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Y2 WIP Adventures (come and proof-read!)

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And since I'm done with it already, A Point to Prove, stage 8 male version:

Spoiler

It's finally the night of Lady Amaran's big ball. You're dressed up, cleaned up, made up, and ready to go. The only thing left is waiting for your "date", or whatever the high society appropriate word that won't offend Legate Orsi's sensibilities is. You wanted to look it up, but between sewing Aveline's dress, everything else she needed help with, and getting everything on your end ready at the last minute it slipped your mind. Hopefully that's not a question that anyone'll ask you. Or a question related to the pamphlet of Phemes and Spells you were told to memorize, for that matter. That thing completely slipped out of your mind pretty much the same day you were given it. You're still not sure where you left it, either. You checked your room and you went back to check the practice room that Aveline first asked you for help in, but you couldn't find it in either location.

"Fancy seeing you here, [PC FIRST NAME]," a voice calls out from behind you. You turn around and see Catherine Chard wearing an elaborate, though not unflattering get-up that could probably feed a hundred families for a month. "You'll be attending Lady Amaran's ball as well? So I take it you're waiting for your better half to arrive?" You're not sure if Catherine is being serious with her questions. It sounds like she is, but at the same time you can't quite tell, and usually Catherine isn't afraid to forget that "subtlety" is a word most people know. Eh, you don't feel like playing conversational games with her, at any rate.

"Insofar that I'm waiting for my date, yes," you plainly answer. Catherine looks more amused than impressed at your answer.

"Your 'date', [PC FIRST NAME]? Is that what this event is to you? Oh, dear. I hope the professors won't agree with your assessment."

"Nor yours, I hope," another voice calls out. Aveline's. You turn to look in her direction, and your heart skips a beat when you see her walking up to you. You've seen Aveline in her dress before plenty of times, but that with the hair, the way she walks down the hall with a noble's grace, the soft expression and gentle smile on her face...this is Aveline like you've never seen before. Catherine Chard, as if to validate your reaction, squints both her eyes as she looks Aveline up and down multiple times.

"...Ah, sorry, I seem to have misplaced your name," Catherine Chard says as politely as she can after giving up on trying to identify Aveline. "Who are you, again?"

Aveline can't help but smile at that. Though it's not a vindictive smile. Nor one of revenge, or smug satisfaction. It's an earnest, gentle smile you've never seen on Aveline before. Someone wounded her pride, but she's managed to stand up again. Part of you can't help but think it's a good thing she doesn't smile like this more often. She could break hearts with that. "Really, Catherine? I suppose a lack of attention paid towards those you see as beneath you has always been one of your more consistent faults, but this is a rather poor showing all the same. We shared no less than four classes last year, you know."

Catherine frowns at that statement, but more so than being offended it sends the gears in her head spinning. Slowly she pieces things together and asks, "...Aveline? Aveline Cincebeaux?" Aveline nods, Catherine looks stunned. "S-seriously? Aveline Cincebeaux? You must be the last person I'd expect to attend this ball! And with a date no less? What did you do to poor [PC FIRST NAME] to have him agree to this?" Geez, and they call Aveline vicious with her commentary! At least she doesn't take offence to it.

"There was a point where I was worried you'd have the right of me there, Catherine. But you don't. And I didn't pull any tricks, for the record. I just swallowed my pride and showed him how important this night is to me." Aveline answers, though with not even a hint of the smug, superior attitude you'd expect such an answer with. Instead there's a serene quality to Aveline's voice, like nothing could possibly shake her. "And about of this being a date, Catherine? I don't expect you to understand, but being invited to an event like this is a very different feeling than when someone schedules you for an appointment to it. I don't know who you're with tonight, if anyone, but I hope that one day you'll understand that difference." Leaving Catherine (as well as her "date", or rather her perpetual shadow, Corradin d'Alfi) behind, and practically on fire from that burn, Aveline offer you her hand. Trying to play the part of a proper gentleman (or whatever) as best you can you take it and lead Aveline towards the ball.

The ball itself is the grand, high-society celebration you'd expect. Heraldic decorations hung high, well-dressed people talking, dancing a slow dance, all the while soft music washes over it from the direction of a trio of musicians you don't recognize. You kinda want to say they're professors, they seem sorta familiar, but you don't recognise any of them.

"Well than, shall we?" Aveline asks you. She's not happy when your response is a raised eyebrow. "Did you forget? I didn't practice dancing on these shoes for nothing, [PC FIRST NAME]." You didn't, you just weren't sure whether she wanted to do that or look for Professor Badcrumble first thing. Aveline looks ever so slightly nervous when you tell her as much, but not for long. "R-right. Sorry for doubting you, [PC FIRST NAME]. Anyway, my answer: We're dancing first. Are you ready?"

-Dance. You were born ready!
--You confidently nod, and take Aveline to the dance floor as gracefully as you can manage. You don't attract any attention in the process, and that is just fine with you. Slowly at first, you do your best to follow Aveline's movements and try to find a rhythm with her. It works. Aveline manages to replicate the moves she's been practicing so hard on her enchanted shoes with what seems like practised ease, you're capable of following and adapting to her moves easily enough. Within what feels like moments the two of you are dancing along this painfully slow, really simplistic waltz.

Not to complain, but this is just a wee bit below your skill level. Even Aveline has an expression on her face that says "this is it?"

Than the music suddenly cuts out, and the waltz grinds to a halt. All the dancers, you and Aveline included, look around confused while the professors lining the walls look around concerned. What is it that smarter people usually say, again? "Be careful with what you wish for"? Regardless, people's attention is drawn to the musicians, and slowly their imagine starts to ripple...and shatter. A Glamour!? But who...?

"Time to get this show on the road, folks!" a voice shouts across the room, using the same magic that the professors set up to carry the music. You recognize that voice, too. Rui da Casga! How did he manage to infiltrate this event!? Before the professors can find where Rui is hiding the music picks up again, but this time it's different. It's got a strange spring, an unnatural liveliness to it. Satyr music? You don't see any satyrs around, though. Is Rui using magic to mimic their bewitching songs? Whatever the case might be, people start dancing. Uncontrollably. Whatever this music is it sure seems to be satyr music, only without the satyrs. Unfortunate, as that removes the obvious way to address this issue.

Panic starts to spread among the ball, but nothing rings more loudly than Aveline's pure, undisguised wrath. Despite her legs moving against her will she manages to spot Rui's hiding place, and as gracefully as you've seen anyone work magic she draws her wand from beneath her robe, weaves together an Incantation and sends it flying at Rui's hiding place. Gods alive, what is in those enchanted shoes? Rui, for his part, is forced to hastily evacuate his spot as Aveline's jet of fire nearly leaves him much worse than merely singed. Unfortunately for him he doesn't manage to stick the landing. Before he's able to pick himself back up and run away Aveline dances through another set of Phemes and freezes Rui in place with a Negation. Well, Aveline or one of the many professors that are in attendance, it's difficult to tell and there were spells flying all over the place for a moment there. Aveline had the clearest line of fire, though, for what that's worth.

Some of the crowd starts cheering at Aveline as she dances her way to Rui like the world's most dramatic tiger. Actually, you know what? "Dramatic" doesn't even cover it. The world's most dramatique tiger. She corners Rui before any professors manage to stumble their way over to him. They are having more issues with Rui's spell than Aveline does, and their attempts to Negate it seem surprisingly ineffective. Not that their magic doesn't work, it doesn't keep working is the issue. For your part you also try to work your way to Rui, but you swear that Aveline's shoes must be giving her some measure of control of her own legs, because you're having a hell of a time advancing in a single direction. "Rui!" Aveline snarls out as she dances circles around his frozen body. You don't even know what to make of this image, truth be told. And for better or worse, for Rui you mean, Aveline doesn't get any further before a professor finally manages to work her way to him. Look like Professor Briardi, but you can't easily tell. You are getting closer, though.

"Eh, miss, could you cancel your Negation, please?" Professor Briardi asks Aveline. So it was Aveline that got Rui? Damn, nice shot. Also, that's two people who didn't recognize her. Aveline nods and cancels her spell, though not before kicking Rui to the ground and landing a foot right on his chest. That can't have been comfortable for Rui. Be comfortable, for that matter. Professor Briardi, slightly surprised by Aveline's...initiative, works her own magic and thankfully dispels the bewitching tunes that Rui set up. Thank the gods, you can just run in a straight line towards Aveline. What a novel concept. Speaking of Aveline, with her shoe pressed against Rui's chest she's the first to demand to know what stunt he was trying to pull.

Rui stares curiously at Aveline, quirks and eyebrow, and asks, "Who are you?" You pretty Rui didn't crash-land on his head earlier, but it was difficult to tell and he's looking a bit out of it. Up to three people, by the way.

"You didn't hit your head when you took a fall there and a serial prankster like you should be better at recognizing your victim's faces, if not in practice than at least in principle, you pest!" Aveline snarls out. She proceeds to lay into Rui a bit more, verbally you mean, until he seems to have gotten the message. Or at least, the hint.

"Wait a sec, Aveline? Cincebeaux?" Rui asks, some form of recognition in his slightly vacant eyes. Aveline nods. "Wow, and here I thought me being here was improbable. I don't recall you ever being very sociable, you know. Or that graceful. Or this good looking, for that matter. Are you sure you're Aveline?"

