Sunday, May 27, 2018

Page 1781

Just wandering around this underground castle for half an hour or so, she’d already seen scores of men. And not the pampered-looking types that she’d grown accustomed to seeing in Steccat. Sure, they didn’t exactly look like movie stars, but there was a certain... something to them that she had rarely ever seen before, something she was having trouble articulating to herself.

A realness, perhaps? A heaviness in their presence. A sense of importance in the way that they carried themselves. Not self-importance, no. Not smugness. She’d seen that plenty of times before. This was like... an importance of intent.

Men at work.

Yeah. That’s what it was. These were men with missions in mind, with tasks that needed doing.

And, damn, was that hot. She could feel herself getting flustered just being here.

She needed to calm herself down. Madison Reach had never been in this type of environment before, and it was a bit overwhelming to say the least, but it certainly wouldn’t be good for her if her potential beau saw her like this, drooling over every eligible bachelor in sight. While she wouldn’t mind a jealous man, in the right context, but this was not that context--not before a relationship had even begun.

She’d come here with Gina in order to see Roman, but knowing what she now did of Gina’s feelings for him, Madison decided not to intrude on their bonding time. Hopefully, Gina would be able to take advantage of the circumstances, but Madison wasn’t getting her hopes up. The poor girl seemed a bit repressed when it came to these things.

Warrenhold was a strange place, though. She’d of course been preemptively informed of the “uneasiness” that the castle could cause, but it was still taking some getting used to. But then, maybe she’d be able to find herself a dashing gentleman to help her feel safe again.

She’d taken notice of several candidates already and had been attempting to stealthily learn their names. Eager though she was, she didn’t want to overplay her hand. She was still alone in a crowd of strangers, after all.

To that end, however, things were unfortunately not going so well. When she went to the banquet hall in the big dark tower where everyone was conglomerating, not a single one of the hunky guys there bothered to approach. She could see them looking her way, but none of them made any moves.

So what the hell?!

This always worked back in Steccat. She could just go to a night club, sit at the bar, and wait to be approached. Granted, it had led to meeting a lot sleazeballs, but there’d been some nice ones in there, too.

What were they waiting for? Were they intimidated? They didn’t look intimidated. If anything, they were kind of glaring at her. Like they were suspicious of her or something. But that couldn’t be the case, right? What sense would that make?

What the hell was wrong with these Rainlords?! Argh!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Page 1780 -- CLXXXIX.

((Triple Saturday -- Page 3 of 3))
Now, of course, if you ARE older than you say, you have every reason to keep that information private,’ said Yovess, ‘so it would not be terribly surprising that you would want to put on an act in front of us, and I don’t think any of our kin would hold it against you.

This sounds like more than rumblings,’ said Garovel. ‘It sounds like you believe these things yourself.

I don’t know if I do,’ said Yovess. ‘But it would make a degree of sense, I suppose.’

Hector wanted to intervene with a question that he doubted Garovel would ask. “Have you met my mother?”

“Briefly,” said Horatio. “She seemed a curt woman.”

That was one way of putting it. “But... lemme get this straight. You’re saying that you think she might not actually be my mother?”

“Or that she is secretly a servant as well and far older than she appears,” said Horatio.

Hector took a breath, unsure of what to make of all this new information.

I admit,’ said Yovess, ‘it does seem a bit unlikely that you would go so far as to use your own mother to throw us off, but at the same time, it seems similarly unlikely that you would have fended off Melchor at Marshrock, Ivan at Dunehall, and Leo in Capaporo.

Hector didn’t know where to begin explaining--or if he even could, for that matter. “Uh...”

Your confusion is understandable,’ said Garovel, making Hector wonder what the hell the reaper was about to say. ‘The simple truth of the matter, however, is that Hector is significantly more powerful than his age would suggest. And you’re right to be thinking that his age is a difficult issue for us. If word were to get out about how young he is in spite of his prowess, unwanted guests would likely come knocking on our door.

You are saying he is an astero?’ said Yovess.

An astero?’ said Garovel. ‘I’m unfamiliar with that term.

Ah. Forgive me. It’s a old Arman term for exactly what you just described.

I see. In that case, yes, I suppose that is what I am saying.

Then there is no need to explain further,’ said Yovess. ‘I understand your dilemma very well. Thank you for trusting us with that information. I imagine you must have been hesitant to do so.

Hmm.

Hector wasn’t sure he followed all of that, but it sounded like it went surprisingly well.


Chapter One Hundred Eighty-Nine: ‘O, ravenous flower...’
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There were certainly a lot of people around. Surely, there had to be a good man here somewhere. It had been months since her last real relationship. Frankly, she was getting a bit desperate, and she knew it. Going this long without a boyfriend was just ridiculous. At this point, she was prepared to lower her standards quite a bit.

But wow. Maybe she wouldn’t have to.

Page 1779

((Triple Saturday -- Page 2 of 3))
Garovel, however, simply laughed. ‘Well, if you’d like to make this a permanent solution, I can’t say that Hector and I would mind. And it would certainly make the deception easier if it actually WASN’T a deception, eh?

Horatio and Yovess did not seem to share his amusement.

But Garovel was not deterred. ‘So serious. Fine. If you want to actually hear us say it, then no, we are not trying to trick all of you into working for us--or something. How would that even work, precisely?

“...I was merely mentioning what I think some will believe,” said Horatio. “I did not say that I believed it, myself.”

You must understand,’ said Yovess. ‘Lord Goffe’s recent... accomplishments have left quite an impression on our people, particularly the younger ones. And though we know you are our allies, it is also in our nature to be... cautious.’ Her hollow gaze fell upon Garovel. ‘Especially when it comes to reapers. We know all too well about how manipulative our kind can be.

Holy shit, Hector thought. Was this gonna be yet another problem he had to worry about?

Agh...

I understand completely,’ said Garovel, sounding less jovial now. ‘And I most definitely do not want there to be any ill feelings between us. I hope that if you are ever beginning to get the impression that Hector and I are trying to manipulate you, then you will give us the benefit of the doubt first and communicate your concerns to us. There are many out there who would like to do us harm, and if we allow a rift to form between us, I fear that will only make it easier for them to succeed.

Heh. You know just what to say, don’t you?

Well, I’ve had lots of practice,’ said Garovel.

Yovess shook her skull and chortled. ‘Very well. We will continue to place our trust in you, for the time being.

Thank you. We’ll do the same.

And in this spirit of trust,’ said Yovess, ‘there is something that we should tell you.

Oh?

We have heard rumblings on this matter already. That is why Horatio said that, just now.

What kind of rumblings?

“There is a concern that you may have lied to us,” said Horatio.

Hector couldn’t help blinking. “Lied? About what?” Oh shit. Had he lied to them? He didn’t think so, but...

“Regarding your age, specifically,” said the Lord Blackburn.

Hector couldn’t help blinking even more.

“Given your recent track record, some have been worried that you might be... shall we say, significantly older than you claimed to be,” said Horatio.

Wait, what the fuck? They thought he might’ve lied about how young he was? Shouldn’t it have been the opposite?

Yovess continued where her servant left off. ‘A few have expressed concern that you might have been pretending to be weaker than you really are. Acting like you needed a climate suit, for instance. And now, your mother appearing to be relatively young and a non-servant.

Oh shit, they’d met his mother already? He hadn’t even thought about how she must be handling all of these foreign visitors.

Page 1778

((Triple Saturday -- Page 1 of 3))
“If it’s just about not wanting to be in our debt,” said Hector, “then there are other ways you could pay us back. I mean, money is nice and all, but, er...”

It would be kind of a hassle to exchange all of your Sairi escaltos for our Atreyan troas,’ said Garovel, ‘especially because we’d have to come up with an official excuse for why we suddenly have a steady influx of foreign currency.

“I... see,” said Horatio.

Plus, Hector here made a fairly large impression on the locals in Moaban, so it probably wouldn’t be too difficult for someone to find out that he was in Sair while the country was in turmoil. We really shouldn’t be giving anyone more dots to connect beyond that.

Your reasoning is sound,’ said Yovess, ‘but are you really suggesting that we simply stay for free? That is not something that we as Rainlords can abide, and I know that all of our kin will feel similarly.

“Ah--like I said, if it’s just about not wanting to be in our debt, then there are other ways you could help us.”

Such as?

“Well, er--you’re kinda doing it already, aren’t you? It seems like a few of you guys have, uh... have taken a bit of... initiative with helping restore Warrenhold.”

Ah, yes,’ said Yovess. ‘However, I believe that has more to do with some among us feeling restless, not wanting to remain idle.

“Even while you’re supposed to be resting?” said Hector.

Yes,’ she said plainly.

Horatio looked briefly amused. “And perhaps you are overestimating how much rest we require. Not all of us have had to push ourselves beyond the point of absurdity.”

Hector just kind of scratched his chin.

Still,’ said Garovel, ‘the point remains that it would be of immense help to have a bunch of superhuman construction workers on the job. If you’re willing to accept food, shelter, and our winning smiles as payment, then I think we can agree that you won’t be in our debt.

Horatio and Yovess looked at one another for a time, perhaps deliberating privately.

Oh, and also,’ added Garovel, ‘this arrangement might prove useful in keeping up appearances with Leo.

