“Mind if I join you?” Eryn eyed the two of us. Instinctively, I scooted over to give her a place to sit.
Eryn was usually a busy person, having to manage the new duties of being a Marchioness. The activities in the domain were booming, motivated by the progressive nature of craftsmen and merchants centered in the area. Though Dengel was head of the actual trading company, many permissions and the general direction of the domain had to go through her approval. That meant sifting through endless mounds of paperwork. ‘Her favorite.’
The construction of the new capital within her domain was another point of complexity. Normally, the Duke, or in this case Duchess, would act closely with royalty to oversee the Kingdom of Sistina’s activities.
With the way things have developed, the Faulkner domain already had a firm grasp of the economy and livelihood that made it the center of the kingdom. In essence, Eryn had taken upon a significant portion of duties expected for a Duke and was trusted to continue with it.
In the meantime, the current Duchess, Cornelius von Reichenstein, shouldered the military aspect of the nation. In addition to the guild of Magic Knights and coordination of the lords’ armies, she had taken charge of the facilities that raised capable fighters and magicians.
One could say that each side had taken up half of the original responsibilities given to a Duke. At this point, the distribution of power made sense, given the many problems in the past.
On the other hand, gaining the full support of royalty now made Eryn’s work easier than it had been before. At the very least, her subordinates didn’t have to take extra measures as they had done when King Oswald sat on the throne. Despite showing some rivalry, Eryn and Katalina were on friendly terms, and they held a certain level of trust in each other. Overall, it was a less stressful time than before.
Almost every day, we would run into her for lunch. Sometimes, it was a brief passing due to a scheduling conflict, but other times like today, she would dine with us.
Alice came back with our food and noticed the extra person.
“Ah, Marchioness Faulkner. I’ll bring your order right away, since you notified us ahead of time.”
“Alice, you know that you can drop the title and refer to me the same way as Dengel does…”
“Right, Miss Faulkner then.” Alice looked around to check if anyone was watching her. Commoners were ever so self-conscious of these kinds of things.
I picked up a spoon and dug into my quiche. The crisp pie crust breaking apart filled the air with an aromatic scent drifting to my nose, whetting my appetite. If Chrys had made this, then her skills had certainly become much better. A spoonful of mixed ingredients housed within a thick block of fluffy egg was shoved into my mouth.
That was when tragedy struck.
A rubbery, earthy flavor assaulted my tongue, making my hands reach up to cover my mouth.
The two girls eyed me strangely as I contemplated on what to do. Hidden within the quiche was a distinct texture of shredded shiitake mushrooms, my dreaded enemy.
I wanted to gag and spit it out, but that would be shameful. Especially, if they were to convey my reaction to Chrys, who made the darn thing. I could imagine it bringing her to tears.
‘Only one thing to do.’
I rolled the half-chewed mixture with my tongue and forced the whole glob down. This limited further exposure to my taste buds.
“Claude, what’s wrong?” Eryn finally asked once the immediate danger had passed.
“N-Nothing, I just… um… bit my tongue. That’s all! It’s really good, you know…”
My eyes darted towards the portal leading to the Item Box I just willed into existence. Reaching into it, I looked for some solution to my current issue. My hand pulled out a bottle of red liquid, which made Eryn shiver instinctively.
“All it needs is a little kick.” I dumped the hot pepper sauce onto the quiche, dyeing the surface in red before using my spoon to spread it all around. The spiciness no doubt soaked into the porous material of the fluffy egg.
“A little, you say….” Even Saki’s face was turning a bit pale at this point. She could handle a little heat, but it was approaching Roderick level spiciness.
This was, of course, intentional. I took a big bite of the quiche, letting the sauce take effect on my tongue. The intense burning sensation numbed my entire range of taste buds and any ability to feel the food, but it was far more tolerable than forcing myself to taste shiitake.
Eryn’s eyes were glued to my eating, a nervous chill running down her. She turned away, unable to bear it any longer, almost knocking her hand into the plate of food that Alice had slipped onto the table while she was distracted.
As I continued to eat the near unbearable spicy quiche with an expression that hid the pain, the other two continued with their meal, convinced that I was enjoying it.
After I had polished off the entire dish, with sips of cola in between as a saving grace, Eryn turned to me with a look of expectation.
“By the way, are you free this afternoon?”
“Saki and I finished the wood gathering request this morning, so I guess so. Why do you ask?”
Suddenly, Eryn gave me a smile. Yet, her eyes weren’t smiling at all.
“Oh, your hot sauce just made me remember. About our promise.”
“Our promise…?” I started sliding away, an ominous feeling overcoming me.
“When you returned, I would roast your buns as thanks for the chili pepper in the eye.”
‘Oh shit. I forgot all about that.’ I moved to run away, but Eryn had already grabbed my collar. In a flash, I was dragged out the door as the other diners looked on with a hint of pity.
“Alice, put the meals on my tab,” I heard Eryn say as I pleaded for Saki to help. She continued to sit there with an apologetic expression before hiding her face behind her teacup.
“Pit of Fire!”
Flames hovered around the ground at my feet, licking at my legs. I swung my mana-infused knife toward the ground in a circle. It extended into a blade, creating a sword-like flash that hacked at the burning grass and cut away the mana fueling the flames. That resulted in a circular patch to safely stand within, an area of extinguished magic.
I had little time to dally before several fireballs were zooming toward my head. With several slices of the air, the flames fizzled out like a blown candlestick.
Not content with that level of torture, Eryn proceeded to cast a larger spell, this time a giant fiery wall that advanced forward.