That remark earns Rui a subtle, shift kick to the chin. Painful, but Professor Briardi doesn't say anything about it. Nor does anyone else. "I'll take it from here," Professor Briardi says as she picks up Rui's...now unconscious body and starts walking off. Okay, you know Rui wouldn't have outright passed out from just that. You know he's not that fragile, even if he has a glass jaw, which you're pretty sure he doesn't. What's up with him? Something's off, that's for sure.

In any case Aveline composes herself, fixes her dress and turns her attention to you. "Sorry that turned out a little more exciting than I intended, [PC FIRST NAME]. Are you alright?"

"You were even more bored out of your skull than I was, Aveline," you whisper. With a smile she whispers back that pointing out people's shortcomings like that is bad form...and with a wink she confirms that, yes, she really was.

"In any case, shall we go and chat with Professor Badcrumble? I...eh, you know why I want to talk to her by now, right?" Not in any great or even vague detail, but generally, yes. You nod and hold out your hand for Aveline to take. It takes her a second to recall the company she's in, but once she does she happily takes your hand.

--You nod and take Aveline to the dance floor as gracefully as you can manage. You don't attract any attention in the process, and that is just fine with you. Slowly you do your best to follow Aveline's movements and try to find a rhythm with her. It...kinda works, but you're not pulling it off as convincingly as you were hoping. Aveline, for her part, manages to replicate the moves she's been practising so hard on her enchanted shoes with what seems like practiced ease, and she does not appreciate having to adapt to your shuffling rather than the other way around - she's far from the Academagia's most accomplished dancer, after all, so being able to match her skill should be within your limits. Should be. Thankfully this is just a painfully slow, really simplistic waltz, so unless you were knocked unconscious you could manage to not make your dancing partner (and yourself) look like an absolute fool. Aveline can't set the bar very high, you definitely can't, but this song can't even pretend to try.

"Come on, [PC FIRST NAME], is dancing really so hard?" Aveline asks, and ironically it's the way she asks that that's more of a distraction that anything. Aveline asked like a normal, polite person. That, and seeing her all made up, dancing in her dress...it's a sight that you don't think will ever cease to be uncanny. As for answering her question you nod and complain about the fact that you're not really comfortable in this really formal atmosphere.

Than the music suddenly cuts out, and the waltz grinds to a halt. All the dancers, you and Aveline included, look around confused while the professors lining the walls look around concerned. What is it that smarter people usually say, again? "Be careful with what you wish for"? Regardless, people's attention is drawn to the musicians, and slowly their imagine starts to ripple...and shatter. A Glamour!? But who...?

"Time to get this show on the road, folks!" a voice shouts across the room, using the same magic that the professors set up to carry the music. You recognize that voice, too. Rui da Casga! How did he manage to infiltrate this event!? Before the professors can find where Rui is hiding the music picks up again, but this time it's different. It's got a strange spring, an unnatural liveliness to it. Satyr music? You don't see any satyrs around, though. Is Rui using magic to mimic their bewitching songs? Whatever the case might be, people start dancing. Uncontrollably. Whatever this music is it sure seems to be satyr music, only without the satyrs. Unfortunate, as that removes the obvious way to address this issue.

Panic starts to spread among the ball, but nothing rings more loudly than Aveline's pure, undisguised wrath. Despite her legs moving against her will she manages to spot Rui's hiding place, and as determined as any mad mage you've ever seen she draws her wand from beneath her robe, weaves together an Incantation and sends it flying at Rui's hiding place. Rui, for his part, is forced to hastily evacuate his spot as Aveline's jet of fire nearly leaves him much worse than merely singed. Fortunately for him he manages to stick the landing, and is able to run away from Aveline, weaving between a number of dancers to get away from the Negation that Aveline doesn't manage to put together quickly enough and throw at him. Unfortunately there's about twenty professors in attendance, and while it's difficult to tell when spells start flying all over the place it's clear enough to see that one of them manages to hit and freeze Rui in place. No less than three professors proceed to try and dance their way over to him, but they're even worse at it than you were. When you glance over at Aveline you notice that she looks conflicted, and you ask her whether she wants to go after Rui. "I don't think that'll be necessary," Aveline answers. "He seems to be in good company as is, and I think I've proven my point. Eh...so to speak." You can't help but roll your eyes at that last but, but yes, it seems that Professor Briardi (you think that's Professor Briardi anyway) managed to catch up to Rui and is currently berating the boy like only the Durand regent could. You're left with a lot of questions as to how Rui got in here and all of that, but it seems like those answers will have to wait for Rikildis' newspaper to be printed again.

After another minute of flailing about uncontrollably and Aveline trying her best to keep your steady the lively music dies down, and you can just stand on your own two feet again. Thank all the gods, that was not an experience you ever wish to repeat. Aveline, from her expression, seems to agree with that assessment. "Shall we go find Professor Badcrumble?" she asks. "I...think I've gotten my fill of dancing for the night." Needless to say that you don't disagree.

When Aveline manages to track down Professor Badcrumble you see she's already in a conversation with someone else. Both of you decide to politely wait for their conversation to finish before approaching the professor, which takes a while, but Aveline seems content to wait patiently. You...have had your fill with impatience and what else there is to be said about your performance tonight. You can just...wait. Eventually the other lady walks away, and Professor Badcrumble seems to turn around to leave herself, but Aveline quickly run up to her. "E-excuse me, Professor Badcrumble?"

The regent turns around. She looks annoyed for a second, but that turns to surprise when she sees the two of you. "Ah, Aveline, I was wondering if you'd want to talk with me. But, first off, correct me if I'm wrong, but were you the one who shot that blast of fire?" Aveline confidently nods, but her confidence drains a bit when the regent frowns in response. "I won't say your contribution to catching Rui da Casga wasn't appreciated, nor that it went unnoticed, but perhaps be a bit more careful casting such destructive spells next time? Perhaps you didn't notice it, but your shot managed to set some of the decorations on fire. Thankfully one of the professors put it out before it spread, or anyone noticed."

"G-glad to be of help," Aveline says, stumbling over her words a bit. She doesn't even mention the fact that she was cursed into dancing against her will at the time, you're not sure why, but if she doesn't mention it than you're not going to either. "In any case, Professor...do you think I've proven you wrong?"

Professor Badcrumble has to think about what Aveline is referencing before she's able to respond. Not a good sign, you think. "Oh, that?" The professor lets out a sigh. "Aveline, if it matters so much to you, I realized my mistake as soon as [PC FIRST NAME] asked me for two invitations to this ball. Please, surely you realized it yourself as well long before that point?"

There's a tense pause as Aveline carefully thinks that answer over. Quietly she eventually answers, "N-no, actually. I should have. I know I should have realized it sooner, as soon as [PC FIRST NAME] promised to help me, but..." Aveline shakes her head. "I know I can't blame you for something even I didn't know about, but still...you have no idea how hard that hit me, professor."

"Well, it seems to me like it's worked out for the best, since you appear to have learned a valuable lesson from it. One that you were in dire need of, I would think, if my words indeed hurt you so much." Without even a second's hesitation Aveline nods at that. "Now if that's all I should hunt down Lord Orsi and help him with his and da Casga's inevitable predicament. Enjoy the rest of the night, you two." Both you and Aveline nod, after which you turn your attention to Aveline. She's staring at the ground, breathing a bit heavily. Before you can think of what to say to her she stammers out your name, and you ask her whether she's feeling alright.

"Fine, [PC FIRST NAME]. Better than fine. I just...need to thank you properly. For all you've done for me. And I should also apologise. [PC FIRST NAME], thank you. And I'm sorry for dragging you along for so long. I should have realized it earlier. That the moment you promised to help me, I should have already learned all I needed to." After a second Aveline amends, "Though I do regret not dragging you to Avendra’s Studio more often. I get that you were nervous, and that seeing me like this probably didn't help put you at ease at all, and that I'm not the world's greatest dancing partner...but still. You can do better than that, [PC FIRST NAME]. I know you can."

You know, you've never heard the helpful, encouraging side of Aveline's comments this clearly before. Hopefully this won't be the last time you hear it. "Yeah, it's been a weird night. Like you said."

Looking you over with an inquisitive expression you've never seen on Aveline before she asks, "[PC FIRST NAME], is this a bad kind of weird to you? Seeing me be this...l-like this? Dress and all?" A part of you feels like this is one of those difficult questions where you need to very carefully consider your answer if you don't want to change the entire course your life will take, but a much greater part of you is thinking dear Gods no, Aveline.

"You look and sound better now that I've ever seen or heard you before, Aveline. And as far as I can tell you don't mind it yourself. Don't lie about it, please. I don't want you to think I mind seeing you like this." Aveline blushes a little, but more than that she frowns deeply as she contemplates you answer. Was that the wrong one? Nah, it can't be. Honest answers can never be wrong. Not when you're talking to Aveline. "In any case it seems like the professors brought the music back, so what do you think? Am I worth a second chance?"

Aveline, after quietly laughing to herself at that question, looks at you with a broad smile. "Yes. Yes you are, [PC FIRST NAME]. Come on, I'll show you how to dance."