You intend to bring him back here?’ said Yovess.

“Not anytime soon,” said Hector with some confidence, “but... eventually, maybe.”

But it also may not be up to us,’ said Garovel. ‘There’s always a chance that Leo could decide to just drop in on us unannounced. It’s not like Warrenhold’s location is some great secret.

Horatio and Yovess looked displeased.

In such an event, it would be good if it looked like the Rainlords really were working for us.

“...Some might argue that this is more than merely looking like it,” said Horatio, though his expression remained neutral.

Hector met the man’s gaze evenly. Somehow, it seemed like it would be disrespectful to look away. Or cowardly, perhaps.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Page 1777

She has not spoken in several days,’ said Horatio’s reaper. Her name was Yovess, as Hector recalled.

Is there anything we can do?’ said Garovel. ‘Anything you need?

Thank you, but I do not think so,’ said Yovess.

Does she need a doctor?

We have one tending to her.’

I see.

“There’s... something you should know,” said Hector. In truth, it was something that he probably should have told the Blackburns a while ago now, but with everything going on, it had somehow slipped his mind. “Ibai is alive.”

Horatio and Yovess both stared at him.

“How do you know that?” said Horatio.

Hmm. How to explain? The only ones he’d told about the Shards and Emiliana were the Najirs and the Elroys. Both of those families were directly involved, so it only made sense that they should know, but he supposed now that the Blackburns had just as much right to know.

So he told Horatio everything. About the Shards. About Rasalased. About being able to communicate with Emiliana. About her telling him that Ibai was with her. And about Gohvis.

Horatio and Yovess didn’t seem so surprised about that last part. They’d already known that Gohvis had chased after them at Dunehall, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine that Gohvis hadn’t allowed them to escape.

The expected question of Ibai’s current location came up, and Hector had to give the disappointing answer that he didn’t know, that Emiliana seemed to be refusing to tell him--likely for everyone’s safety.

Horatio and Yovess fell quiet again.

Hector wondered if that news would help the Lady Nere at all. He hoped so. And he felt bad for not telling the Blackburns about this earlier. He didn’t see much point in telling them that he could have told them earlier, though. That only seemed like it would piss them off.

And justifiably so.

He wondered how he’d forgotten about it all this time. Maybe it was because he barely ever interacted with the Blackburns. They were always sequestered away from the others, never really mingling much. That was no excuse, of course, but Hector supposed it made a degree of sense, at least.

He had to be more attentive in the future, he felt. These people were hurting. Any support he could provide would be well worth the effort, but it seemed like they didn’t want to ask for help at all.

It seemed that way with all the Rainlords, really. Maybe it was a pride thing.

We spoke to Madame Carthrace about you and the other Rainlords,’ said Garovel. ‘She mentioned that you insisted on reimbursing us for everything while you’re here.

“That’s right,” said Horatio.

While we appreciate that, it isn’t necessary in the slightest,’ said Garovel.

“Yes, it is,” said Horatio, more strongly now. “We do not intend to be a burden.”

If we were concerned about things like that, we never would’ve invited you back to Warrenhold in the first place,’ said Garovel.

“All the same,” said Horatio, “it is a matter of honor. And we take such things very seriously.”

So we’ve noticed,’ said Garovel.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Page 1776

Oh, indeed,’ said Garovel. ‘And I’m afraid it was also my idea to venture down there. I must apologize again for putting your family in harm’s way.

“Nonsense,” said Asad. “We chose to go with you of our own volition. Why, I even said--”

Yes, but you chose to do that because you are so fiercely kind,’ said Garovel. ‘I fear that perhaps Hector and I have taken advantage of that kindness, in some ways.

Asad merely frowned and exchanged glances with his wife.

If you are ever in need of our help, I hope you will allow us the opportunity to repay you for that kindness,’ said Garovel. ‘For the moment, however, we’ll leave you in peace. Hector and I have several pressing matters we must attend to. Good day, all.

Hector followed the reaper’s lead, and they left the robed family alone. Hector had hoped to talk to Asad more about various things like Rasalased and materialization training, but he supposed there was no rush.

Hector also wanted to ask Garovel if he knew something about the Najirs that he hadn’t mentioned yet, but there wasn’t time. Before Hector even finished climbing the stairs up to the second floor, he encountered Horatio Blackburn.

Ah,’ said Garovel. ‘Just the man we were hoping to see. Do you have a few minutes to talk?

The flat-faced man had been descending the staircase and now began going back up it without turning around. “Is something wrong?” he asked.

No, no,’ said Garovel. ‘But we would like to take stock of things. We’re checking up on everyone.

The man stopped. “You needn’t worry about us.”

Well, we do anyway,’ said Garovel. ‘Come on. Let’s find somewhere we can talk in private.

Horatio looked reluctant, but he acquiesced nonetheless. They found a vacant room near the stairs. It was small and lacking furniture, but it would do. Hector materialized a couple chairs for them while they waited for Horatio’s reaper to join them.

When she did, Hector encased the room in iron and empowered it with his soul. Apparently, this would prevent any outside reapers from overhearing what the two reapers in here were saying.

Of course, it also created a vacuum seal in the chamber, limiting the amount of breathable air left in it. That wouldn’t be a big problem, but Hector was made to wonder if he would still be able to speak if there was nothing but carbon dioxide left in the room.

Garovel started things off. ‘So. How are things?

Horatio seemed almost reluctant to answer. “Things are... difficult but adequate.”

Garovel’s next words were private. ‘Ask him something.

Like what?’ said Hector.

Whatever you want to know.

Hector had expected a more direct, instructive answer. Maybe Garovel wanted him to think for himself on this. The way a lord probably should.

“...How is the Lady Nere doing?” asked Hector.

Horatio’s frown deepened.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Page 1775

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 3 of 3))
Garovel advised him to play coy, so he did. He told them that questions about strength were important secrets that he couldn’t divulge.

Half the kids lost interest when he told them that and wandered off, but the other half stayed and asked him other, more innocuous questions, like about his favorite food or color or animal.

Somehow, those proved even more difficult to answer.

He lost the interest of the rest of the kids soon thereafter. It felt like most of his confidence and self-worth left with them, as well.

However, his mood improved again after he entered the Tower of Night and found the Najirs there, having breakfast. It was the first time he’d seen them all together. Asad, his wife, sister, daughter, and son. Hector remembered Imas and Jada, but the wife’s and son’s names were escaping him.

Wait a minute. They were having breakfast?

Garovel, what time is it?’ asked Hector.

The reaper shrugged.

Hector supposed it didn’t matter much. Not having any daylight to go by was just one of the challenges of living in a giant hole in the ground.

He made his way over to the Sandlord family, who’d already taken notice of him.

They looked a bit tense, however. Perhaps because he and Garovel were watching them?

Asad spoke up first after finishing whatever he was chewing. “Hector. It is good to see you. Allow me to introduce my wife, Samira, and my son, Midhat.”

“We have already met,” said Samira. “Briefly.”

“Yeah,” said Hector with a nod. “Hello again.”

No introductions for us?’ said the reaper hovering behind Midhat.

“That is Ekkos,” said Asad, “my son’s reaper. Samira’s is Lemirat.”

Good to meet you both. I’m Garovel.

Yes, we have been hearing quite a bit about you and your servant,’ said Lemirat. ‘This is an interesting home you have here.

Yeah, it’s a work-in-progress,’ said Garovel. ‘You’re welcome to stay as long as you like, though we won’t be offended if you find the place a bit uncomfortable.

More fortress than resort,’ said Lemirat. ‘I cannot say it bothers me, personally. I generally find the sturdiness of fortresses more pleasant.

“I do not,” said Samira with an obvious tinge of irritation. “And it would appear we have made the trip here for no reason, as well.”

Asad gave his wife a look. “Samira.”

She saw his face, looked toward Hector and Garovel, then turned away.

Uncomfortable silence arrived.

Garovel was the one to break it. ‘You’re right, Lady Najir. I must apologize. I was the one who requested that Asad send someone here ahead of us. I didn’t foresee how strange our travels in the Undercrust would become. It’s not everyday you get teleported back to your home country, you know. It was quite the surprise.

The woman looked between Hector and Garovel again. “Yes, well... it is good that you returned safely. I have never been, but I have heard many tales of the perils in the Undercrust.”

Page 1774 -- CLXXXVIII.

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 2 of 3))
“You think they’ll leave Atreya?” said Hector.

“They will go wherever opportunity leads them,” said Amelia. “And Atreya is rather short on opportunity at the moment, so yes, I think they will have their pick of the many foreign companies that are no doubt observing the economic situation here.”

“...Who are these ‘skilled individuals’ you’re talking about?”

“Various people whom I have come to know and respect over the years. Some of them, I do not know personally, but I do know of their work and of their professionalism. I could go over each and every one of them with you right now, but there are quite a few, and I imagine you probably have more important things to do.”

“...Alright. I’ll leave it to your, ah... discretion.” He looked like he had more to say, however.

Amelia waited.

“...I’d like to meet these people, too,” said Hector. “Before you hire them.”

She smiled, then nodded. “Of course.”

Perhaps she didn’t have to worry so much about her family sinking their claws into this boy, after all.


