Known for artistic displays of Ice magic, Duke Reichenstein was a peculiar person that loved to dabble in creative works and show them off to the public. The current stage had been set up for just another one of ‘his’ famous forms of entertainment.
In the center of an open plaza, Duke Reichenstein, in her guy form, surveyed the crowd before calling out to the audience.
“Welcome, everyone! To this story that I have conjured. Please enjoy, but do take care not to get too close… or you may end up frozen in place by the alluring beauty of my cold touch.”
Duke Reichenstein flaunted theatrically as ‘he’ started off by casting a shower of ice petals that gently snowed upon the audience. Several female members, obviously fans of the Duke, seemed to swoon from ‘his’ actions. It was no secret that many grew to admire this new Duke of Sistina.
“Now, let us begin – the tale of ‘The Warrior Who Dabbles in the Troubles of Romance.”
Ludmila and Alice watched as ice statues were formed and moved about, giving visual life to the story being told. Only a magic user as proficient as the Duke would be able to entertain the crowd in such a manner.
She watched as the hero of the story was attacked by a fire-slinging demoness, chased around by strange creations made by a crafty merchant’s daughter, and hid from a giantess threatening to stomp him underfoot.
The story itself was a romantic comedy involving a brave warrior that caught the eyes of the ladies he encountered. Inadvertently turning his foes into troublesome admirers, his indecisiveness would then bring him no small amount of discord.
More than the story, what caught Ludmila’s eyes were the statues themselves.
They were, of course, made in the image of Master and those she called sisters, bearing uncoincidental resemblances to them. One statue even looked like herself, which Alice pointed to when it appeared in the play.
Ludmila stared blankly at the ice sculpture that comically watched over the hero from the strangest of places – atop trees, hidden inside his wardrobe, and even under his bed.
Romance was not something that crossed her mind, so she could not understand why this character would be compelled to hide in such silly places. ‘Why not approach him directly if she wanted closeness?’ Ludmila wondered as she hid herself only to keep out of her Master’s way. She didn’t think that her actions had been nearly so intentional at aiming for his heart. And better options for disguises danced around her head anyways.
However, Alice seemed to be enjoying it, and that was all that mattered.
The crowd chuckled and cheered their support for the play, which ended with the hero trampled from the combined affections of all the ladies. Perhaps, it was a lesson for others not to cast their bait too far, lest he attract too much prey.
With the crowd disbanding, Alice mentioned to her that her break was over. Ludmila watched as she shuffled back towards the booth she was working at.
Left alone with still time to spare, Ludmila looked around for something to catch her attention. Her eyes soon fixed upon one person in a chef uniform several booths away.
“Oh, let me help you with that!” the man known as Claude, her Master, volunteered to an elderly gentleman who was struggling with his cargo.
Ludmila watched as he stacked the boxes onto his levi-board and carted them to a booth, where others raced up to help receive them. Apparently, the man’s carriage had broken a wheel, leaving him stuck with supplies that were sorely needed.
No sooner than he had finished there, Claude noticed long lines coiling in front of a food stand where patrons were growing increasingly more impatient.
Quickly seeing the problem that they were short-handed during the lunch rush, Claude offered to help them chop ingredients. Initially, the ladies at the booth balked at the very idea of having someone as important as the Chancellor aid them in their chores. However, the image of him brandishing his chef knife in his uniform was too fitting for that of the kitchen. They relented, knowing of his famous cooking skill.
Ludmila noticed the girls, many of them around his age, taking abrupt glances at him. Their awe at his rapid, fluid technique was quite apparent as their eyes lingered. The movements of a skilled chef at work slowly drew more and more of their attention, until their own actions had paused.
In a surprisingly short amount of time, Claude had finished the cutting, making the girls realize that the bottleneck was now at the cooking stage. They turned to the older men at the stoves, presumably their fathers, and quickly restocked their tubs of ingredients.
With nothing else to do and the lines still long, Claude moved over to an open stove and smiled.
“Mind if I cook alongside you? That looks like something that I can handle.”
Of course, if someone like the Chancellor were to step in and offer a hand, there was hardly room to argue. That would have been the case even if the resulting dish would have been horrid. However, the gentlemen knew that they would lose nothing by giving him a temporary place beside them.
“We’d be honored! I’m Tom and that guy is Donny. We’ve been buds working together to feed the townsfolk for like 15 years!”
“Wow, that long? I can see from that line that you’ve certainly got some fans,” Claude cordially joined in the conversation, his hands already in motion at what he excelled at.