Despite the rough start you manage to enjoy the rest of the evening, trying your best to follow along with Aveline's (relatively) smooth moves...should have gotten a set of enchanted shoes for yourself, in hindsight...

And female version:

Spoiler

It's finally the night of Lady Amaran's big ball. You're dressed up, cleaned up, made up, and ready to go. The only thing left is waiting for Aveline, or whatever the proper word is for whoever you've invited to a formal ball. You wanted to look it up, but between sewing Aveline's dress, everything else she needed help with, and getting everything on your end ready at the last minute it slipped your mind. Hopefully that's not a question that anyone'll ask you. Or a question related to the pamphlet of Phemes and Spells you were told to memorize, for that matter. That thing completely slipped out of your mind pretty much the same day you were given it. You're still not sure where you left it, either. You checked your room and you went back to check the practice room that Aveline first asked you for help in, but you couldn't find it in either location.

"Fancy seeing you here, [PC FIRST NAME]," a voice calls out from behind you. You turn around and see Catherine Chard wearing an elaborate, though not unflattering get-up that could probably feed a hundred families for a month. "You'll be attending Lady Amaran's ball as well? So I take it you're waiting for your better half to arrive?" You're not sure if Catherine is being serious with her questions. It sounds like she is, but at the same time you can't quite tell, and usually Catherine isn't afraid to forget that "subtlety" is a word most people know. Eh, you don't feel like playing conversational games with her, at any rate.

"I wouldn't call her my 'better half', but I am waiting for someone, yes," you plainly answer. Catherine looks more bored than impressed at your answer.

"I suppose I-wait, 'her'? Ah, so you'll be attending with just a friend? Unfortunate, [PC FIRST NAME]. Did none of the boys extend an invitation to you? They certainly seemed to be interested enough, if their incessant gossiping is anything to go by." You quirk an eyebrow and ask Catherine what's bad about you attending with "just" a friend. And why she cares, for that matter. "Merely curious about what it is that everyone seems to see in it that I apparently don't. I was invited to the ball by Corradin, yet I don't recall any frogs dropping from the sky that day. Well...okay, a few did if you wish to be really technical, but that's just the reality of sharing a dorm building with Rui da Casga. I'm quite sure that had nothing to do with Corradin's invitation." Eh, you wouldn't put it past Rui to pull a witty prank on Catherine, and given that she's talking about it with you it's clear that she does care about some part of it on some level. Honestly, between the two of them you'd give benefit of the doubt to Rui.

"Corradin inviting you has nothing to do with any of that, Catherine," another voice calls out. Aveline's. You turn to look in her direction, and whatever you were about to say gets stuck in your throat. You've seen Aveline in her dress before plenty of times, but that with the hair, the way she walks down the hall with a noble's grace, the soft expression and gentle smile on her face...this is Aveline like you've never seen before. Catherine Chard, as if to validate your reaction, squints both her eyes as she looks Aveline up and down multiple times.

"...Ah, sorry, I seem to have misplaced your name," Catherine Chard says as politely as she can after giving up on trying to identify Aveline. "Who are you, again?"

Aveline can't help but smile at that. Though it's not a vindictive smile. Nor one of revenge, or smug satisfaction. It's an earnest, gentle smile you've never seen on Aveline before. Someone wounded her pride, but she's managed to stand up again. Part of you can't help but think it's a good thing she doesn't smile like this more often. She could break hearts with that. "Really, Catherine? I suppose a lack of attention paid towards those you thought beneath you has always been one of your more consistent faults, but this is a rather poor showing all the same. We shared no less than four classes last year, you know."

Catherine frowns at that statement, but more so than being offended it sends the gears in her head spinning. Slowly she pieces things together and asks, "...Aveline? Aveline Cincebeaux?" Aveline nods, Catherine looks stunned. "S-seriously? Aveline Cincebeaux? You must be the last person I'd expect to attend this ball! And with a friend no less? What did you do to poor [PC FIRST NAME] to have her agree to this?" Geez, and they call Aveline vicious with her commentary! At least she doesn't take offence to it.

"There was a point where I was worried you'd have the right of me there, Catherine. But you don't. And I didn't pull any tricks. I just swallowed my pride and showed her how important this night is to me." Aveline answers, though with not even a hint of the smug, superior attitude you'd expect such an answer with. Instead there's a serene quality to Aveline's voice, like nothing could possibly shake her. "And about people's obsession with this ball, yours included, Catherine? Being invited to an event like this by a friend is a very different feeling than when someone schedules you for an appointment to it. I didn't think that Corradin could show you the difference, but all the same, I hope that one day you'll understand this feeling." Leaving Catherine (as well as her "date", or rather, her perpetual shadow) behind, and practically on fire from that burn, Aveline asks you if you're ready to go. You nod and the two of you head towards the ball.

The ball itself is the grand, high-society celebration you'd expect. Heraldic decorations hung high, well-dressed people talking, dancing a slow dance, all the while soft music washes over it from the direction of a trio of musicians you don't recognize. You kinda want to say they're professors, they seem sorta familiar, but you don't recognise any of them.

"Well than, shall we?" Aveline asks you. She's not happy when your response is a raised eyebrow. "Did you forget? I didn't practice dancing on these shoes for nothing, [PC FIRST NAME]." You didn't, you just weren't sure whether she wanted to do that or look for Professor Badcrumble first thing. Aveline looks ever so slightly nervous when you tell her as much, but not for long. "R-right, of course. Sorry for doubting you, [PC FIRST NAME]. Anyway, my answer: We're dancing first. Are you ready?"

-Dance. You were born ready!
--You confidently nod, and follow Aveline to the dance floor. Neither of you seem to be noticed by anyone present, but that is just fine with you. Slowly at first, you do your best to follow Aveline's movements and try to find a rhythm with her. It works. Aveline manages to replicate the moves she's been practising so hard on her enchanted shoes with what seems like practised ease, you're capable of following and adapting to her moves easily enough, and within what feels like moments the two of you are dancing along this painfully slow, really simplistic waltz.

Not to complain, but this is just a wee bit below your skill level. Even Aveline has an expression on her face that says "this is it?"

Than the music suddenly cuts out, and the waltz grinds to a halt. All the dancers, you and Aveline included, look around confused while the professors lining the walls look around concerned. What is it that smarter people usually say, again? "Be careful with what you wish for"? Regardless, people's attention is drawn to the musicians, and slowly their imagine starts to ripple...and shatter. A Glamour!? But who...?

"Time to get this show on the road, folks!" a voice shouts across the room, using the same magic that the professors set up to carry the music. You recognize that voice, too. Rui da Casga! How did he manage to infiltrate this event!? Before the professors can find where Rui is hiding the music picks up again, but this time it's different. It's got a strange spring, an unnatural liveliness to it. Satyr music? You don't see any satyrs around, though. Is Rui using magic to mimic their bewitching songs? Whatever the case might be, people start dancing. Uncontrollably. Whatever this music is it sure seems to be satyr music, only without the satyrs. Unfortunate, as that removes the obvious way to address this issue.

Panic starts to spread among the ball, but nothing rings more loudly than Aveline's pure, undisguised wrath. Despite her legs moving against her will she manages to spot Rui's hiding place, and as gracefully as you've seen anyone work magic she draws her wand from beneath her robe, weaves together an Incantation and sends it flying at Rui's hiding place. Gods alive, what is in those enchanted shoes? Rui, for his part, is forced to hastily evacuate his spot as Aveline's jet of fire nearly leaves him much worse than merely singed. Unfortunately for him he doesn't manage to stick the landing. Before he's able to pick himself back up and run away Aveline dances through another set of Phemes and freezes Rui in place with a Negation. Well, Aveline or one of the many professors that are in attendance, it's difficult to tell and there were spells flying all over the place for a moment there. Aveline had the clearest line of fire, though, for what that's worth.

Some of the crowd starts cheering at Aveline as she dances her way to Rui like the world's most dramatic tiger. Actually, you know what? "Dramatic" doesn't even cover it. The world's most dramatique tiger. She corners Rui before any professors manage to stumble their way over to him. They are having more issues with Rui's spell than Aveline does, and their attempts to Negate it seem surprisingly ineffective. Not that their magic doesn't work, it doesn't keep working is the issue. For your part you also try to work your way to Rui, but you swear that Aveline's shoes must be giving her some measure of control of her own legs, because you're having a hell of a time advancing in a single direction. "Rui!" Aveline snarls out as she dances circles around his frozen body. You don't even know what to make of this image, truth be told. And for better or worse, for Rui you mean, Aveline doesn't get any further before a professor finally manages to work her way to him. Look like Professor Briardi, but you can't easily tell. You are getting closer, though.

"Eh, miss, could you cancel your Negation, please?" Professor Briardi asks Aveline. So it was Aveline that got Rui? Damn, nice shot. Also, that's two people who didn't recognize her. Aveline nods and cancels her spell, though not before kicking Rui to the ground and landing a foot right on his chest. That can't have been comfortable for Rui. Be comfortable, for that matter. Professor Briardi, slightly surprised by Aveline's...initiative, works her own magic and thankfully dispels the bewitching tunes that Rui set up. Thank the gods, you can just run in a straight line towards Aveline. What a novel concept. Speaking of Aveline, with her shoe pressed against Rui's chest she's the first to demand to know what stunt he was trying to pull.