Chapter One Hundred Eighty-Eight: ‘O, convalescing companions...’
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The meeting lasted a while longer after that. They discussed the restoration of Warrenhold in a bit more detail, and Madame Carthrace also told him about some of the local happenings around Gray Rock. Apparently, there had been a spike in crime during his absence--perhaps even because of his absence--and a number of prominent figures around the city had been trying to get in touch with him, the mayor of Gray Rock being among them.

Hector had no idea why the mayor would want to talk to him, and he almost didn’t want to find out. Madame Carthrace and Garovel both seemed to think it was probably just a formal greeting-type-thing, but Hector didn’t know if he believed that.

There was also the matter of the Rainlords. Hector asked her about how she had been handling all of them, and she rather bluntly told him that she hadn’t been. For the most part, they were taking care of and keeping to themselves. Each time she’d talked to them, they had apparently been both extremely polite and very reluctant to accept aid without reimbursement.

After he heard that, Hector figured he should probably go talk to each of the families himself and concluded his meeting with Madame Carthrace. It wasn’t a long walk to the outside of the Book Tower, since the office had been on the bottom floor.

That is one sharp woman,’ said Garovel privately as they made their way back toward the Tower of Night. ‘If she’s as trustworthy as she seems, then we’re lucky to have her.

Hector couldn’t help but agree.

The gaggle of children from earlier caught up to him before he could reach the Tower of Night, and when they presented the knight figurine to him again, he was forced to answer more impossible questions like how strong he was or if he thought he could beat Dimas in a fight.

Page 1773

((Triple Wednesday -- Page 1 of 3))
Amelia tried to think. Honestly, she hadn’t given much thought to the issue of how to earn the young lord’s trust. Mostly because she’d thought that she’d already had it.

And perhaps that was strange. Why had she thought that? She was having difficulty thinking of the reason, but there must have been one. She couldn’t have been so naive as to overlook something like that, right?

What an odd thing to be asking herself. Where was her head, right now?

Ah. There was a reason, she realized.

“The Queen,” said Amelia. “If you are finding yourself uncertain with regard to trusting me, then perhaps you should ask those who know me better for a character reference. And I can think of none more appropriate than the Queen, considering she was the one who offered me this position in the first place. Have you spoken to her yet?”

“Not since getting back, no,” said Hector.

“Perfect, then. I imagine she will be wanting to hear from you, if for no other reason than to know that you have returned safely. Perhaps you can take that opportunity to ask about me.”

Hector was quiet again.

Hmm. Perhaps her young lord had already been planning to do that.

“...I’d like to meet your family,” said Hector.

Amelia pressed her lips together flatly as she thought about that. “If we move forward with the bank, then I am sure that they will like to meet you, too.”

“I mean before that.”

“Yes, I thought you did. And perhaps that would be for the best. Meeting them before we give them every reason in the world to ingratiate themselves toward you might give you a clearer picture of their true characters.”

The young lord looked abruptly remorseful. “...I don’t mean to reopen old wounds or anything like that. I just need to know more about you before we commit to... all of this.”

“I understand,” said Amelia. “Caution is an admirable quality in a lord. And I have nothing to hide, though you should be forewarned that my family is not likely to speak very fondly of me.”

“Yeah, I figured they wouldn’t,” said Hector. “I remember you calling yourself a black sheep.”

“Ah. Well, I shall attempt to arrange a meeting, but in the meantime, might I have your permission to begin preliminary hiring proceedings?”

“...What does that mean, exactly?”

“With the banks collapsing, there are a number of highly skilled individuals who are now looking for a new job--so skilled, in fact, that I imagine some of them have already found one. The rest will likely not remain unemployed for long, so I would like to, at the very least, send them... an expression of our interest, let’s say. Hopefully, that will give them a reason to stay in the country while you and I... figure things out.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Page 1772

“Brand recognition,” she reiterated. “People know who you are. They trust you. If we put the word Darksteel in the name of your bank, people will instantly associate it with you and everything that you have done. And that is very good. That is why I think this will work.”

Hector made no response. His gaze went to the floor again, and he paced toward the other side of the room now.

“It is safe to say that the Atreyan people have very little faith in banks, at the moment, so the trust that the public has in you will be absolutely crucial for this plan to succeed. Your friend Mr. Fullister, who I am sure is a wonderful man, would simply not be able to make up for that difference in public trust, regardless of how much money he may possess.”

Hector stopped pacing and just looked at her again.

“It has to be you, Lord Goffe,” she said.

Hector did not look pleased to hear that, but if he had any complaints, he kept them to himself. He returned his chair and sat down.

Amelia didn’t know what else she could say to convince him, however, so she merely waited.

“...Alright,” he finally said. “Let’s just... let’s suppose all of this works out. Hypothetically. Everything goes smoothly or whatever.” He leveled a stare at her. “If that were to happen, and this bank were to become as big and important as you’re suggesting, then... you would have a lot more power and influence, wouldn’t you?”

Amelia’s head reared back a little, and she blinked.

Hector’s gaze didn’t budge, though. He was watching her carefully, probably wanting to gauge her reaction.

Amelia fidgeted in her seat, abruptly uncomfortable. “Yes... I suppose I would...”

“Convince me you wouldn’t abuse that power,” he said plainly.

Oh, goodness. She hadn’t felt like this since she was a schoolgirl on the verge of being given detention, some fifty years ago.

How was he doing that?

No time to think about it. She just maintained her composure. “How would you suggest I go about doing that?”

“I don’t know,” said Hector. “You seem to be pretty persuasive, though.”

She managed a weak smile. “I appreciate the compliment, assuming it was one.”

“It was,” said Hector. “And... look, I’m grateful for everything you’ve been doing here. For me. And I think... it’s fairly obvious at this point that I... value your opinion. And I definitely want to trust you. But the simple truth is that you and I still barely know each other.”

“You are not wrong,” she said. “But I do not know how I can convince you to trust me. I doubt words alone will suffice for an undertaking of this magnitude, no? Trusting me with your own money isn’t quite the same as trusting me with everyone’s money, is it?”

“No, it is not,” was all Hector said.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Page 1771

((Triple Monday -- Page 3 of 3))
“I do not mean to say that you should refuse any and all help they may offer,” said Amelia, “and I am sure that you understand these people better than I do, but all the same, I am advising caution. If you do decide to enter into any kind of financial negotiations with them, I hope you will include me. Truthfully, I would like to be present for such negotiations with anyone, but them in particular, should the need arise.”

Hector just looked at her for a moment longer, perhaps thinking on her words, and then he said, “...Of course.”

The tone of that response was a bit more reserved than Amelia might have preferred, but such was the nature of her young lord, she’d come to realize. Bright-eyed reassurance and enthusiasm was not something she should ever expect from him, she supposed.

“...There’s something else I’m wondering about,” said Hector. “With all this... stuff about needing a loan... I mean... why me?”

Amelia tilted her head at him. “I am sorry. I am not certain I understand. Why you?”

Hector stood up and walked over to the side of the room while rubbing his neck. “It’s just... if I don’t even have the money to pull this off in the first place, then why don’t we just let someone else do it?”

“You do not wish to save the country?” said Amelia.

Hector gave her a flat look. “Obviously, I do. I’m just saying, wouldn’t it be better to leave it to someone more suited to the task? Someone like... my friend you already mentioned? Mr. Fullister? Just as one example.”

Amelia frowned. “And the potential here to make an enormous amount of money and restore Warrenhold to its former glory? You do not find that motivating?”

“...Would it really be like that?” said Hector. “Because this bank sounds like a lot of responsibility and headaches. And I have enough of those, already. Besides, there are other ways we can make money, aren’t there?”

Amelia took a breath and leaned back her in chair. She’d thought that she had already convinced him that this was a good idea. It seemed fairly self-evident, but now it appeared as though he wasn’t going to be swayed by appeals to future prosperity or self-interest.

Which was very strange.

No doubt, he had many other things on his mind. She supposed it was understandable that he wouldn’t want yet another. But there was something he wasn’t seeing, and it seemed as though she would have to be the one to explain it to him.

“It has to be you,” she said, interlocking her fingers and resting them on her lap. “I can tell you now that, yes, several other people in this country will likely attempt this very same tactic. However, I earnestly believe that you are the only one who might be able to pull it off before foreign intervention squirms its way around the Queen’s regulations.”

“Why?”

“Because you are a national hero. Most of Atreya adores the Darksteel Soldier. And yes, some still do not, but everyone at least knows who you are. Aside from perhaps the Queen herself, you have better brand recognition than anyone else in this country.”

“I have better what?”

Page 1770

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“Hmm,” said Hector. “But you’re, like, an insider or something, right? Do you really think she’d be able to keep that kind of gigantic news from even people like you?”

Amelia bobbed her head to the side a little. “No, I do not. Eventually, we will find out, but for the time being, there remains quite a bit of chatter regarding the subject, and different people are offering conflicting information. I imagine for the next month or two, it will continue to be difficult to discern the genuine truth of the matter.”

Her young lord’s gaze went to the floor, then back to the empty air beside him.

Amelia just waited, and when Hector looked at her again, she braced herself for his next question.

