world.

I traced the length of the counter, with Denden perfectly matching my pace. I paid no heed to the lines between me and my destination, as those in them quickly moved aside to let me pass. I knew it was rude, but I didn’t think walking around them would be any better. If I was bound to disrupt guild business regardless, I might as well take the shortest route.

I paused upon reaching the far wall, turning to face Denden on the other side of the wooden partition. He lifted the plank of wood that blocked off the gap between the counter and the wall, allowing me through. He did not wait for my thanks, heading toward the door he’d come from without saying a word. I followed his lead, quietly walking through the door and closing it behind me.

I found myself in a wide hallway, with a staircase to the left, numerous doors on the right, and what looked to be an open space at the end. I noticed Erina sitting down at the end, leaning over a table with her head buried in her arms. Fortunately, Denden was moving toward the stairs. I wanted to get out of Erina’s potential line of sight quickly, before I could cause her any more stress.

The remaining trek was uneventful. Denden was completely silent as he led me up the staircase and down another hallway, stopping in front of a door at the far end. He opened it without a word, strolled inside, and navigated around the large desk that all but filled the room. Once seated in an unpadded wooden chair, he put his elbows on the table, interlaced his fingers, and rested his chin upon them. 

“So you want to become an adventurer.” Denden’s voice was utterly flat, but his eyes were hard as diamonds. 

“That’s correct.” I kept myself from flinching, reminding myself that I was in no danger. No matter how strong he was, he was still only human. 

 

Denden kept up his stare for a moment, then closed his eyes and let out a sigh.

“Why?” The flat tone was gone, replaced by exasperation. “I’ve met a few nobles who wanted to play adventurer over the course of my career, but I still don’t understand why your type thinks it's a good idea. It’s hard work; dirty too. Even with the safer requests, you can still end up facing monsters. I know some nobles are taught to defend themselves against their fellow humans, but fighting those things takes a different skillset. They’re stronger, they’re tougher, and they think differently than we do. And they do think; I’ve seen a lot of good adventurers go down because they thought they were facing dumb beasts. How smart they are can vary, but most of them are at least cunning enough to pull off a dirty trick or two.” 

Denden shook his head. “I’ll help you with the paperwork. There’s no way I can refuse you, and we both know it, but you’re probably the closest thing to a modest noble I’m ever going to meet, so I figure this is my one and only shot at getting a real answer.”

I hesitated, unsure of what to say. I could tell him the truth, that I was hoping to join the Heroine on her adventures as a way of befriending her, but he wasn’t likely to believe that. I needed to stall long enough to think up a response. Hopefully I could buy myself time with a question of my own.

“Before I answer that, can you tell me why you think I’m a noble? I understand that my clothes are of fairly high quality, but isn’t it far more likely that I’m the daughter of a rich merchant, or some such?”

Denden’s lips curled downward. Perhaps he knew I was avoiding his question, but he couldn’t afford to press me. My perceived social standing was too big a threat. He remained silent, choosing his words in advance.

“It’s not just the clothes,” he said, at last. “You could be wearing burlap, and I’d still be able to spot it. Pretty sure anyone could, but it’s even more obvious if you know what to look for.”

“I’m not sure what you mean. What makes it so easy to recognize?” If I knew that, perhaps I could at least keep a low profile amongst those who didn’t know what to look for.

“Everything about you,” he replied, gesturing wildly at my entire person. “We can start with your hygiene - you and your clothes are both too clean.”

I gave a silent nod. The cleanliness was a good lead to work with. I didn’t relish the idea of being covered in dirt, but I could probably manage a little of it. I would simply have to be less liberal with the magic I used to rid myself of it.

“Next up is the way you talk. I mentioned meeting nobles before, but to be honest none of them were that high a rank. I’m guessing you’re a bit further up the food chain; none of them spoke nearly as fancily as you do.”

“I… See.” That would be hard to correct. I’d been speaking this way since I was seven. I’d hoped that styling my words after that of old speeches, from Demon Queens past, would help earn me respect. It was nothing more than a childish misconception, built on the faulty belief that gaining acclaim could somehow make up for the love I’d spectacularly failed to garner, but after so many years it was simply the most comfortable way for me to speak. I wasn’t sure that I was capable of speaking informally without it coming across as stilted. Still, I was willing to try it. Unnatural speech would probably cause suspicion, but it might still create less issues than speaking like a noble.

“And then there’s your skin. You’ve seen enough light to have a healthy color, but you obviously haven’t spent enough time in the sun to get any damage from it. Hell, I don’t see a single blemish anywhere, and no offense, but you’re showing quite a bit.”

That might be an even bigger problem, as I had no idea how to fix it. Doing enough damage to myself to leave a permanent mark would raise far too many questions in the tower, and I wasn’t entirely sure that I could be scarred to begin with.