Rui stares curiously at Aveline, quirks and eyebrow, and asks, "Who are you?" You pretty Rui didn't crash-land on his head earlier, but it was difficult to tell and he's looking a bit out of it. Up to three people, by the way.

"You didn't hit your head when you took a fall there and a serial prankster like you should be better at recognizing your victim's faces, if not in practice than at least in principle, you pest!" Aveline snarls out. She proceeds to lay into Rui a bit more, verbally you mean, until he seems to have gotten the message. Or at least, the hint.

"Wait a sec, Aveline? Cincebeaux?" Rui asks, some form of recognition in his slightly vacant eyes. Aveline nods. "Wow, and here I thought me being here was improbable. I don't recall you ever being very sociable, you know. Or that graceful. Or this good looking, for that matter. Are you sure you're Aveline?"

That remark earns Rui a subtle, shift kick to the chin. Painful, but Professor Briardi doesn't say anything about it. Nor does anyone else. "I'll take it from here," Professor Briardi says as she picks up Rui's...now unconscious body and starts walking off. Okay, you know Rui wouldn't have outright passed out from just that. You know he's not that fragile, even if he has a glass jaw, which you're pretty sure he doesn't. What's up with him? Something's off, that's for sure.

In any case Aveline composes herself, fixes her dress and turns her attention to you. "Sorry that turned out a little more exciting than I intended, [PC FIRST NAME]. Are you alright?"

"You were even more bored out of your skull than I was, Aveline," you whisper. With a smile she whispers back that pointing out people's shortcomings like that is bad form...and with a wink she confirms that, yes, she really was.

"In any case, shall we go and chat with Professor Badcrumble? I feel like it's time I have a long overdue conversation with her." You nod, and tell Aveline to lead the way.

--You nod and follow Aveline to the dance floor. You don't attract any attention in the process, and that is just fine with you. Slowly you do your best to follow Aveline's movements and try to find a rhythm with her. It...kinda works, but you're not pulling it off as convincingly as you were hoping. Aveline, for her part, manages to replicate the moves she's been practising so hard on her enchanted shoes with what seems like practised ease, and she does not appreciate having to adapt to your shuffling rather than the other way around - she's far from the Academagia's most accomplished dancer, after all, so being able to match her skill should be within your limits. Should be. Thankfully this is just a painfully slow, really simplistic waltz, so unless you were knocked unconscious you could manage to not make your dancing partner (and yourself) look like an absolute fool. Aveline can't set the bar very high, you definitely can't, but this song can't even pretend to try.

"Come on, [PC FIRST NAME], is dancing really so hard?" Aveline asks, and ironically it's the way she asks that that's more of a distraction that anything. Aveline asked like a normal, polite person. That, and seeing her all made up, dancing in her dress...it's a sight that you don't think will ever cease to be uncanny. As for answering her question you nod and complain about the fact that you're not really comfortable in this really formal atmosphere.

Than the music suddenly cuts out, and the waltz grinds to a halt. All the dancers, you and Aveline included, look around confused while the professors lining the walls look around concerned. What is it that smarter people usually say, again? "Be careful with what you wish for"? Regardless, people's attention is drawn to the musicians, and slowly their imagine starts to ripple...and shatter. A Glamour!? But who...?

"Time to get this show on the road, folks!" a voice shouts across the room, using the same magic that the professors set up to carry the music. You recognize that voice, too. Rui da Casga! How did he manage to infiltrate this event!? Before the professors can find where Rui is hiding the music picks up again, but this time it's different. It's got a strange spring, an unnatural liveliness to it. Satyr music? You don't see any satyrs around, though. Is Rui using magic to mimic their bewitching songs? Whatever the case might be, people start dancing. Uncontrollably. Whatever this music is it sure seems to be satyr music, only without the satyrs. Unfortunate, as that removes the obvious way to address this issue.

Panic starts to spread among the ball, but nothing rings more loudly than Aveline's pure, undisguised wrath. Despite her legs moving against her will she manages to spot Rui's hiding place, and as determined as any mad mage you've ever seen she draws her wand from beneath her robe, weaves together an Incantation and sends it flying at Rui's hiding place. Rui, for his part, is forced to hastily evacuate his spot as Aveline's jet of fire nearly leaves him much worse than merely singed. Fortunately for him he manages to stick the landing, and is able to run away from Aveline, weaving between a number of dancers to get away from the Negation that Aveline doesn't manage to put together quickly enough and throw at him. Unfortunately there's about twenty professors in attendance, and while it's difficult to tell when spells start flying all over the place it's clear enough to see that one of them manages to hit and freeze Rui in place. No less than three professors proceed to try and dance their way over to him, but they're even worse at it than you were. When you glance over at Aveline you notice that she looks conflicted, and you ask her whether she wants to go after Rui. "I don't think that'll be necessary," Aveline answers. "He seems to be in good company as is, and I think I've proven my point. Eh...so to speak." You can't help but roll your eyes at that last but, but yes, it seems that Professor Briardi (you think that's Professor Briardi anyway) managed to catch up to Rui and is currently berating the boy like only the Durand regent could. You're left with a lot of questions as to how Rui got in here and all of that, but it seems like those answers will have to wait for Rikildis' newspaper to be printed again.

After another minute of flailing about uncontrollably and Aveline trying her best to keep your steady the lively music dies down, and you can just stand on your own two feet again. Thank all the gods, that was not an experience you ever wish to repeat. Aveline, from her expression, seems to agree with that assessment. "Shall we go find Professor Badcrumble?" she asks. "I...think I've gotten my fill of dancing for the night." Needless to say that you don't disagree.

When Aveline manages to track down Professor Badcrumble you see she's already in a conversation with someone else. Both of you decide to politely wait for their conversation to finish before approaching the professor, which takes a while, but Aveline seems content to wait patiently. You...have had your fill with impatience and what else there is to be said about your performance tonight. You can just...wait. Eventually the other lady walks away, and Professor Badcrumble seems to turn around to leave herself, but Aveline quickly run up to her. "E-excuse me, Professor Badcrumble?"

The regent turns around. She looks annoyed for a second, but that turns to surprise when she sees the two of you. "Ah, Aveline, I was wondering if you'd want to talk with me. But, first off, correct me if I'm wrong, but were you the one who shot that blast of fire?" Aveline confidently nods, but her confidence drains a bit when the regent frowns in response. "I won't say your contribution to catching Rui da Casga wasn't appreciated, nor that it went unnoticed, but perhaps be a bit more careful casting such destructive spells next time? Perhaps you didn't notice it, but your shot managed to set some of the decorations on fire. Thankfully one of the professors put it out before it spread, or anyone noticed."

"G-glad to be of help," Aveline says, stumbling over her words a bit. She doesn't even mention the fact that she was cursed into dancing against her will at the time, you're not sure why, but if she doesn't mention it than you're not going to either. "In any case, Professor...do you think I've proven you wrong?"

Professor Badcrumble has to think about what Aveline is referencing before she's able to respond. Not a good sign, you think. "Oh, that?" The professor lets out a sigh. "Aveline, if it matters so much to you, I realized my mistake as soon as [PC FIRST NAME] asked me for two invitations to this ball. Please, surely you realized it yourself as well long before that point?"

There's a tense pause as Aveline carefully thinks that answer over. Quietly she eventually answers, "N-no, actually. I should have. I know I should have realized it sooner, as soon as [PC FIRST NAME] promised to help me, but..." Aveline shakes her head. "I know I can't blame you for something even I didn't know about, but still...you have no idea how hard that hit me, professor."

"Well, it seems to me like it's worked out for the best, since you appear to have learned a valuable lesson from it. One that you were in dire need of, I would think, if my words indeed hurt you so much." Without even a second's hesitation Aveline nods at that. "Now if that's all I should hunt down Lord Orsi and help him with his and da Casga's inevitable predicament. Enjoy the rest of the night, you two." Both you and Aveline nod, after which you turn your attention to Aveline. She's staring at the ground, breathing a bit heavily. Before you can think of what to say to her she stammers out your name, and you ask her whether she's feeling alright.

"Fine, [PC FIRST NAME]. Better than fine. I just...need to thank you properly. For all you've done for me. And I should also apologise. [PC FIRST NAME], thank you. And I'm sorry for dragging you along for so long. I should have realized it earlier. That the moment you promised to help me, I should have already learned all I needed to." After a second Aveline amends, "Though I do regret not dragging you to Avendra’s Studio more often. I get that you were nervous, and that seeing me like this probably didn't help put you at ease at all, and that I'm not the world's greatest dancing partner...but still. You can do better than that, [PC FIRST NAME]. I know you can."

You know, you've never heard the helpful, encouraging side of Aveline's comments this clearly before. Hopefully this won't be the last time you hear it. "Yeah, it's been a weird night. Like you said."

Looking you over with an inquisitive expression you've never seen on Aveline before she asks, "[PC FIRST NAME], is it a bad kind of weird? Me being this...l-like this? Dress and all?" A part of you feels like this is one of those difficult questions where you need to very carefully consider your answer if you don't want to change the way your friend looks at you forever, but a much greater part of you is thinking dear Gods no, Aveline.