“...How much money do we need to get from this loan, exactly?” he said.

Now there was a question that he would probably not like the answer to, Amelia felt. She tried to give him a smile, though it probably came across as more pitying than encouraging. “There are various methods for starting, but if we are to begin here, on domestic soil, then we will require seven million troa as the barest minimum.”

Hector’s mouth hung open as he looked at her.

Unfortunately, she was still far from done. “And when I say ‘barest minimum,’ I do mean that. Barring some sort of royal decree or other government action, proof that we possess seven million troa is required before we may even be legally recognized as a bank. There are several other qualifying factors, of course, but that is the big one, you might say.”

“So... you’re saying seven million isn’t even enough. Because we need more than just the barest minimum, right?”

“Indeed. Seven million would allow us to get started, so if that is all we are able to acquire, then at least we would be able to do something, but the difficult truth, in my estimation, is that we would require a loan in the neighborhood of... one hundred million troa.”

Hector’s hand slowly found his forehead, and he stared blankly at Amelia’s rosewood desk. “A hundred million...”

Amelia had no words of comfort for him. “And even that would only make for a good start. It would still be far from enough to resolve the economic crisis overnight, in case that was what you were thinking.”

Hector took some more time to gather his thoughts and perhaps consult his imaginary friend another time. “Somehow,” he eventually said with a sigh, “I don’t think the Queen is going to lend me a hundred million troa.”

“Yes, I do not think she will, either,” said Amelia. “However, we do not necessarily need her to. There are many other members of the aristocracy whom we could call upon. And there is your friend Mr. Fullister, of course. I have high hopes for his assistance. And... the Rainlords, perhaps. I would caution you against accepting too much help from them, however.”

Hector looked at her again. “Why?”

“Our entire purpose in opening this bank is to prevent foreign powers from taking over our country, and, well... to be blunt, the Rainlords are exactly that. A foreign power.”

“Hmm.”

Page 1769

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“That’s... good to hear,” said Hector, “but the renovations aren’t even halfway through the Entry Tower yet.”

“Yes, and that is another reason why I believe this bank is a good idea. With our current resources, renovating all eight towers properly is impossible, much less building new ones on the surface and attending to the sunken structures in the lake. A bank, however, would provide us with a valuable source of income.”

Hector fell quiet for a moment again, obviously thinking. Then he looked at her. “I interrupted you. What were you going to say about getting the ball rolling?”

“Ah. Yes. In order to get started on this bank, we will require considerably more capital than we currently possess. I could go into excruciating detail, but the short of it is that we will need a loan.”

“A loan?” said Hector. “You mean, like, from another bank? Wouldn’t they be opposed to the idea of, uh, funding their rivals or something?”

“Indeed. Which is why the loan would have to come from somewhere else.”

“You have somewhere in mind?”

“I would recommend multiple sources, actually,” she said. “In the event that one of them turns us down or ends up having difficulties of their own in the future, it would be best if we did not have all of our eggs in one basket, as they say.”

“Okay... but what sources are you thinking of?”

She almost didn’t want to say. “The government would be one.”

“...You want me to ask the Queen for even more money?” said Hector.

“Well... yes. It could not hurt to ask at least, no?”

Hector rubbed his face with both hands. Amelia was beginning to see that tiredness he mentioned earlier.

“I admit, it may be a bad idea to take more money from the government. No doubt, they have dire need of it, at the moment. Assuming they even have any left to lend. However, the point remains that you would be working to help them resolve the current economic crisis, and I imagine the Queen would be interested in helping you to speed your work along.”

Hector put his hands down again. “...Hold on. You just said, ‘assuming they even have any money left?’ Why wouldn’t they have any money left?”

“Ah, well... because there are some rather unsavory rumors about, regarding the true cause of this crisis. Some are saying that the government’s coffers are empty, and so the entire reason Atreya National and Longrun collapsed first was because they were so deeply connected with the state treasury.”

Hector’s brow lowered. “You’re saying the Queen’s broke?”

“I am only saying what I have heard. But such rumors, even if they are untrue, are terrible for business.”

“Wouldn’t something like that already be all over the news if it were true?”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps the Queen believes that such news would be so damaging to the nation that she has been suppressing it.”

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Page 1768

Hector’s gaze went to the empty space to his right. Talking to his invisible companion, Amelia supposed. She couldn’t say that she fully understood this business about reapers, and if she was being completely honest, a small part of her still worried that it might just be some form of psychosis that the boy was suffering from. That explanation might’ve even made sense, as a terrible side effect of his supernatural powers.

But of course, she’d never dared say any of that aloud. Strange as it was, this “Garovel” being real or not was almost a moot point, as far as Amelia was concerned. The reaper was obviously real to Hector.

And that was the main reason why she had been so concerned about this meeting. If she couldn’t get this Garovel’s approval, then she doubted she would be able to get Hector’s.

“So let me make sure I’ve got this right,” Hector finally said. “You want to open a bank in my name. Not a bank account. A bank.”

“Yes,” said Amelia.

Hector just gave her a look like she was crazy.

“I understand that is... a highly unconventional proposition,” said Amelia, “and probably not one that you expected to hear when you walked into this office, but I assure you, I am not recommending it impulsively. I have given the matter considerable thought.”

“Then... I assume you’ve thought about how we’re going to fund this? The Queen only gave us three million to work with, and you’re talking about starting a bank that would be big enough to rescue the whole country. Garovel doesn’t think that three million will be nearly enough for that.”

“Indeed, it is true that this would be a very costly endeavor. Currently, you have around 1.2 million troa at your disposal, and to get the ball rolling on this--”

“Whoa, whoa.” Hector held up a hand. “We’ve already burned through 1.8 million troa? In like, what, four months?”

She nodded. “I am afraid so. However, the vast majority of those expenses fell upon the hydroelectric generator. That alone cost us 1.4 million.”

“Holy sh--” Hector stopped himself, perhaps out of consideration for her, which Amelia appreciated. “I... knew it was expensive, but I didn’t think it was that much.”

“Believe it or not, that was actually quite a good deal,” said Amelia. “The amount of power that it generates is rather impressive given that cost.” She might’ve expected the boy to sigh, but he didn’t. “We could have negotiated a staggered payment plan over several years, but it would have cost us nearly three times as much in the long run. I thought it would be better to pay it all off at once, since we actually could. The manufacturer’s representative was quite surprised by that decision.”

“I see...”

“And of course, we also required furniture to even begin living here, so much of that lost capital was due to one-time purchases, if that makes you feel any better. Renovations moving forward should be a considerably slower drain on your funds.”

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Page 1767

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“Of course,” Amelia continued, “the domestic banks could use money which they do not technically own in order to start buying up the debt, but that would be incredibly ill-advised--and indeed, illegal. For good reason, might I add. Such practices are extremely dangerous and could potentially make matters significantly worse than they already are.

“However, I am digressing. The point is that domestic banks will, in all likelihood, simply be unable to ‘pick up the slack,’ so to speak, which means that foreign banks will. Either them, or foreign companies which specialize in this sort of thing. Regardless, the reason this is bad is because it presents an extreme threat to the economic independence of the nation. Foreign powers would likely be able to develop more influence over our country than even the Queen herself possesses.”

“Ah...”

“She understands this as well, because I--and no doubt others--have advised her on it. But the Queen is also in a very difficult position right now. In order to prevent this from coming to pass, she has to hold back the tide of foreign influence with very little support from the people. As I said before, this debt buyout can be considered mostly good. All of the currently bankrupt citizens of Atreya will want that foreign influence. And justifiably so.”

“O-okay,” said Hector, holding up a hand. “This is all... really complicated, and I think I understand, but, uh... I mean... what do you want me to do about it? Are you seriously suggesting that I buy up all the debt? Because, er...?”

“Well... yes and no,” said Amelia. “Frankly speaking, you don’t have enough money for that. Even your billionaire friend, Roman Fullister, doesn’t have enough money--though, that is mostly because his assets are tied up in about a million different ways.”

“Whoa, how do you know that?”

She couldn’t help smiling a little. “Money is my life, Lord Goffe. And I have made many like-minded friends over the course of it.”
Hector didn’t look entirely satisfied by that answer, but he didn’t press her further on it. Instead, he returned to his previous question. “So... if I can’t buy the debt, then what are you asking of me?”

It was time to lay all her cards on the table, she supposed. “I feel that there is still considerably more that I should explain, but... if you would like to cut right to the heart of the matter first, then, well... put simply, I would like to open a bank in your name.”

Hector just sat there for a moment, blinking at her. He opened his mouth but no words came out. Then he leaned back in his chair, folded his arms, and took a long, deep breath.

Huh.

That was not quite the reaction that she had been expecting. Though, if she thought about it, she wasn’t entirely sure what a more appropriate response would have been.

Page 1766

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“Is something wrong?” said Hector.

“N-no,” she said, taking a breath. If she kept this up, he was going to get the completely wrong impression. “Very well. Allow me to speak quite plainly with you. The current economic crisis, terrible though it may be, presents us--presents you, I should say--with an opportunity. And a rather remarkable one, at that.”

“...Okay,” said Hector slowly, keeping his eyes fixed upon her. “I’m listening.”