“Not as famous as you, Mister Chancellor. You’ve even got us reworking many of our signature dishes,” Donny joked.
Ludmila found herself walking right up to the food stands, the scene drawing her interest. As the two men around Claude worked, he matched their every stroke, copying the dishes that the two friends were known for.
She noticed that Claude had purposefully held back his mana usage, not letting it enhance his cooking like it normally would. That had been a wise decision on his part, as the other two were unable to perform mana-enhanced cooking. It would be rude to intrude upon their craft by presenting a dish that tasted far superior than what the owners could offer.
Ludmila had known it all along. When her Master found something that he was good at, he would spare no small effort in doing it properly, despite his hesitations. If his help could reach someone, he would barely blink before offering it. That was the nature that attracted Ludmila to him in the first place. A ‘Master’ of her home world village invoked the same qualities. They were chosen as those who strengthened the bonds within those of the family.
However, trouble tended to also follow because of it.
“Thanks so much for the help, Mister Chancellor! We blew through the crowd with money bags bursting from the seams!” Tom clapped Claude on the back, already feeling a strong sense of familiarity.
“Man, if only this happened every day, the future of TomDon’s Eatery would be secure!” Donny beamed a toothy smile before a thought passed by his head. “Say, you’re single, right? Do either of our daughters catch your fancy?”
Claude clearly froze at that question. His head turned robotically toward the pair of fair-skinned towngirls, who were slightly blushing at the suggestion. They were certainly not as radiant as the fiery Eryn or brimming with sweet curiosity like Katalina. But still, the normal person would find either one charming.
“Ah, well… That’s true… but…”
Ludmila sighed at her Master’s indecisiveness borne out of politeness and inexperience. Clearly, the two options in front of him would not be favorable to his situation. In terms of compatibility, her big sisters Eryn and Katalina were most suitable for him. Even big sister Saki would be a strong partner due to her abilities. Not to mention, his list of admirers had slowly grown over time – the side effect of position and character.
Just when Ludmila felt like getting involved, Saki suddenly appeared from the crowd, walking up to Claude and whisking him away. He had been saved by her, giving an excuse that he had to continue with patrolling the festivities. The two men looked dejected, having lost their opportunity for instant fame by offering up their daughters. Ludmila found that fortunate as it seemed like her Master could barely decide on his current options. Adding others would simply make things worse.
“Spying on your dearest person of interest?” a flowery voice commented behind her.
Having long sensed her mana approaching for a while, Ludmila did not need to turn to know that the strange, icy friend of her Master’s was there.
“Duke Corny… what business do you have with Ludmila?”
Cornelius winced at that name, which originated from Claude. Lately, even the Queen had started adopting it in private. The casual familiarity between acquaintances had spread to the top of the kingdom. At least, such things created a sense of trust between her peers, especially those that knew that she was a female in disguise.
“I simply saw a young lady vacantly pining for someone like she wanted attention. That is all.”
Despite Cornelius’s teasing, Ludmila’s expression hardly changed. In fact, only a stony face of skepticism was shot back. Not that many could tell that her eyebrows had shifted ever so slightly upwards.
“Pining? No, just watching, surveying like always.”
“Even on a day of rest? I would call that desire over duty.” A devious grin curled upon the Duke’s face. Despite her words, actions spoke much louder and clearer. She had captured those hidden feelings and made them blossom with her ice sculptures for all to see.
Of course, she had approached Ludmila, knowing what was on her mind. A young maid dressed in frilly black attire sporting a stoic expression was conspicuous even in a large crowd.
“Do you not want to spend the day with him? Surely, he wouldn’t mind it if you asked.”
“Ludmila does not require excess attention. The daily head pat and dinnertime with others are enough.”
Ludmila had been referring to her typical routine of visiting the Chancellor’s mansion for dinner and spending time with her friends there before heading back to the castle for the night.
“Ah, is that so? But I think that they are planning to eat out today because the festivities are lasting into the night.”
“Then, Ludmila will join later. Continue watching for now.”
The young girl’s eyes remained fixed on Claude in the distance. This time, it looked as if there were ruffians approaching Saki. Likely, they were men from outside of the region who had not heard of ‘Saki the Destroyer’ as they carelessly approached to flirt. Their advances soon grew forceful as they ganged up on her, with faces deviously planning something unsavory.
Obviously feeling uncomfortable, Saki reached for her mallets to scare them away. However, before she was able to, the men’s trousers suddenly fell to the ground, leaving their lower halves clad in only underwear.