"You look and sound better now that I've ever seen or heard you before, Aveline. And as far as I can tell you don't mind it yourself. Don't lie about it, please. I don't want you to think you don't look wonderful like this." Aveline blushes a little, but more than that she frowns deeply as she contemplates you answer. Was that the wrong one? Nah, it can't be. Honest answers can never be wrong. Not when you're talking to Aveline. "In any case it seems like the professors brought the music back, so what do you think? Am I worth a second chance?"

Aveline, after quietly laughing to herself at that question, looks at you with a broad smile. "Yes. Yes you are, [PC FIRST NAME]. Come on, I'll show you how to dance."

Despite the rough start you manage to enjoy the rest of the evening, trying your best to follow along with Aveline's (relatively) smooth moves...should have gotten a set of enchanted shoes for yourself, in hindsight...

In case it isn't clear from context, succeeding the check leads to stage 9, failing ends the adventure early.

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And final stage of the adventure. A Point to Prove, stage 9 male version:

Spoiler

Slowly but surely the ball gets back into the intended swing of things (or lack thereof, thank the Gods). By the time Aveline manages to track down Professor Badcrumble you see she's already in a conversation with someone else. Both of you decide to politely wait for their conversation to finish before approaching the professor, but whoever the professor is talking to notices the two of you waiting in the distance and calls you both over. Neither of you were expecting that, and so with some hesitation the two of you walk up to the professor and the woman she's talking to. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but you're the one that caught and captured that little troublemaking minx, right?" the woman asks Aveline.

"Y-yes, I am. Thank you." Aveline politely answers, complete with a small bow. She can't see it, but you can see a smirk flash across Professor Badcrumble's face as she looks at Aveline's behaviour.

"I should be the one thanking you, miss," the woman says. "I don't know what else that rat had planned, but I'm sure my ball wouldn't have been better for it." Wait, "her" ball? Is this Lady Amaran? "That said, and this is not to discredit your accomplishments, but I simple must ask: The shoes you're wearing. Were that Enchanted, perchance?"

"Ah, y-yes, they are," Aveline says, nodding her head. Lady Amaran nods her head in turn.

"Truly a magical place, this school, that even it's students can arrange for their own enchanted items. They are quite a bit more rare where I'm from." Aveline doesn't know how to react to that, so she just politely nods. For what it's worth Lady Amaran seems to accept that response (or lack thereof). "Is the dress enchanted, as well?" Aveline shakes her head, and Lady Amaran asks what designer it's from. Aveline stammers out a vague non-answer and looks at you with a confused, slightly desperate expression. She's silently asking you whether you want that question answered.

"I made it, actually," you confidently answer. "Aveline and I both worked together to hammer out the design, and I sewed it together."

Lady Amaran looks taken aback by your answer. Professor Badcrumble also can't help but let a rather large question mark cover her face for a second, but she quickly composes herself. "Y-yourself? You, personally, sewed this dress? In it's entirety?"

"From cutting the cloth to the final stitches, yes."

Lady Amaran looks over Aveline's dress again. "I wanted a dress like this," she says as she notices the Lady's critical eye looking her over. "Extravagance and frills aren't my style. But this?" Aveline does a slow twirl, showing off the dress, and how comfortably she moves in it. "This is my kind of style, my kind of dress. I wouldn't take it over any other. No other has so much important work put into it." Aveline actually blushes a little as she realizes what she blurted out at the end there. No one comments on it, though.

"Truly a remarkable, and yet such a diverse group of students. Thank you for indulging my curiosity. Though, my apologies, but I'll need to excuse myself. I'd very much like to question the Legate about how that rat managed to get in here." Turning to Professor Badcrumble she says, "We'll finish our discussion at a later date, Professor Badcrumble." The regent nods, and Lady Amaran walks off.

"Good job, you two," Professor Badcrumble says once Lady Amaran is out of earshot. "I doubt you two understand the full extent of things, but suffice to say that you've made Lord Orsi's job a lot easier tonight. Mine, too, for that matter."

"G-glad to be of help," Aveline says, stumbling over her words a bit. She's nervous. "So, Professor...do you think I've proven you wrong?"

Professor Badcrumble has to think about what Aveline is referencing before she's able to respond. Not a good sign, you think. "Oh, that?" The professor lets out a sigh. "Aveline, if it matters so much to you, I realized my mistake as soon as [PC FIRST NAME] asked me for two invitations to this ball. Please, surely you realized it yourself as well long before that point?"

There's a tense pause as Aveline carefully thinks that answer over. Quietly she eventually answers, "N-no, actually. I...I should have. I know I should have realized it sooner, as [PC FIRST NAME] promised to help me, but..." Aveline shakes her head. "It...you have no idea how hard that hit me, professor."

"I'd apologize for what I said, than, but it seems to me like it's for the best that it did. You appear to have learned a valuable lesson from it, Aveline. One that you were in dire need of." Without even a second's hesitation Aveline nods at that. "Speaking of which, actually," the regent says as she turns her attention to you. "You...did you really sew that dress yourself? The entire thing? Start to finish?"

You nod. "Sure did. Not saying I did it entirely by hand of course, I used a fair bit of magic to speed up the process and correct mistakes made along the way. But I turned the whole cloth into that dress, yes."

The regent looks impressed. "Well, color me surprised. Though truthfully I should probably try to hunt down Lord Orsi and help him with his and da Casga's inevitable predicament. Sorry for taking off so suddenly, but enjoy the rest of the night, you two." Both you and Aveline nod, after which you turn your attention to Aveline. She's staring at the ground, cheeks flushed red. Before you can think of what to say to her she stammers out your name, and you ask her whether she's feeling alright.

"Fine, [PC FIRST NAME]. Better than fine. I-I just...I need to thank you properly. For all you've done for me. And...I should also apologise. [PC FIRST NAME], thank you. And I'm sorry for dragging you along for so long. I should have realized it earlier. That the moment you promised to help me, I should have already learned all I needed to. Though..."

"Though what, Aveline?"

For a second you think she might actually come clean...but after giving it some thought Aveline slowly shakes her head. "I'm sorry, [PC FIRST NAME], but that question I can't answer right now. Honestly, I can't. I feel so weird right now. In a good way, I've really enjoyed being here tonight, but...I don't know if I could get used to it, if that makes sense. Once this is all over I'm going to need to take a good look at myself in the mirror, and really think about what this whole ordeal meant to me. I promise I'll tell you when I'm sure of the answer myself, [PC FIRST NAME]. Don't worry, I've learned my lesson. I won't hide important things from important friends anymore. I just need some time to think."

-"What's there to think about? Tonight was a blast! Don't worry so much."
--Aveline smirks at that. "I don't want to give up on what I've learned so quickly, but perhaps you're right, [PC FIRST NAME]. So, shall we go around and strike up a few conversations with who else is here? I'm curious to know who else in our year is attending this ball." With a mischievous grin Aveline adds, "And whether they'll recognize me. Catherine certainly didn't, and I'll admit, it was really amusing to see how confused she was."

You nod and follow along with Aveline, knowing that for all the important strangers here and the formal atmosphere and everything else, with Aveline it's not going to be a dull night...

-"Alright, but hold onto that promise, Aveline. Because I will."
--Aveline looks up at you as you say that, looking surprised for a few seconds before her head falls again. "I will, [PC FIRST NAME]. Cross my heart, I will."

With that said the two of enjoy the rest of the night as best you can, trying not to worry about things that neither of you can do anything about right now anyway...

And female version:

Spoiler

Slowly but surely the ball gets back into the intended swing of things (or lack thereof, thank the Gods). By the time Aveline manages to track down Professor Badcrumble you see she's already in a conversation with someone else. Both of you decide to politely wait for their conversation to finish before approaching the professor, but whoever the professor is talking to notices the two of you waiting in the distance and calls you both over. Neither of you were expecting that, and so with some hesitation the two of you walk up to the professor and the woman she's talking to. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but you're the one that caught and captured that little troublemaking minx, right?" the woman asks Aveline.

"Y-yes, I am. Thank you." Aveline politely answers, complete with a small bow. She can't see it, but you can see a smirk flash across Professor Badcrumble's face as she looks at Aveline's behaviour.

"I should be the one thanking you, miss," the woman says. "I don't know what else that rat had planned, but I'm sure my ball wouldn't have been better for it." Wait, "her" ball? Is this Lady Amaran? "That said, and this is not to discredit your accomplishments, but I simple must ask: The shoes you're wearing. Were they Enchanted, perchance?"

"Ah, y-yes, they are," Aveline says, nodding her head. Lady Amaran nods her head in turn.

"Truly a magical place, this school, that even it's students can arrange for their own enchanted items. They are quite a bit more rare where I'm from." Aveline doesn't know how to react to that, so she just politely nods. For what it's worth Lady Amaran seems to accept that response (or lack thereof). "Is the dress enchanted, as well?" Aveline shakes her head, and Lady Amaran asks what designer it's from. Aveline stammers out a vague non-answer and glances over at you with a confused, slightly desperate expression. She's silently asking you whether you want that question answered.

"I made it, actually," you confidently answer. "Aveline and I both worked together to hammer out the design, and I sewed it for her."