“With both Atreya National and Longrun collapsing, virtually everyone who worked for them is now out of a job.”

“You’re... talking about banks?” said Hector.

“Yes. Atreya National Bank and Longrun Banking. With them suddenly out of the picture, you could say that there is quite a large gap in the market. People need their funds protected. And now that there is an absolutely ungodly amount of insoluble debt floating around this country, what will happen now is--”

“Ah, uh, sorry, you’re kinda losing me here,” said Hector. “In... insoluble debt? What does that mean, exactly?”

“Debt that cannot be repaid. More than a million people have just declared bankruptcy in this country, because they no longer have access to any of their funds due to the banks collapsing, because the banks are the very institutions which are supposed to secure these things for them. This means that any debt that these people previously owed is now insoluble. There is essentially no hope of it ever being paid back. Understand?”

“I think so, yeah...”

“So what will probably happen now,” Amelia went on, “is that someone with a LOT of money will come in and buy up all of that insoluble debt at a fraction of the cost, because it is functionally worthless now. And then, since they now ‘own’ the debt, they can ‘forgive’ it or otherwise shrink it down to a ‘soluble’ level--and then try to collect it. Or they could simply resell the debt elsewhere, but the fact of the matter is that because they didn’t spend very much money to acquire it, that debt has the potential to earn them an absolute killing. Financially speaking, of course.”

“Hmm...”

Amelia placed her hands on the table. “Now, this may all sound horrible, and... well... in a way, it is, but it is also mostly good. In the end, it will probably prevent Atreya’s economy from collapsing completely. Almost everyone who declared bankruptcy will have a way to move forward without having their entire lives ruined. For the most part.”

“But?” said the young lord, apparently sensing where she was going with this.

“But... a very large problem could arise, based on who it is that buys up all of that debt. Atreya is quite a small country, so in all likelihood, it is going to be a foreign bank. Domestic banks are no doubt attempting to get in on the action as we speak, but they simply won’t have the funds to spare. Tens of thousands of people--if not hundreds of thousands of people--have already been flocking to them simply to avoid bankruptcy, and in order to accommodate all of those new customers, most of their reserve funds--assuming they even had that much to begin with--will likely now be in active circulation.”

“Uh... huh.”

Page 1765

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It was a shame that that brightness had not lasted. Instead, it had merely transferred to the next generation of children. As it probably would again, she’d often thought.

When the knock on her door arrived, she stopped reading. “Come in.”

Hector entered, and Amelia set her pen down.

Wow. What a difference one month made. Had he gotten taller? Probably. The vitality of young people still amazed her, sometimes. Those clothes certainly made an impact, too. He hadn’t been wearing things like that very much before, probably because the boy had so frequently been assisting with the reconstruction effort. No sense in dressing up for manual labor.

It must have been the effect of these Rainlords on him, she figured. Either he was imitating their behavior, or he simply wanted to look dignified in their presence. Or both, perhaps.

She certainly knew what that was like.

“It is good to finally see you again,” said Amelia.

“Thanks,” said Hector as he took a seat on the other side of her desk. “It’s, uh, it’s good to see you, too.”

A part of her wanted to just launch into her proposal straight away, but again, she controlled herself. It wouldn’t do to overwhelm the young man. She had to work up to it slowly and clearly if she wanted to get his approval.

He may have been young, but that didn’t mean he was going to do whatever she told him. Meek and mild as he may act, she did not think that he had earned his reputation as the Darksteel Soldier by accident. And she’d spoken to Prince David about this boy, too. This was not someone she should treat like a child, she felt.

“Are you sure you have rested enough?” she made herself say. “I heard that you looked rather exhausted upon your arrival.”

“I’m still pretty tired, but I’ll catch up on sleep later,” said Hector. “I wanted to ask... ah... how have things been going while I was gone?”

“Here at Warrenhold? Fairly well, I suppose. The reconstruction has been progressing, albeit slowly. If you are asking about the country as a whole, however, well...”

“I heard about the, er, economic crisis or whatever...”

“Y-yes.” Amelia straightened in her chair. Was it too soon to go into it? She wasn’t quite sure. “Truthfully... I was hoping to talk to you about that.”

Hector tilted his head at her. “Why’s that? Do you think there’s something we can do to help?”

Oh, sweet Cocora.

Calm. She had to look calm.

“Yes,” she said slowly, “I believe there is. However... perhaps you would like to table that discussion for the moment and talk about your Rainlord friends or... some such thing?”

“...Why?” said Hector. “Does the order matter?”

“Ah... w-well...” Agh. This wasn’t going how she expected. It was too fast. She dared not hope that it might actually be going better than she expected.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Page 1764

Still, never would she have expected to feel so excited about working with money again. After thirty grueling years in the business, working for banks, an insurance agency, an accounting firm, a hedge fund, and even the Lord High Treasurer himself, she’d thought that she had lost all taste for this sort of thing. And this job wasn’t even supposed to be like any of those. She had only been supposed to help the young lord manage his assets and hopefully grow them.

What a curious world it was, that all of this would fall into her lap now, seven years after her supposed retirement.

No doubt, if things went even remotely as she expected them to, her family would come knocking on her door in the very near future. There may have been no love lost between her and them, but money? They weren’t ones to abide losses like that.

She planned to have insulation in place for the young lord by then, though. Hell, she would be insulation, if he needed her to. There was absolutely no way that she was going to sit by and let them sink their claws into him.

Ah, but she was getting ahead of herself. The present problems were still far from dealt with, she knew, and her hand stopped in the middle of signing a document as she realized that she’d allowed her mind to wander so much that she’d hardly even bothered to read the damn thing first.

True, it was just a simple shipment order for white Lysten marble, but still, it was a bad habit to get into--and one that had cost her dearly in the past.

“Anything you put your name to, you read,” her mentor had once told her. “If you don’t have time to read it, you shouldn’t be signing it. You should be hiring someone else to read it, sign it, and take the blame if it goes badly, instead.”

A shrewd bastard--that had been Henry Vollier in a nutshell, though she certainly knew that there had been more to him than what most people ever got to see. Even to this day, she had never met anyone who could be so heartless in one breath and yet so generous in the next.

Her affair with him may have been what caused so much strife between the Carthraces and the Volliers, but she’d long since stopped regretting it. He may have been almost thirty years older than her, but she’d loved him more deeply and truly than anyone else in her life, and he deserved better than that bitter shell-of-a-woman he’d been forced to marry. That callous witch hadn’t even been there on his deathbed.

For a while after that, she truly would not have minded if both of their families had ended up in ruins. If not for some of those wonderful nieces and nephews, the brightness and hope of the future, she might never have returned from that place of resentment in her heart.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Page 1763 -- CLXXXVII.

Tell her you’re not dangerous to any of them,’ said Garovel. ‘And use her name.

Aw, shit, that was a pretty tall order. “Ah... well... Maria... as far as you guys are concerned, I’m not dangerous at all...”

“Yeah, but how many bad guys could you beat up at once?”

“I heard Lord Dimas beat up like fifty, one time!”

“Could you beat up Lord Dimas?!”

Oh shit. Hector held his hands up but also couldn’t help laughing a little. “Alright, that’s enough. I already answered enough of your questions. If you want to ask a bunch of new ones, you’ll have to find the knight again.”

“Aw, c’mon! Don’t be so stingy!”

Hector considered hiding the next figurine so well that they would never be able to find it. He also wondered if this game was getting a little too intense.


Chapter One Hundred Eight-Seven: ‘Temper thine ambition...’
Click to display entire chapter at once -- (mobile link)

Her office in the Book Tower was more spacious than she needed, quite frankly, but with all these new guests running around and knowing what she did of her young Lord Goffe, Amelia Carthrace had a dreadful and exciting feeling that she might actually have need of all this space, someday.

When the Queen had offered her this position, Amelia had not been able to tell if it had been offered out of pity or punishment or something else entirely. Working for the most infamous teenager in the nation? It was hardly a job that anyone was pining for.

But now, with the economy the way it was, she could think of several, very high profile financiers who would have killed to be in her shoes--especially because some of those people were currently out of a job.

With so many banks folding up so suddenly, there was a profound surplus of financial talent out there, just waiting to be scooped up. The problem was, of course, that there was almost no one in Atreya who could scoop them up. Which meant they would not be staying in Atreya for much longer. They would have to act soon, lest the cream of their nation’s crop would head off to Intar or Steccat or Vantalay, maybe. And if they really did leave, then, well...

Then Atreya would see a real financial crisis.

To say that she was antsy about this meeting with Hector today would have been an understatement. Truthfully, she had wanted to talk to him the very second he had gotten back, but for something like this, she knew she couldn’t come off as too eager or pushy. In all likelihood, the young lord wouldn’t understand what an incredible opportunity this was and would therefore probably be rather off-put by too much enthusiasm for the situation. Millions of people were going bankrupt, after all.

And besides, such behavior was unbecoming of a woman her age. She had to maintain her dignity, if nothing else.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Page 1762

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Be careful how you answer that,’ said Garovel.

Hector understood why the reaper was saying that, but he honestly didn’t think it was that difficult of a question. Sure, these kids were young, but not that young. He was fairly confident that they would understand, as long as he didn’t treat them like they were babies.