“But the biggest give away is your hands,” Denden continued, giving them a meaningful glance. “I’ve never seen hands that smooth. Even nobles generally have a couple of calluses, just from sword training, or gripping their horse’s reins, or maybe playing an instrument. You’ve got to be one of the most pampered women in the world to have hands like that. Most people probably wouldn’t spot that, but like I said, if you know what to look for it’s the ultimate tip-off.”

“So there really is no hiding it…” Of course, it wasn’t impossible to disguise the tells he'd revealed to me. I could cover most of my skin, wear gloves, dirty myself up, and find some excuse for my strained speech, but doing all that would only make me stand out in a different way, not to mention the questions it would draw from Lucy.

“Not really, no.” Denden shrugged, sitting back in his chair. “Now, I’ve answered your question - are you going to answer mine?” There was an intense look in his eyes, implying that he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“Certainly, so long as you cease these attempts at intimidating me.” I matched guild masters stare with one of my own. Denden had given me valuable information, and I intended to respond in turn as best I could, but that didn’t mean I would let him bully me. I needed to put my foot down here and now, for the sake of our future interactions.

The guild master looked away, ending our impromptu staring competition. When he turned his head back to face me there was displeasure evident in his lowered brow, but the pressure from before was nowhere to be found. 

I dipped my head in acknowledgement. “As it happens, I am joining for the sake of a friend, as I wish to join her in her adventures. I won’t give you her name - I doubt you’d believe me, and you’ll discover it soon enough anyway.”

“I see.” The terse response did nothing to hide Denden’s doubt, but I made no attempt to defend myself. Technically Lucy was more of an acquaintance at this point, but since she herself seemed determined to befriend me, I was certain she’d happily corroborate my statement. She might even be excited to find out that I’d referred to her in such a way. 

An image of Lucy, jumping for joy and squealing about friendship popped into my head, causing me to chuckle, and then blush when I noticed Denden’s bewilderment. I lowered my head and coughed into a fist, trying to hide my face until it could return to its natural color. 

“If that is all,” I said, head still downturned, “then I think it’s time we moved onto paperwork.”

Denden scrutinized me for a moment longer, but by the time I’d recovered myself enough to look up at him, he’d already moved on. I watched as he drew a piece of paper from his desk drawer, followed by a thin booklet bound by thread. “I’ll fill out everything for you. Just tell me how I should write your name, and give me your height. Usually someone would give you an overview of the guild rules, but it’ll be faster if you just read them over for yourself.

I nodded, taking the booklet. The words Guild Rules were written in large black letters upon its front. 

“E-E-N-A. Five foot four.” I carefully opened the pamphlet to its first page, choosing not to look at Denden’s expression. I was, perhaps, a little on the small side, though I hated to admit it. If he was amused by that, then I didn’t want to see it on his face.

Reading the rules, I quickly discovered that the code of conduct was surprisingly lax, and could mostly be summed up as ‘don’t cause problems for the guild’. Doing so could get you ousted from the branch you’d troubled, though it wouldn’t get you banned from the organization itself. I intended to ask Denden why that was, but as I read further the reason became quite clear. The individual guild halls didn’t generally communicate with one another. Those located within this kingdom sent reports to a central branch in the capital city, which in turn passed information on to an international headquarters in another country. There was no efficient method of disseminating information, so banning someone was virtually impossible. Even if you managed to track them down and take away their guild card, they could simply apply all over again in a new location. As such, they viewed any criminal activity as the government’s purview.

I skimmed through the rest, noting information about time limits on requests, fines for failure, and the process of taking a request. It was apparently uncommon for adventurers to be literate, as the system had been designed with those who couldn’t read in mind. The guild used a multitude of standardized stamps to show the nature of the request. They also listed numbers, 1-6, to rank its difficulty. The adventurer could use that information, combined with the listed reward, to pick out flyers that looked interesting and then bring them to a receptionist. An adventurer could take any request they desired, regardless of its rank. If they bit off more than they could chew, then they would simply have to learn from it. Assuming they survived, of course.

Other than that, the most pertinent information was the requirements for becoming an adventurer. It wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped it would be. While anyone could join the guild by filling out the paperwork and paying the five virtue fee, I would have to start out as a “rookie,” rather than a full-fledged adventurer. The former could only take a request when accompanied by the latter. Rookies would first need to earn two stamps, bycompleting two successful missions with an adventurer escort. They could only take gathering requests for the first of these, but the second was unrestricted.

After they’d accomplished that, you could become a full adventurer by paying the membership fee, which consisted of one saint. That was quite a large sum from my understanding, mind you, and a further stipulation stated that they had to earn it all via adventuring work. Since individual guild branches didn’t share information, you had to stay with a singular branch from start to finish.

The entire thing sounded like a massive headache. I would have considered abandoning the idea altogether in favor of simply asking Lucy to let me accompany her, if it wasn’t for a single paragraph at the booklet’s end, which mentioned guild cards being a valid form of identification when traveling.