Lady Amaran looks taken aback by your answer. Professor Badcrumble also can't help but let a rather large question mark cover her face for a second, but she quickly composes herself. "Y-yourself? You, personally, sewed this dress? In it's entirety?"

"From cutting the cloth to the final stitches, yes."

Lady Amaran looks over Aveline's dress again. "I wanted a dress like this," she says as she notices the Lady's critical eye looking her over. "Extravagance and frills aren't my style. But this?" Aveline does a slow twirl, showing off the dress, and how comfortably she moves in it. "This is my kind of style, my kind of dress. I wouldn't take it over any other. No other has so much important work put into it." Aveline actually blushes a little as she realizes what she blurted out at the end there. No one comments on it, though.

"Truly a remarkable, and yet such a diverse group of students. Thank you for indulging my curiosity. Now, my apologies, but I'll need to excuse myself. I'd very much like to question the Legate about how that rat managed to get in here." Turning to Professor Badcrumble she says, "We'll finish our discussion at a later date, Professor Badcrumble." The regent nods, and Lady Amaran walks off.

"Good job, you two," Professor Badcrumble says once Lady Amaran is out of earshot. "I doubt you two understand the full extent of things, but suffice to say that you've made Lord Orsi's job a lot easier tonight. Mine, too, for that matter."

"G-glad to be of help," Aveline says, stumbling over her words a bit. She's nervous. "So, Professor...do you think I've proven you wrong?"

Professor Badcrumble has to think about what Aveline is referencing before she's able to respond. Not a good sign, you think. "Oh, that?" The professor lets out a sigh. "Aveline, if it matters so much to you, I realized my mistake as soon as [PC FIRST NAME] asked me for two invitations to this ball. Please, surely you realized it yourself as well long before that point?"

There's a tense pause as Aveline carefully thinks that answer over. Quietly she eventually answers, "N-no, actually. I should have. I know I should have realized it sooner, as soon as [PC FIRST NAME] promised to help me, but..." Aveline shakes her head. "It...you have no idea how hard that hit me, professor. I didn't either, admittedly, but..."

"I'd apologize for what I said, than, but it seems to me like it's for the best that it did. You appear to have learned a valuable lesson from it, Aveline. One that you were in dire need of." Without even a second's hesitation Aveline nods at that. "Speaking of which, actually," the regent says as she turns her attention to you. "You...did you really sew that dress yourself? The entire thing? Start to finish?"

You nod. "Sure did. Not saying I did it entirely by hand of course, I used a fair bit of magic to speed up the process and correct mistakes made along the way. But I turned the whole cloth into that dress, yes."

The regent looks impressed. "Well, color me surprised. Though truthfully I should probably try to hunt down Lord Orsi and help him with his and da Casga's inevitable predicament. Sorry for taking off so suddenly, but enjoy the rest of the night, you two." Both you and Aveline nod, after which you turn your attention to Aveline. She's staring at the ground, breathing a bit heavily. Before you can think of what to say to her she stammers out your name, and you ask her whether she's feeling alright.

"Fine, [PC FIRST NAME]. Better than fine. I-I just...I need to thank you properly. For all you've done for me. And I should also apologise. [PC FIRST NAME], thank you. And I'm sorry for dragging you along for so long. I should have realized it earlier. That the moment you promised to help me, I should have already learned all I needed to."

"What you should have done, Aveline, was just be honest about what was bothering you from the start. I know we're friends and all, but..." You let out a sigh. "You were really trying my patience for a bit there."

For a second you think Aveline might start to cry again, but no. Instead her smile returns, and she looks up again, happy and unshakable. "I'll remember that, [PC FIRST NAME]. Thank you. Now, it sounds like the music is back, so shall we enjoy another dance?"

-You doubt anything could top the previous one, but sure. Enjoy the rest of the night.
--"It's still a little slow for my taste, but sure. Maybe this time the musicians will turn into a band of Dragons and we can have fun running away in terror."

Aveline slowly shakes her head at that. "Please, don't give Rui any ideas. I wouldn't put it past him to have escaped the professors' collective grasps and be looking for a way to top his last performance. Especially after it ended so...poorly."

Despite Aveline tempting fate a bit Rui doesn't come back, and the two of you spend the rest of an enjoyable (if...slow) evening together...

-"Better idea: Let's find everyone else from our year that's here and see whether they recognize you."
--Aveline's smile slowly turns into a malicious grin. It doesn't look as flattering on her as the smile, there's a shine to her expression that's now missing...but the grin has it's own charm to it. "Well, Catherine didn't, Rui didn't, and unless I missed my guess Professor Briardi also didn't, so...sure. Let's see if we can pull off another hat trick." You nod and follow Aveline as the two of you go around and start up a conversation with every student and professor you recognize. Some of them do recognize Aveline, but those are very much the exception and not the rule. Then the two of you run into probably the biggest "odd couple" (you are using that word very loosely) you didn't expect to see at the ball. Olivia and Cyrus. You've heard your share of rumors about these two, some from Aveline herself at that, but you nevertheless didn't expect to see the two of them here. Both look like they're enjoying themselves, at least.

While Aveline makes small talk with them you notice they both get increasingly curious about who Aveline actually is, since they don't recognize her. You've seen this a few times now, so you can definitely tell. The awkwardness gets to Olivia first, and she politely asks for Aveline's name. When Aveline answers her question Olivia just raises an eyebrow. "...Aveline? As in the Aranaz girl who told me about this ball in the first place? And then spend five whole minutes ranting about everything you thought the faculty did wrong in planning for it? That Aveline?" Aveline, looking a little flustered, nods and apologizes for her behaviour at that time. She, in her words, was "having a really bad day". Olivia continues to look sceptical. "Eh, no. Sorry, but I'm not sure if I believe that..."

Wow, rude. You don't blame her, but still. Thankfully Aveline just looks amused, and she turns her attention to Cyrus. "Well, Cyrus? You seem to have made it a point to get to know every girl in the Academagia if your reputation is to be believed. Do you recognize me?"

With Olivia casting a significant glance at him Cyrus looks Aveline up and down a few times. Despite his reputation, though, he just looks confused. "Setting aside the fact that that, ah, 'reputation' is greatly exaggerated...no. I'm sorry, but I don't recognize you either. You look like Aveline, but I know I'd recognize her. I shared Music with her last year and dear Gods the day Professor Chastellain thought it was a good idea to let her lead my group's vocal practice. There's a voice I'll never forget..."

Now Aveline is the one who looks confused. She actually turns to you and quietly, though not so quietly that Olivia and Cyrus can't hear it, asks, "Do I really sound that different? I know I-eh, we, really, did a lot to prepare for this day, but I didn't do anything with, to or for my voice..."

"You...do sound different, yes," you admit. "Usually you always sound so serious and annoyed, especially whenever you're trying to correct someone. But the only time I heard it tonight was when you were, eh, 'talking' to Rui. Not saying it's a bad thing, but the difference is noticeable, yes."

Aveline seems unsure about how to interpret that. While she contemplates Olivia speaks up. "Okay, if you insist on solving this mystery for us I guess I've got an idea. If you are Aveline, you'd know the answer to this question: Who did I initially intend to go to the ball with?"

You and Cyrus hold a quick eyebrow raising competition while Aveline seems to ponder that question for a second. Cyrus is going to win, for the record. Though after seeing the expressions on your faces Aveline nervously taps a finger against her cheek. "I-I do remember that answer, yes, though...do you really want me to say? Out loud, I mean?"

"I don't mind," Olivia clarifies. Cyrus still looks confused. You do as well.

Aveline nods. "Than...Emilia Picotti."

Olivia nods as well, and looks pretty excited that Aveline got the question right. Than she takes another look at Aveline, and she suddenly looks perplexed. "W-wait, Aveline? Aveline? You're really...?" Aveline nods, arms crossed and a frown on her face...but a playful smile as well. "Ah...s-since when can you...look like that? Hell, more important question: Why is this the first time I've seen you like this? You look positively beautiful! Not to mention that you seem so much less tense than you have these past few...I don't even know how long. Oh, and you absolutely did something with your voice, don't bother hiding it. I can also remember your earlier ranting all to well, but you sounded like a proper lady just now." Aveline, slightly overwhelmed (and flustered), insists that she did nothing with her voice. And that she couldn't make her school uniform look good, regardless. "Oh nonsense, girl," Olivia insists. "Beauty isn't something you're born with or something you dress for, it's something you work for. Didn't you ever pick up at least that much of Glamour's fundamentals? Don't tell me that you think I look as good as I do on an average day just because I was born with it." Aveline says she never studied Glamour and gets halfway through telling Olivia exactly that before she's cut off. "Aveline, I'm not listening to another word of that and you shouldn't either. Everyone can look good if they try hard enough, you might not have boys faint within your presence but you can at least make sure you look your best. I'm sure I could give you a few pointers on cosmetics-actually, hold that thought, did you ever do your hair like that normally? It looks really good on you..."

"Eh, hello? No mention of Olivia wanting to go to the ball with Emilia, or...whatever?" Cyrus asks the air around him a little meekly. Olivia, however, is thoroughly engrossed in girl talk with Aveline, who in turn is too preoccupied with trying to keep up with Olivia to notice Cyrus. You notice, though, that despite how much of what Olivia talks about goes right over Aveline's head and how much at least half of her advice would take Aveline out of her comfort zone...she seems to be really enjoying the conversation.