That was something that he knew a thing or two about from personal experience. Even teachers often seemed not to realize just how much kids could comprehend. He remembered an instance in middle school when one of the girls in his class had asked the elderly teacher about why her parents weren’t living together anymore. The teacher didn’t even know how to approach that question, much less answer it, but during recess, a group of kids had gotten together and explained it to the girl. She hadn’t been happy about it, and maybe the kids lacked a bit of tact, but the girl ultimately understood the situation just fine.

And so, looking at these kids now, Hector didn’t want to lie to them or tell them any half-truths.

“No, I’m not the new leader of the Rainlords,” said Hector plainly.

There came a second chorus of murmurs, but Hector wasn’t done.

“It’s a trick we’re playing,” said Hector. “And you’re all in on it. You guys know that you’re staying here in secret, right?”

“Yeah,” a couple kids said, while several others nodded.

“Well,” Hector went on, “we want certain other people to believe that I... well, that I’m a really dangerous guy. That way, they’ll be less inclined to come after you. So it’s important that you guys are in on the trick, too. It’s something we all have to do together.”

There was a brief intermission of silence, and then the kid with the bowl cut asked, “What if they come after us, anyway?”

Okay. Maybe now was a moment to lie--or at least, a moment to feign confidence. “If that happens... then we’ll fight them. And they’ll realize what a mistake they made.”

There was briefly more silence.

“But still,” added Hector, “it’s always better to avoid unnecessary fights. We’re talking about the lives of you and your parents, your siblings and cousins. That’s important. You guys understand that, right?”

“Y-yeah...”

“Of course we do...”

“Good,” said Hector firmly. “Because the goal of this trick is to make sure... that what happened at Dunehall doesn’t happen here. Understand?”

“Yeah,” said a few kids in unison.

“Good,” repeated Hector. “It’s important that you guys take this stuff seriously. But I bet you guys knew that already, huh? Because you’re Rainlords, right?”

“Duh!”

“Yeah!”

“That’s right!”

“I’m still confused, though,” said a girl with a ponytail. “So are you a really dangerous guy or not?”

Eesh. Now there was a difficult question, Hector felt.

Ask her her name first,’ said Garovel.

“Ah... what’s your name?” said Hector.

“Maria...”

“Maria what?” said Hector.

“Maria Blackburn,” she said.

Page 1761

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“Sitting on our thumbs and abusing your hospitality is hardly an admirable counterposition,” said Dimas.

Well, I’m sure we can come up with something a bit more appealing than that,’ said Garovel. ‘And you certainly wouldn’t be abusing our hospitality while you help us restore Warrenhold--as you have already begun doing, that is. You see, Hector and I have big plans for this castle. We would like it to eventually become one of the safest places on the planet.

Dimas merely returned a rigid expression.

Perhaps you think that sounds a bit overly optimistic,’ said Garovel, ‘but I don’t believe it is. Not after that trip through the Undercrust we just took.

“...What do you mean?” said Dimas.

The reaper glanced at Hector. ‘Well, I don’t want to get ahead of myself here, but obviously, this group of ours, formidable though it may be, still lacks the power it requires to achieve its ultimate objectives. I simply think that, together, we may be able to discover a good path forward, one which would benefit us all. Beyond that, though, I’m not yet prepared to say.

Dimas made no response.

Hector wanted to ask Garovel something, though he wasn’t quite sure what. It sounded like the reaper already had some sort of plan, but if that was the case, then why not just say so right now? Dimas was obviously trustworthy, Hector felt.

Hmm.

Soon, their food arrived, and Hector hardly even tasted it as he wolfed it down. Dimas was noticeably more reserved and even seemed to be reluctant to continue eating it. Hector didn’t give him any crap about it, but Garovel did.

After that, it was finally time to go meet Amelia Carthrace. Garovel offered Dimas the opportunity to join them, but the Lord Sebolt politely declined, saying that he should get back to his family. They said their goodbyes and parted ways.

Along the way to the Book Tower, in the middle of the rocky courtyard in the main cavern, the group of children from earlier ran up to him, and one of them presented the knight figurine to him.

Hector stepped closer to one of the pathway lamps so that he could examine the object. It wasn’t quite identical to the one he’d made earlier, but it it was pretty decent, he felt. More importantly, it gave him a clear idea of how much his precision was lost when he materialized something over a large distance and without being able to see it.

Give them some encouragement,’ said Garovel privately.

“Ah... well done,” said Hector. Agh. He needed to stop being so self-absorbed. “So... what’s your question, then?”

The boy with the bowl cut looked around at his peers triumphantly before settling back on Hector. “I wanna know if you’re the new leader of the Rainlords or not!”

A chorus of murmurs ran through the small crowd.

Page 1760

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Appreciated.’ Garovel broke for a pause. ‘Now, okay, I should preface this by saying that you are absolutely welcome to stay here at Warrenhold as long as you need or want. However, I am curious as to what plans you or your family might have going forward.

Dimas’ eyes fell to the table.

Hector waited. This man sitting in front of him was the very recently recognized new head of House Sebolt. No doubt, the tragic losses to his family at Dunehall were even fresher in his mind than they were in Hector’s. It was certainly an important question that Garovel had just asked, and Hector wanted to know the answer, but he might’ve asked the reaper to wait a bit longer before posing it, if he’d known Garovel was going to.

At length, Hector felt compelled to add, “You don’t have to answer that right now, if you don’t want to. There’s no rush.”

Indeed,’ said Garovel. ‘If anything, we’re more worried about you leaving. I can say with confidence that Hector and I would both prefer that you all stay here. Indefinitely, if need be.

Dimas looked up. “Indefinitely?”

If need be,’ Garovel reiterated.

Dimas took a breath and rubbed his brow. “I know virtually beyond doubt that my kin will wish to locate and free the others from the Vanguard’s captivity.”

Yeah, that’s what we’re worried about,’ said Garovel. ‘I don’t think that’s a very good idea--not with everything you’ve been through recently--with everything we’ve ALL been through recently.

Dimas just clenched his jaw and said nothing.

Hector could see the man’s dilemma. From everything that Hector had come to learn of the Rainlords, the idea seemed embedded into their very identity that they should take enormous risks for the sake of their blood and loved ones.

Maybe that was historically what kept getting them into trouble, but Hector also got the feeling that that was why they seemed to be so fiercely loyal to one another, too. And that loyalty, by extension, was probably how they had survived all that trouble that they got into.

A double-edged sword, if ever Hector had seen one.

“...I have to agree,” said Dimas. “Pursuing our captive brethren now would obviously be a fool’s errand. We hardly even know where to begin looking for them. Korgum, perhaps, considering that is where the Gargoyle is most likely stationed, but that is not enough information on which to base a rescue attempt.”

I’m glad to hear you say that,’ said Garovel. ‘Personally, I think you and your people need time--and perhaps a lot of it.

“...You may be right,” said Dimas. “But I worry what will happen if and when a supposed ‘opportunity’ appears before us. I fear that the others will jump at any chance as soon as they see it.”

So don’t let them,’ said Garovel.

Hector gave the reaper a look. That was a stronger stance to take than Hector had been expecting.

He couldn’t say he disagreed, though.

You’re the presiding Lord of House Sebolt now,’ Garovel went on. ‘Your opinion will have considerable weight behind it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Page 1759

“So what would you like?” said Lluis.

“Ah--are you sure you don’t need a break?” said Hector. “I’d rather you rest, if you’re tired.”

“Oh, nonsense,” said Margot. “It would be our honor to cook for you.”

“Do you have any calamari?” said Dimas.

At that, the pair hesitated. “Er--no, I’m sorry, Lord Dimas,” said Lluis.

“Mm,” said Dimas. “Lobster?”

“I’m afraid there isn’t any seafood in stock at the moment,” said Lluis.

“I thought a new food shipment arrived a few hours ago,” said Dimas.

“It did, lord, but there was no seafood in it,” said Lluis.

And Dimas’ normally expressionless face let slip a frown. “What do you have in stock, then?”

“Bread, beef, and cheese, mainly,” said Margot. “We could whip up some fantastic burgers for you, if you like.”

“That sounds great,” said Hector. “Make mine a double, please.”

The married couple smiled. “As you wish, lord,” said Lluis.

When they looked at Dimas, however, their mirth diminished somewhat. The man’s face was far from enthusiastic.

“Would you like something else, Lord Dimas?” said Lluis.

Dimas waited a moment, glancing between them and Hector briefly. “...No, that sounds fine,” he said, though it sounded rather like a sigh.

“V-very well,” said Lluis, and the couple ventured off together to the store room on the other side of the kitchen.

Hector and Dimas returned to the dining chamber immediately outside. It wasn’t as spacious as the enormous banquet that made up the entirety of the second floor, but the two of them didn’t have need of such room.

“...Do you not like burgers?” said Hector as they sat down at a long table across from one another.

“...Yes,” said Dimas.

Hector’s brow lowered. “Yes, you do? Or yes, you don’t?”

“...I find them perfectly edible,” said Dimas.

Hector almost snorted a laugh. “If you wanted something else, you could’ve just said so.”

“...I did not want you to think I am a picky eater,” said Dimas.

“...Are you a picky eater?”