I would have prayed, hoping that Lucy would be willing to help me with some of the more lucrative requests, if only there was someone in heaven worth praying to.

“Rookie card’s finished,” Denden informed me, once I’d closed the booklet. “Fee’s five virtues.” He placed a small card upon the edge of the desk closest to me. While the full-membership cards supposedly utilized a special type of paper, this one was made of the same flimsy stuff as the booklet. It was, to my surprise, done in the same handwriting as the pamphlet I’d just read. 

The word ‘rookie’ was written at the top, and Denden had signed it at the bottom. In the center, it listed my fake name, the color of my eyes and hair, and finally my height. Seeing a written record of how short I was made me wish I’d thought to lie. It wasn’t as if Denden had a way to measure me.

Cursing my own honesty, I placed the required virtues on the desk, and was about to pick up the card when Denden placed an identical card beside it, along with a small inkpot. “Dip your thumb in that, then use your magic to remove most of it - you just want enough to barely coat your skin. Then press your thumb against the right hand corner. Do the same for the other one, too; we’ll keep that copy at the guild. We check that whenever you complete a request. Helps cut down on card thefts.

I stared at the guildmaster, surprised at seeing a concept I knew from Jacob’s memories being put to use like this in Solla, but did as asked after regaining my composure. 

“Alright, then,” Denden said, picking up one of the cards, and handing me the other. “Welcome to the Adventurer’s Guild, rookie. Let me show you out.”

“Thank you, Denden. Or should that be Guild Master, now?” My tone was light, but Denden’s lips didn’t so much as twitch in the face of my teasing.

“I’d prefer Guild Master when you’re talking about me around others. Use whatever you’d like in private.” Stating such, he walked past me and out the door. I followed close behind him, down the stairs and out to the front, where I once again I had eyes on me. I didn’t bother listening to the words they whispered amongst themselves as I headed for the exit. The overlapping conversations were little more than white noise to me, so long as I didn’t hone in on any one of them.

I was reaching for the door when it suddenly swung outward, revealing a young woman. Her upper body was covered in metal armor, colored gold and black. Whoever made it for her must have done so with her measurements in mind, as it was shaped to accentuate her curves. Gold painted pauldrons topped her shoulders, while similarly decorated bracers and greaves protected her arms and legs. She wore a leather skirt made up of black strips and golden studs. Her left hand was protected by a gauntlet, and a large sword was buckled to that same side. She had red hair, and orange eyes, which were opened wide. 

“Eena?” Her voice was barely a whisper, a far cry from what I’d normally expect from her. I was sure she’d make up for it, though, just as soon as she recovered from her shock.

“Hello, Lucy. It’s good to see you.” I felt my lips pulling into a smile as I spoke. I had come early specifically so that I could settle in before our scheduled rendezvous, but I didn’t mind. I was happy to see her, if only because I’d spent the day amongst people who wanted me gone.

From the smile on Lucy’s face, it seemed that the feeling was mutual.

 

***Author's Commentary***

 

Hey there! I know I don't usually do much of an "author's commentary" on my chapters, but I think this one warrants it, seeing as it represents a bit of a landmark (at least from my perspective).

On top of Lucy being back in the mix – yay! - there’s the fact that we’re finally at the adventurer’s guild! Which I guess basically translated to, “Kay gets to do an exposition dump!” I hope you can forgive me for it, though – believe it or not, I did my best to leave a fair bit out, in favor of bringing it up when the info becomes relevant. I actually planned out the basics of the guild’s system and rules quite a while back, and have tweaked it several times since. I wanted to make something both functional and unique, so quite a bit of planning went into it!

We also got a peek at what Devilla’s childhood was like, here. Her past is another thing I’ve spent a lot of time on, but I honestly didn’t expect it to come up here – it’s just where the story ended up going. I don’t want to give away too much, but I will say that we’ll be expounding upon this, and several other key events, over the course of the story. Just the occasional glimpse, here and there, for the time being, but long term… Well, you’ll see. :D

Anyway, the next chapter will actually be an interlude. It’ll be labeled chapter 13.5, and it will be written from Abigail’s perspective, as she continues her quest for peppermint oil! Please look forward to it~

I'd like to thank to my editor paradoxicalWitchling and my proofreader FallingLeaf, for all their hard work, and I'd like to thank my readers! Your views, favorites, and comments bring me so much joy!

 

If you can afford it, please consider joining my Patreon! The lowest tier (a dollar) gets you access to Demon Queened chapters while they're still in the editing stage (as well as the edited stage, if they're done within two weeks) while the upper tiers gives you access to my one-shots, a month before they're released to the public!

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Comments

Another great chapter

Can't hardly wait for the next

EllieJo Jayne

Eena is progressing

Julia Miller's picture

I guess we will see how our girl progresses in the guild. If she joins Lucy, it won't be long before she is a full-fledged adventurer.