...Add that to the list of things you never thought you'd say, by the by.

You take Cyrus aside for a second and explain, "Obviously Olivia didn't know that she could invite you at first. Remember that it's technically against school conduct rules, and she didn't know the customs of the ball would overrule that." Cyrus gives you an understanding nod at that. You cast a quick glance at Olivia and Aveline. They're still lost in their own little world. "Also, quick question if you don't mind me asking while those two are discussing cosmetics - how did Olivia convince you to come here, exactly?"

Cyrus looks over at Olivia and Aveline himself, turns his attention back to you, and shrugs. "I told her that just asking me was no fun and made a bet - if she managed to 'acquire' one of my spare robes, I'd go with her." Eh...okay? That's a really weird bet, and you tell Cyrus as much. "I wasn't serious when I made that bet, rest assured. But the next thing I heard of it was a gorilla walking in while I was taking a bath and making off with my robes, clothes and wand. He left me an extra large towel and a ticket. I figured that at that point Olivia had just...won that round." Okay, that's hilarious, but also kinda disturbing. You tell Cyrus as much, but he shrugs it off. "No one was hurt by it, and the part where the gorilla took my clothes and wand was an accident - I'd left my wand in my robes, and had folded my clothes into it. The gorilla took my robes, and so unknowingly brought the entire package with it. I rather enjoyed the surprise, anyway. It keeps life interesting. Also, that towel was one of the really fluffy ones, just washed, probably taken from one of the girl's dorms. A very rare luxury in Dorm Tower Eight. Give Olivia credit, she knows a few creative ways to a man's heart."

"Creative ways to a man's heart"? Like a gorilla taking your robes and leaving a fluffy towel? Ah, sure, Cyrus. Sure. You want to say that's the silliest thing you've heard this year, but...not even. Close, but not even. Gods. "Varied talent" indeed. You just hope Rikildis doesn't learn of this. Give that girl a pretty boy, a gorilla and a towel and she'll spin out of control real quick with her stories. As, you know, would most people, but...

"Those two still at it?" Cyrus asks, looking at Olivia and Aveline.

"Let them be, Cyrus. Aveline's been going through hard times lately, and she could really do with some normal conversation right now."

"Aveline talking about wearing cosmetics, dresses and hairstyles with Olivia is a 'normal conversation' for her?"

Eh...relatively. "Compared to what we've been talking about? Yes."

"...Touché, [PC FIRST NAME]."

You spend a bit longer chatting with Cyrus, making small talk and discussing other random student misadventures the two of you experienced and heard about while Aveline and Olivia seemingly chat the night away. It is good to see that the lessons Aveline learned extends beyond you. And who knows, maybe she'll end up taking some of Olivia's advice and end up acting less like a snobbish know-it-all.

...A girl can dream...

The whole Cyrus/Olivia thing might seem be a bit...out there, but it is of course inspired by everyone's favorite Y1 RE, and frankly it should be a yearly tradition for some kind of monkey to steal someone's robes when you're trying to take a bath. It just wouldn't be the Academagia otherwise.

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In Defence of The Animals, stage 0:

Spoiler

One thing you must admit is that everyone, yourself included, has been thrown off their game lately. The shift from having no responsibilities beyond what their parents (and their own conscious) gave them to studying at the Academagia full-time, along with however far away from home that puts them, is quite severe. And despite how expected it obviously was it still feels quite sudden, for most. But Girars de Periarde seems to have taken the shift an order of magnitude worse than anyone else. He's been nervously pacing around wherever he goes and doesn't look like he's gotten any sleep since Juvenalia. Few have cared to question him on his behaviour, but it's staring you in the face like an elephant every time you see him and whatever patience the rest of College Morvidus seems to have with him you appear to lack.

Today proves to be no different in that regard. You intended to head to the Dimmae Theater and see if there's anything planned that you'd be interested in knowing about (directly or indirectly), but along the way you run into Girars just standing around, blankly staring off into space, and your patience finally gives out. After multiple, increasingly louder attempts to get his attention, he finally snaps out of his thoughts and turns to face you. "What is wrong with you, Girars?" you ask, perhaps a bit more...aggressively than you should have. "You've been out of it since literally Juvenalia, and I'm beyond believing that it's because you're having trouble adjusting to being back at the Academagia. What is bothering you so much? And why aren't you yelling at everyone about it like you usually do?"

"I-I don't usually yell at everyone about every little thing that bothers me!" Girars sputters out, but you personally recall him being pretty outspoken whenever his pet peeve subject came up. He's never struck you as someone who'd get this bothered by anything else, either.

"You do whenever animals are involved," you pointedly note. Girars gets the message, and hangs his head. "So, what's going on? What's gotten you stuck in this rut?"

"I caught wind of a really nasty rumor in the Morvidus Common Room, on Juvenalia," Girars reluctantly explains. "I overheard some older students talk about it - an estate over in Frontino got attacked by 'crazy' animal rights activists sometime during the summer. Worse, as far as they know this estate is still hurting animals! But they, those older students, refused to do anything about it. Can you believe that? They're only concerned about the College reputation! They even refused to tell me anything more about it, so I don't even know exactly where this happened. Whether it's still going on..."

"Okay, I get why that'd upset you, but why are you just wandering around aimlessly? If this estate is supposedly still up to old tricks why not find out where it is, go there and do something about it? You've never been shy about causing a ruckes before, Girars, even in Frontino." Girars tries to look innocent, but you remember the time he set a bunch of caged animals in Frontino free last year. You don't quite recall all the details, but that part you remember quite clearly. Frontino isn't welcoming to Academagia students, and stuff like that is part of the reason why.

"I'm just so...I don't even know the right word for it, but the fact that those older students just don't care bothers me," Girars admits. "Morvidus is supposed to be the college named after King Morvidus, you know? 'Friendship is the treasure' and all, but those guys just didn't care. If they were too busy or something, sure, I mean that'd at least be something, but..."

Yeah, you can see how that would bother Girars. You'd think that College Morvidus would agree with Girars' viewpoints more often than not, but he's actually quite lonely since so few can (and care to) match his zeal. Not to mention the endless debates on what points Girars and King Morvidus wouldn't actually agree on, and to be fair, there definitely are a few. Still, that doesn't necessarily mean he's the only one who'd be upset. An estate in Frontino hurting animals, huh? Is that worth investigating?

-"Ask a professor about it, if you need a listening ear."
--Girars obviously looks less than happy at your proposed solution, but you grab him by the arm and drag him...not "kicking and screaming", but nevertheless more against his will than not you drag him to the first professor that comes to mind who might actually care about his little predicament. Unfortunately "the first professor that comes to mind" means Girars' regent, Professor Storey, in this case.

That turns out to be a grave mistake on your part.

The regent does listen intently, after you drag Girars before him and explain that he's been beating himself up over what these older students mentioned and what rumor Girars overheard from them. But as soon as you finish explaining the latter point Professor Storey first glares at you with an evil eye that's normally reserved for students that have offended him personally, then he starts laughing out loud, and then, still laughing, he shoes both you and Girars out of his office with a pointed warning that if either of you bring up "that estate" with him ever again he'll see to it that you'll both be expelled. You doubt he could make that happen, but that aside you don't think he was joking. Needless to say that it wasn't too easy to tell.

"What was that all about!?" an even paler Girars asks as soon as you two have walked away from Professor Storey's office door. "I can understand not caring about random rumors, I'm sure he hears a lot of them, but come on. Expelled for mentioning 'that estate' to him? What is going on there? What's his connection to it?"

As your mind mulls over that question you have to admit to yourself, going out of your way to carry Girars when he should be carrying himself is one thing. But a professor first glaring at you, than laughing hysterically in your face, and then threatening to have you expelled when all you did was bring in one of his students, who, for the record, was upset about something he overheard from other students of that same professor? Yeah. That's quite another. There's something to be said about not poking a manic dog with a stick, but even so...there's a little bit of a desire for revenge boiling just beneath your skin right now...

Girars seems to have noticed it, too. "Hey, [PC FIRST NAME]?" You look at Girars, staring at him with a bit of a distant look in your eyes. He's got a similar expression, albeit his eyes are more focussed. It's a more familiar, if not necessarily welcome, look from him. "I know the two of us aren't always on the same page and all, few people are, but...I'm not the only one who finds Professor Storey's outburst there really suspicious, right?"

"Suspicious" isn't the word you'd use, personally, but close enough. "You plan on investigating anyway?" you quietly ask.

Girars nods. "I don't know what that reaction was, but it sure wasn't normal. And if that is how the regent of College Morvidus reacts to a rumor about animal abuse...I want to know why." You can't fault Girars here. Rumors are rumors, but that reaction you both just witnessed definitely wasn't. Something is going on, that's for sure. You just don't know what. "So, truce? I know you don't care about animal rights as much as I do, no one does, but I'm sure I could use the help in figuring this out. And you look like you'd like some answers."

Argh, you don't really want to admit it but Girars has you dead to rights here. Because yes, you would like some answers. And being dismissed with a threat like that, after showing the slightest measure of care for a student that seemingly no one else cared to do, over a situation that clearly is something more than just "a rumor" and that the regent clearly knows something about? "Dead to rights" indeed. "Yeah, truce," you answer confidently, despite feeling some measure of doubt. "Let's see what this mansion business is all about."