“...No.”

Why did that “no” sound more like a “yes?”’ said Garovel.

Dimas didn’t say anything and averted his gaze.

“Hey, uh, it’s okay,” said Hector. “I’m kinda picky, too. I don’t really like mushrooms.”

Dimas’ eyes fell upon him again. “...Only mushrooms?”

“I... er...” It was suddenly difficult to think. “Maybe... oh, I don’t like horseradish. That stuff’s gross.”

“...Anything else?” said Dimas.

“Ah... p-probably. What about you?”

A beat passed, and the Lord Sebolt shook his head. “...It doesn’t matter.”

Hector stifled a laugh, and for a few long seconds, they just sat there in complete silence.

As was perhaps both expected and appropriate, it was up to the reaper to revive things. ‘Welp, uh, anywho... Hector and I could really use your input on a few things, if you wouldn’t mind hearing us out.’

Dimas straightened in his seat. “Yes, of course.”

Monday, May 14, 2018

Page 1758

((Triple Monday -- Page 3 of 3))
Whatever,’ said Garovel. ‘My point still stands. Young people need things to keep them busy. All the better if it involves physical activity. I have little doubt in my mind that they will go absolutely stir crazy in this place if we don’t find things for them to do. Their parents have taken all their phones away from them, you know.

That was news to Hector. “They have?”

Oh yeah. Can’t have the kids accidentally giving away their location. There’s little doubt that the Vanguard has quite a strong online presence.

Suddenly, Hector felt significantly more sympathy for those children.

“They will adapt,” said Dimas. “They might even be better off.”

Amen to that,’ said Garovel.

Hector wasn’t so sure he agreed. That might’ve been the age difference here rearing its head, though. As his hunger compelled him toward the kitchen again, he found himself wanting to ask Dimas about something else. “By the way, uh, h-how are the Elroys doing? Do you know? I just woke up, so I haven’t seen them yet.”

Dimas followed. “Considering the circumstances, I would say they are doing well, if a bit restless.”

“Restless?” said Hector, frowning a little. “They just got here. Can’t they just take it easy for a while?”

“They are trying,” said Dimas. “As are we all.”

There was a square-faced man and a bespectacled woman in the kitchen, apparently in the middle of cooking something. They were both non-servants, Hector was fairly sure, though he was struggling to put names to their faces.

When they noticed Hector and Dimas there, they each stopped to wipe their hands on their aprons.

“Lords,” said the man with a nod. “Are you hungry? Can we prepare something for you?”

“Ah--we hope you don’t mind our imposition,” said the woman, sounding somewhat nervous.

“The Lady Carthrace gave us permission to use the facilities here,” said the man hastily. “And not just us. There are probably three or four cooks from every family she granted access to, so I hope--” He kept talking, but Garovel’s private words echoed over him in Hector’s head.

Ask them their names. And shake their hands.

Ah. Hector appreciated the instructions, honestly. “...What are your names?” he said, extending a hand.

“Oh.” The man took the hand and shook it. “I am Lluis Delaguna, and this lovely creature is my wife, Margot.”

“We cannot thank you enough for all you are doing for us,” said Margot.

Hector was a bit reluctant to shake the woman’s hand, but he didn’t let it show, figuring it would only lead to a misunderstanding. “It’s... a pleasure to meet you both,” he said.

They were a middle-aged couple, by the look of them, and judging from all the stains on their aprons, they must have been at this for a while now.

Page 1757

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Hector opened his eyes again, and everyone was staring at the figurine now. “There,” he said. “I’ve just placed a knight that looks like this somewhere in Warrenhold. The first one who brings it back to me... I’ll answer your question.”

His audience remained entirely silent and started looking at one another.

Uh-oh. Had he upset them? “...Does that sound good?” said Hector, trying not to sound as uncertain as he felt.

The kid with the bowl cut darted past Hector and out the front door of the tower. Within seconds, everyone else was running after him, and the clamor of stomping feet filled the air. Only Dimas and Iziol remained behind, watching the mayhem unfold.

Hector scratched his cheek as the last of them scrambled out the door. He’d been intending to give them a hint, thinking that it might be unfair if they thought they had to search every room--and maybe a little obnoxious for everyone who was still trying to rest.

“...I didn’t think they would all just shoot off like that,” said Hector.

Rainlord youth can be a terrifying thing,’ said Iziol with a sigh. ‘I suppose I will go keep an eye on them.’ And he phased through the wall leading out into Warrenhold’s main cavern.

“...Maybe we should’ve put more thought into this,” said Hector.

Eh, I’m sure it’ll be fine,’ said Garovel. ‘This place could do with a bit of livening up.

Hector just gave the reaper a dubious look.

Don’t you remember what that pediatrician told us about child development?’ said Garovel. ‘Kids need engagement. They need to have their minds stimulated, and games are a great way to achieve that.

“...Wasn’t he talking about toddlers?” said Hector.

Yeah, but I’d argue that the basic principle holds true for young people, too. Hell, if you think about it, it even holds true for adults. It’s really just the sophistication of the game that changes. It’s the instinct that pushes us to grow. We always want something that we find challenging, right? But not SO challenging that it makes us feel discouraged and incompetent.

That was a little more psychological than Hector cared to think about, right now. He really just wanted something to eat. “If you say so...”

C’mon, I’m right, aren’t I? Back me up here, Dimas.

The Lord Sebolt was just standing there, observing. He looked a bit more rested than the last time Hector had seen him, but that wasn’t saying a whole lot. He was cleanly shaven with combed hair and fresh suit, but he still had bags under his eyes.

Perhaps that wasn’t so strange, though. Hector seemed to recall the man mentioning something about being an insomniac.

“...I am afraid I do not know much about children,” said Dimas. “I have never been very good with them, myself.”

Well, I’m not talking about just kids,’ said Garovel. ‘And hey, is that really true? Marcos Elroy sure seems to like you.

The reaper certainly had a point there, Hector felt.

“...You may be right,” said Dimas, “but I would not call him a good example of my rapport with children. Marcos is... a strange boy.”

Page 1756

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They’re kids,’ said Hector. ‘I can’t just put them to work like employees or whatever. That’s probably against the law or something, isn’t it?

Bah. If you ask me, child labor laws are mostly a pile of nonsense. Sure, kids need freedom to grow up, but actually growing up means having discipline and a sense of responsibility, and what better place to get those things than at a job, huh?

Garovel...

Alright, fine, here’s something else you can do.

Hector listened, and by the time they reached the bottom floor, he had a plan. He stopped and turned around to face everyone, and they all stopped as well, going abruptly silent.

Oh geez. That was a lot of eyes staring at him.

“...I’d like to answer your questions,” said Hector, “but I can’t when you ask them all at once like that. So instead, what we’ll do is--”

“Hey, I was here first, so--” tried a short kid with a bowl cut.

“No, you weren’t!” said a stocky boy with glasses.

“Yeah, I was first!” said a young girl with long bangs.

“What?! No, I--!”

“Quiet,” came a stern and familiar voice from behind Hector. It belonged to the Lord Dimas Sebolt, approaching with his reaper Iziol. “You are being rude.”

That seemed to silence them all again. The way the man towered over everyone had a commanding effect, Hector thought.

Dimas looked to Hector, as if prompting him to continue.

With all eyes on him again, Hector tried to keep his composure. Momentarily, he wondered if he would ever stop feeling so uncomfortable in front of groups of people like this. “...We’ll make a game of it,” he said slowly. He held his hand out, palm up, and shut his eyes while he gathered his concentration. He focused on what the Scarf was telling him of Warrenhold, of its layout.

Whoa.

The Scarf wasn’t enough to reveal all eight of the castle’s towers to him in their entirety, but he could sense most of the Tower of Night and much of its surroundings as well, including parts of the Bell Tower and the Entry Tower.

It was so much information. The Tower of Night alone had such a complex structure to it that he probably could’ve lost himself in trying to examine every little nook and cranny that he could find, and if he wasn’t standing in front of a bunch of people who were waiting on his next words, he might’ve done exactly that.

Instead, though, he picked an empty table in one of the middle floors of the Entry Tower and concentrated on it. He wanted to materialize something there. But what? Something benign. He didn’t want to give the kids anything dangerous to look for.

A little figurine, he decided. An armored knight. Seemed appropriate.

He materialized a second one in the palm of his hand, making it identical to the first--or at least, as close to identical as he could get it.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Page 1755

((Mother's Day Special -- Page 12 of 12))
I’m not sure those go with the rest of your outfit,’ said Garovel.

He stopped. ‘Wha? You told me to wear all this shit.

Yeah, but I didn’t know you were gonna choose work boots. And brown? There are some wingtips in your closet, I think. Try those.

Hector didn’t want to stand up yet. ‘What’s a wingtip?

It’s a--look, just go to the closet and I’ll point ‘em out, okay?

Reluctantly, Hector did as he was bid. In the end, he preferred the work boots. They were more comfortable, perhaps because they were already broken in.

Yeah, see, isn’t that better?’ said Garovel as Hector was grabbing the Scarf of Amordiin and wrapping it around his neck. ‘Now you’re starting to look a little more lordly. You sure do like the color black, don’t you?