“Oops, watch it there. This is definitely not the place to whip it out for a pretty girl. Especially one that could crush your junk, along with every bone in your body.”
Claude had discreetly sliced their pants, giving them enough slack to fall down. Embarrassed by their state of undress, the men stormed off.
Ludmila watched as Claude scratched his head while monitoring their escape, ignoring the fact that Saki’s face had become a little red.
“My, how interesting… I could have sworn that she had eyes for only other girls.” Cornelius brought a hand up to her face to cover the snarky grin. “Though, it doesn’t seem to have advanced too far. There isn’t a girl that wouldn’t be somewhat charmed by Mister Chef’s honest efforts.”
‘Isn’t it the same for you?’ Ludmila wanted to say but held her tongue. The Duke’s frequent interest in her Master had not escaped her attention. However, Ice magic was an easy way to hide any expressions that she might have, so that made it difficult to confirm.
Putting that aside, Cornelius had a knack for analyzing the situation. And certainly, Saki’s slowly changing place in her family was something she had to monitor.
“Ludmila worries about Master sometimes.”
“About who he will choose?” Cornelius poked at her mentally, since her stoicism gave no clue into what was on the young girl’s mind.
But Ludmilla simply shook her head. “About why he doesn’t just tell them.”
Cornelius bent down, studying her expression with surprise. The stony face in front of her apparently knew more than she let on.
“Master’s feelings. Each big sister’s feelings. They come together and form strong bonds. They form a family. Being loved and becoming a family is of greatest importance to Ludmila. Master should go ahead and make them his wives.”
Cornelius’s jaw nearly dropped at that last statement. The heartfelt thoughts beforehand hardly prepared her for that surprise.
“But Ludmila, marriage is normally between one couple…,” Cornelius started to object.
“Is not having mistresses the same? Ludmila is not stupid. This kingdom can call it whatever. Family head is the one that chooses.”
The child was right. For those with power, having several women at their beck and call was not uncommon. However, that depended on the person’s desires. And frankly, there was still quite a bit of uncertainty when it came to Claude. As she pondered more about it, one question posed in her mind.
‘What if Claude didn’t have the experience to deal with such circumstances?’
Certainly, he was from another world with different customs. Perhaps, someone needed to lead the way to guide his decision making.
“Hmm. Maybe it’s time that I step in. There just happens to be an issue that he would be quite helpful in resolving anyway.”
“Ludmila wary of Corny plans.”
Somehow, Claude’s view of Cornelius had rubbed off on the others. Perhaps, it was all the things Cornelius had involved him in since he became the Chancellor.
Just then, the sounds of fighting were heard in the distance. Apparently, the three men from before had gathered their buddies and come back for revenge. A sizable group of twenty burly men approached Claude and Saki.
“Not that they’ll likely need the help, but don’t you think that is a good excuse to join the fun?” Cornelius winked.
Ludmila literally blipped away, appearing the next moment in front of one attacker. With a palm strike to his side, the man, several times larger than her, fell down with a thud. Cornelius watched as Claude and Saki demolished the others with hardly any effort.
“Trouble anywhere you go. That’s the problem with never looking the part…”
Cornelius shrugged as she watched the clamor end as quickly as it had started. Afterward, Ludmila was invited by Claude to join them around the festival, giving her a headpat as thanks for before.
“As Master wishes,” she simply responded. If he insisted, she didn’t mind being spoiled occasionally.
After evening came and the booths became empty, Ludmila headed back to the castle. She cleaned up and headed to the bedroom, where her big sister Katalina was already under the covers with a book in her hand.
“Did you have a good time today?” the Queen gently asked.
After crawling into bed, Ludmila stoically gave her answer.
“Lots of watching. Found Master after lunch. Had fun.”
“Sometimes, I wonder what you are really thinking. You could be a little more descriptive, but let’s turn in for the day.” Katalina closed her book and set it on a nearby table, then placed her glasses next to it.
Shuffling under the covers, she scooped up Ludmila and cradled her against her bosom. Soon, Katalina’s soft snoring could be heard.
On the other hand, Ludmila begged to differ.
What words could she use to describe this warmth against her? The feeling of comfort while being held was indescribable. The simple act of walking next to friends provided a joy that she felt deep inside. The security of knowing that they can spend their time freely was what she wanted to engrave in her vision.
No words could shape that. For that reason, Ludmila chose to be silent. As long as she could feel her family, there was never a need to say any more.
And thus, another day ended as Ludmila closed her eyes and let the warmth guide her to another pleasant sleep.