“Oh my God! Give me a break!” I sliced a vertical arc, and a person-sized hole separated in the wall. I timed it properly such that I could leap through it before the hole closed up again. It would have been a fun sport if only the penalty weren’t so high.
Next, I felt mana start accumulating below me. The warmth at the bottom of my soles was a telltale sign of her next attack. My immediate response was to dive away from the circle before it was caught ablaze.
My knife extinguished another portion of the fire pit, giving me a place to step on. Just in time, a column of fire erupted behind me where I previously was.
I wondered how much longer this would go on. I doubted Eryn was serious about injuring me, but that still didn’t make the situation any easier.
“Are you really holding onto a grudge after such a long time?!” I yelled at her. Her attacks would’ve been quite dangerous for someone other than me.
Eryn lowered her arm, pausing her assault. “No, I’ve long forgiven you for that.”
“Because…” She cast another spell, summoning fire raining from the sky towards me.
I dashed forward and cut down every fiery ball that happened to land my way. With the amount of training I did with Lau, the speed of their approach wasn’t difficult to handle.
On the other hand, a disappointed frown appeared on Eryn’s face. “I realized something, and it really ticks me off.”
“What?” I finally approached her, within grabbing distance. I studied her expression, which suddenly shifted to a downward glance.
“That I can’t beat you. That my abilities pale compared to yours now. My magic can barely stop someone who can cancel it all with a single move. Just look how easily you ended up before me.”
Certainly, I had advanced right up to her without really trying that hard. Any other man would have been long engulfed in the flames.
Eryn drew her sword and swung it horizontally at me. By instinct, I blocked it with my knife, which was able to dampen her high attack power with the layers of mana coating it. She swung several more times, each being met with my knife. Though I ended up taking a step back each time, my guard remained firm.
“Even your fighting abilities have grown tremendously from before. To be able to block these blows.”
Lau’s training and all that I had been through in Sanshiro had forced me to become a capable fighter. Coupled with my critical attacks that could eliminate things in one blow, that was a dangerous combination for any opponent.
“And then, there’s your ‘Soul whatever you call it’ attack!”
‘Soul Rending Strike – Chef-no-Tachi’
That was the name I had given the technique passed on by my previous incarnation. It had the capability to wipe out the miasma or mana signature of something without damaging that around it. By using it on Katalina when she had been possessed by the demon’s core, I was able to cut away the miasma coming from it. No longer feeling resistance, her own mana likely pushed the core out, freeing her from its control. The demon’s core at a weakened state was easy pickings for Eryn afterward.
Had I used it to target someone’s mana, it would have drained them of it, until one’s core naturally refueled the body with more. For combatants like Eryn who relied heavily on mana usage for spells and mobility, my new skill could render a fight over within moments.
The fact that I had become so powerful upon returning to Sistina was unsettling to Eryn apparently. I could tell that she held a certain pride in being the powerful one of our duo. To have that overturned now, a look of anxiety appeared on her face.
“You’re worried? How come?” I, on the other hand, thought she would be happy that I had become strong enough to protect her.
“Look at you, the respected Chancellor of Sistina. Powerful enough to defeat the threat endangering this kingdom. Surely, you don’t need some Master to order you around anymore.”
My mouth clammed shut as I processed her sarcastic praises. So, that was it. Since our standings had changed, the nature of our relationship did as well. At least, that was how she felt.
I sheathed my knife and reached out to clutch her shoulders. Despite the power that she displayed to others and the unshakable will that she possessed, my hands were resting upon the shoulders of an 18-year-old girl, forced to become independent at an early age.
“I like you, Eryn. Even when I was away, I couldn’t stop thinking about you. I wanted to be strong, for your sake. So you wouldn’t have to cover my butt all the time.”
Eryn blinked at my candid confession. Even I was surprised that I had blurted that out suddenly, but I steeled myself for the result. Eryn fidgeted and started fumbling her lips, unsure of what to say. I sighed, regretting that I had put her on the spot. Recalling that I had yet to respond to Katalina, I wasn’t in the position to demand a response.
“You don’t have to answer that. Tell me when you’re ready. But know that I will always be your familiar. I will stand by your side. Not returning my feelings won’t change that. I’ll protect the life we have now in any way I can.”
Eryn looked away, a visible blush on her cheek. If anything, I had grown used to her stubbornness, especially when it came to matters of the heart. Her current hesitancy told me that she considered my feelings to a certain extent. She would tell me when she was ready. Waiting a bit was no big deal.
“Ehem….” The sound of someone coughing interrupted our moment.
We turned in that direction to find Dengel, atop a levi-board, who had somehow found us in this random field that Eryn had chosen for a spar.
“Don’t give me that look. How could I not find you? The scent of things burning could be smelled from miles away. What other lord would raze the fields as part of a sparring session with her servant?”
We looked around at the charred area that only its fiery owner could be responsible for.
“Haha, got us there.” I chuckled. “You need us that you came all the way out here?”
Dengel adjusted his glasses in a way that suggested, ‘Of course, why else would I ride several minutes out to the middle of nowhere for any other reason?’
“I have a task for you, Mr. Chancellor. Something that requires your expertise.”
I felt like something exhausting was in store for me.
“Don’t tell me that there’s more things to cut. Haven’t I gathered enough this morning?”
“On the contrary,” Dengel refuted my statement, “the matter I have in mind could use your culinary expertise. It pertains to a mysterious product that has stricken fear amongst some people. Its name is the Devil’s Fruit.”