Hector finally left the room. ‘Again, you told me to wear all this.

You’re kinda blending into the nightrock now. Maybe you should go back and change.

Go fuck yourself.

Garovel chortled. ‘That foul mouth isn’t very becoming of a lord, you know.

You swear just as much as I do. If not more.

Hmm, are you saying you want to be like me?

Hector stopped at the top of the stairs and gave the reaper a look. ‘Okay, good point.

Garovel just laughed as they descended together. The kitchen was on the bottom floor, and all the floors along the way were filled with Rainlords, many of whom were sleeping. It seemed like all the heads of the Houses and their immediate families were here in the Tower of Night with him.

Strange. Maybe he’d just been too tired to notice, but he was pretty sure that they hadn’t been here before he’d gone to sleep.

He gained considerable attention as he made his way down the tower. Many of the non-servants decided to come greet and subsequently join him. By the time he made it down to the fourth floor, he’d acquired an entourage that was at least a dozen strong, mostly consisting of people his own age or younger.

They weren’t shy with their questions, either.

“Lord Darksteel, ensir, could you show us some of your moves?”

“What was the Salesman like? Was he scary?”

“I heard he was super yellow.”

“What?”

“Hey, could you make Seth’s head explode?”

“Don’t ask him that! I like my head!”

“Lord Darksteel, ensir, is it true that you made everyone bend the knee?”

“Did you really meet a god?”

“Lord Darksteel, ensir, how long have you been a servant for?”

Hector wanted to just run away, but he was still hungry. ‘Garovel, please help...

Ask them if they need something to do.’

What?

Tell them there’s plenty of work around here that needs tending to, and since they’ve apparently got all this time to spare, it would be useful if they pitched in.

Seems a little rude, Garovel...

Yeah, they’re being rude, too. And we DO have a shitload of work that needs taking care of.

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You think he might’ve achieved it again since then?’ said Hector.

It’s definitely possible,’ said Garovel. ‘You’re not the only one in the world going through crazy shit, you know. And you’re definitely not the only one growing, either.

Hector certainly knew that. He eyed the Scarf of Amordiin that he’d set on the counter by the shower. ‘He could’ve gotten his hands on some kind of magical artifact.

Yeah. Or hell, he could’ve met a “god,” too, and received a blessing.

Agh, don’t even joke about that...

What, you don’t like the idea of other “gods” existing out there in the world?

Not really, no.

Heh. Can’t say I’m in love with the idea, either. But you weren’t giving me shit about not wanting gods to exist?

Yeah, that was before we met Malast,’ said Hector.

You’re afraid the other gods might be like him?

I don’t know. I mean, it’s not like he was the worst god ever ‘r anything, but shit...

Well, okay, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about gods being all that prevalent in the world. If they were, then I definitely would’ve heard about them a long time ago.

Hmm...

It makes sense that I wouldn’t know about Malast being real, since his whole deal is apparently just sitting there and doing jack shit all day long, but if the others were real? They would’ve been having a pretty damn big impact on the world.

Yeah, but isn’t that because the Void “rended” them from existence or whatever?

Supposedly.

That’s what Malast said, isn’t it? You think he was lying?

I honestly have no fucking clue. A part of me would like to pretend half of that shit we went through in Himmekel never even happened.

It’s not good to ignore reality, Garovel.

Oh, shut up,’ the reaper laughed. ‘I’m not ignoring anything. I’m just expressing my displeasure, okay? I’m still allowed to do that, aren’t I?

As if anything could stop you.’

Hector finished up his shower, wrapped himself in a towel, and then went to the dresser by his bed in order to pick out some clothes. There were more garments inside it than he remembered there being, and he found himself faced with a harder decision in choosing what to wear than he expected.

He’d never been much for fashion, but he supposed walking around Warrenhold in full iron armor wouldn’t be a good idea. He deferred to Garovel’s judgment and went with black trousers and a black waistcoat over a silky gray-and-white undershirt. There were a few ties there as well, and Garovel even tried to show him how to tie one, but after a while of fiddling with it, he grew frustrated and gave up.

You’ll probably wanna figure that out sooner or later,’ said Garovel.

Later’s fine with me,’ said Hector as he pulled on brown work boots and began tying them.

Page 1753

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It was strange to imagine how long ago this bathroom must have been built. Due to those few additions, it looked fairly modern, apart from perhaps the bathtub, which was embedded in the floor and could’ve doubled as a small pool.

Is there any other news about the Sandlords?’ said Hector as he scrubbed his back. He quite appreciated the scent of soap. It was a welcome change from all the awful stenches that he was getting used to smelling. ‘Like, er, how they’re dealing the Vanguard or whatever?

No,’ said Garovel from the other room, ‘but it’s a safe bet that the Vanguard is working closely with them, regardless. Lamont had just arrived in Sair when we left, and that guy doesn’t have a reputation for leaving things half done. With the Salesman’s frozen head in Sandlords’ possession, I’m sure the Vanguard will be wanting to keep a very close eye on everything that’s going on in Sair, right now.

Hmm. Do you think the Vanguard is pressuring the Sandlords into taking over the Rainlords’ territory?

It’s possible, but I’m not sure how much extra motivation the Sandlords would need. I mean, they’re already gaining land while simultaneously preventing a humanitarian crisis. It’s kind of a win-win, y’know? On paper, at least. Who the hell knows how it’ll all shake out in the long-term?

That was a good question, Hector thought. He didn’t imagine that the Rainlords would be content to stay here in Atreya forever. Eventually, they would want to go take their home back, and if the Sandlords didn’t want to give it up, then how were they going to avoid bloodshed?

There’s also some other other big news,’ said Garovel. ‘Big and significantly worse news, that is.

Great. What is it?

Well, it’s not relevant to us at all, but it’s pretty awful just the same.

Tell me.

Remember the civil war going on in Kavia?

Uh... kinda?

It’s over now--which, I guess is good--but the problem is, the side that won was supported by Abolish.

Oh. The Vanguard lost there?

Yeah. A few of their rising stars were killed, apparently. None of the marshals, at least, but it’s still a pretty big defeat.

Hmm. Who’s the, uh... I mean, who from Abolish is the victory being, er, attributed to?

That would be Jercash, the Devil’s Knife.

Ugh. What a nice nickname...

It wasn’t just him, though. There’s also word going around of someone else from Abolish who made a big impact there. Someone new. Someone who’s now being called the Bolt of Kavia.

That made Hector pause. ‘Bolt? As in... lightning bolt?

Dunno. Details are scarce. I thought it was interesting, though.

...You really think Karkash is making a name for himself out there?

Wouldn’t surprise me,’ said Garovel. ‘Power like that is pretty damn versatile. Not to mention deadly. And we witnessed him achieve emergence, you may recall.

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From what I’ve heard and been seeing on television, it looks like the Sandlords are intervening in the Rainlords’ territory now.

Hector stopped eating for a moment to look at Garovel. “Seriously?”

Yep.

“But isn’t that, like... overreach or something?”

Quite possibly. The Rainlords don’t seem too pleased about it, but they also seem to understand that it’s a difficult situation, and the Sandlords probably shouldn’t just sit back and watch half of their own country fall into disorder and lawlessness.

“Hmm.” Hector returned to his meal and discovered that he was already almost finished with it.

It’s a difficult situation for everyone, but the Sandlords deciding to take action here is pretty damn justified, I’d say. What that means for Sair’s future, though--that’s another matter. I’m sure the Rainlords aren’t loving the thought of their thousand-year-old rivals taking over their territory permanently.

“Yeah...”

But hey! With their new Lord Darksteel taking them under his protection, maybe the Rainlords are only thinking about how bright their future is!

Hector groaned. “Why’d you have to remind me about that shit...?”

The reaper chortled. ‘What, you don’t like being the new leader of the Rainlords?

Hector just groaned again.

Voreese and I did tell them about that, by the way. Or we STARTED to tell them, at least. Word seems to be getting around pretty well on its own now.

Hector groaned again, even louder this time. “How are they reacting to it?”

Hard to say. Mainly they just seemed confused. Though, I think some of them are under the impression that it’s a conspiracy.

“Wha? A conspiracy?”

As in, they think that it might actually be true--that it’s not just a ruse to fool Leo and that you might genuinely be their new de facto leader.

Hector stared at Garovel, trying to discern something--anything--from the reaper’s skeletal expression. “Tell me you’re lying, Garovel.”

Sorry, buddy. I’m not.

He buried his face in his hands. “Argh...”

Hey, on the plus side, some of those conspiracy believers seemed... fairly receptive to the idea.

Hector didn’t remove his face from his hands.

Admittedly, though, some others seemed a bit less so... Anyway, we won’t know what the Rainlords are really thinking about everything until the heads have another meeting. They’re mostly just trying to let everyone get some rest, still.

That last part, Hector was actually glad to hear. After everything those people had been through, they definitely deserved a break.

He slurped up the rest of his soup, chugged the rest of his tea, and then hopped in the shower. The master bathroom was certainly spacious, though a bit odd. The whole thing was made out of the pitch black nightrock, just like the rest of the Tower of Night, but certain keys pieces of it were very recently added, such as the porcelain toilet and sinks, the steel faucets, and the big, glassy shower.