-"Don't judge people on an incomplete story, Girars, go investigate. I'll come with you to check things out."
--Girars' face instantly lights up. At least as much as it can - Girars looks like he's due for breakfast rather than a visit to the infirmary. It's a significant improvement. For him. "Thank you! I just hope that this story is complete bogus. I don't know what to do against a Frontino noble, if they are hurting animals in their estate. Do you know a good advocate who'd be able to help us, if it comes to that? People might not care as much as they should about animal cruelty, but at least on paper it is still a crime."

You're more worried about needing an advocate to bail you out after Girars goes utterly nuts, but...eh, that probably won't be necessary. Girars is a passionate kid, but he's a pacifist as well. He'd never hurt anyone!

...He wouldn't, right?

New adventure! This one...eh, as professor Storey put it, really. Hopefully I'll get all the little details right <_<.

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In Defence of The Animals, stage 1:

Spoiler

You head to Frontino with Girars, hoping to find the correct estate and ask a few pointed questions to the people living in it, but the older students that Girars overheard talking about this rumor didn't mention an exact address. And as it turns out it's not really practical to knock on every door in an entire neighbourhood. Particularly when that neighbourhood is distrustful to openly hostile to Academagia students, and with you and Girars wearing your school uniforms now that the academic year has started again...yeah.

"We should...definitely not split up, I think," Girars suggests. You'd call it wise, but you'll wait for him to finish explaining before casting final judgement. "We'd cover more ground separately, of course, but this place really isn't welcoming to Academagia students like us on a good day. And while I don't know all the details of what happened during the summer, I think it's fair to say that any day that people ask about it doesn't qualify as a 'good day'. So, just in case, I think we should stick together. Less chance of anyone thinking we're 'just a kid' and shooing us away, I think."

"Were Academagia students behind that estate attack?" you ask. "You didn't mention that earlier, if so. And honestly, that's a rather important detail!"

Girars shrugs. "I don't know, the older students didn't say. And, honestly, I don't really care. Academagia students or not they did a good job if they stopped a source of animal cruelty and brought that crime to light. Though of course a peaceful solution would have been better. Sometimes you have to go with the only option people give you, though." Yeah, that's a way of thinking you're comfortable with Girars having in this situation. "I can see how this might get...awkward if that attack was done by Academagia students, but I really don't know. I don't even know if they were magic casters, actually. Let's just ask around. If they were Academagia students we'll probably figure that out pretty quickly, and if so we can consider how to proceed from there."

Since this attack happened during the summer there's no real reason for these animal rights activists (or whoever) to have been wearing their Academagia robes, if they were students, so it wouldn't necessarily be obvious that it was caused by Academagia students if it was. Especially because magic casters are a dime a dozen in Mineta - there's cram schools, guilds, people willing to take apprentices, all kinds of education available for every school of magic you can think of if you've got the connections or the money to afford them. So even them being spellcasters wouldn't necessarily point the finger squarely at the Academagia either. Though it would at least point in it's direction.

These are all questions you can figure out the answer to sooner by asking around, though, as reluctant as you are to get started with that. Frontino isn't a place where students like you are welcome, so...how are you going to get people to even make polite conversation?

-Conversation. Just be nice about it.
--It's an uphill battle, and Girars budding in multiple times with his usual rants and ravings when someone dares to declare that they don't care about whether animals are hurt does little to put the Frontino locals at ease, but (much to Girars' delight) you do eventually come across someone who's care about animals outweighs his dislike of Academagia students. That said the man sadly doesn't know much about what happened himself, either. The victim, he explains, is someone with both wealth and influence to spare, and seems to have taken the slight personally. To the point where it basically wasn't publicised at all - the Minetan Times made no mention of it at all, and even Frontino's local newspaper only made a vague, indirect comment about it. There's been people spreading rumors, of course, but the man assures you that by now what few people might have told the truth have been drowned out by twice their number of people gossiping about whatever, and nothing he's heard is something that he feels is worth repeating. Especially without evidence to back it up. That said he is able to tell you the address of where the raid took place, although he cautions both of you that the two of you probably will be less than welcome there, all things considered. You were expecting as much, though Girars seems a bit annoyed by it. Offended? You're not sure. You just hope he remembers to behave himself.

In any case you thank the man for his time and information, and head off with Girars towards the address you were given.

--The two of you spend a long time going from one end of Frontino to the other, even splitting up at one point just in case that being alone would somehow put people at ease for some reason (it seemed like a good idea at the time), but no one that either you or Girars ask about the incident last summer is willing to say anything about it. They know about it, some of them do at least, but no one is willing to talk about it.

"Well...should we start knocking on random doors, or go somewhere else, or...what should we do?" A confused, defeated, and demotivated Girars asks at what feels like the end of a long day. It's been...not even two hours.

"Either we come back at a different time, maybe different, more approachable people will be out and about, or we try a different track. For now, though, I think we should call it a day and head back to the Academagia, You, Girars, should consider going to the infirmary. You look like you're about to pass out."

"I don't feel well, I'd say, but not to that extend. Tired, sure, but..."

Honestly, you're not sure if you believe that. Girars usually looks a bit pale, but right now it seems like there's no color left in his face. "I think, really think, we should have one of the nurses be the judge of that, Girars. Come on, the last thing I want is to have to carry you back, if it comes to that."

Girars lets out a sigh, but beyond that he doesn't even complain. Instead he meekly follows you back to the Academagia, drawing some ragged breaths from time to time. Something's gotten him, you think, but that's probably just a matter of time. He'll find the energy to continue investigating this rumor somewhere within in soon enough, no doubt.

-Journalism. Pass yourself off as a journalist.
--You'd prefer to pass yourself off as someone working for a more...respectable paper than the Logodaedelo's Roar, especially since you're going to be walking around Frontino and all, but that's the only paper you can think of that would be investigating this incident so long after the fact. Also, a second year Academagia student working for the Minetan Times? Yeah...not overly likely. So...Logodaedelo's Roar it is. You really hope Rikildis isn't going to take offence.

It takes a fair bit of searching, and of course Girars isn't of much (if any) help in pretending to be a journalist, but eventually the two of you come across someone who cares about gossip more than he doesn't care about Academagia students. That said the man is sadly only a gossip, not an actual witness or something useful like that. Nevertheless, he's able to tell you that the victim is someone with both wealth and influence to spare, and seems to have taken the slight personally. To the point where it basically wasn't publicized at all - the Minetan Times made no mention of it at all, and even Frontino's local newspaper only made a vague, indirect comment about it. So there goes your plan of trying to find an archived copy of the Times to get information, just flying off into the blue sky, never to be seen again. In any case people have been spreading rumors, but the man assures you that by now what few people might have told the truth have been drowned out by twice their number of people gossiping about whatever - though of course the man assures you that he doesn't belong in the latter category, totally.

Somehow, you have trouble believing him.

Though maybe you should have. Beyond that, he mentions, there's nothing that he's heard which he feels is something that is worth repeating. Especially given that he doesn't have any actual evidence to back anything up. That said he is able to tell you the address of where the raid took place, although he warns both of you that the two of you probably will be less than welcome there, all things considered. You were expecting as much, though Girars seems a bit annoyed by it. Offended? You're not sure. You just hope he remembers to behave himself.

In any case you thank the man for his time and information, not to mention his honesty, and head off with Girars towards the address you were given.

--You thought that dressing yourself up as a part-timer of the Minetan Times would do much to alleviate the usual suspicion that people in Frontino have towards Academagia students, more so than pretending to be working for Rikildis' school newspaper, the Logodaedelo's Roar, but the only thing that you (and Girars, for what that's worth) get is annoyed stares, muffled insults and less muffled "suggestions", let's put it politely, to go play games elsewhere.

You're kind of at a loss as to what to do here, honestly. Maybe you'd be better off just making up some kind of local newspaper or something? Does Frontino have one of those, actually? That might make this more complicated...well, darn. This seems like it'll take some additional research...

"I take it from that expression that we're going to call it a day for now?" Girars asks, looking at your frown. And foot impatiently tapping against the pavement. And crossed arms. And probably one or two other things he doesn't care (dare?) to look at and that you don't care to ask about.

"Yeah. Let's go back to the drawing board and start discussing plan B right now..."

-Glamour Methods. Look your best, make others feel happy.
--A few quick flicks of the wand, and suddenly you're looking like a precious ray of sunshine. Of course this makes Girars look positively dour in comparison, so you decide to give him the same treatment. Very much against his will. But a bit...okay a lot of work later and the two of you are ready to start asking around Frontino, looking your best and not giving anyone a reason to be afraid that Girars is about to pass out. Not that the average person in Frontino would be afraid, or at least care about that.

Despite the magical edge it still takes some effort to find someone willing to talk about the incident, especially after Girars opens his mouth with his usual rants when someone dares declare that they don't care about whatever far-fetched rumors the two of you came up with, but thankfully the two of you do eventually come across someone who's able to tolerate Girars' zeal for more than a minute. That said the man doesn't know much about what happened himself, since (according to him) the victim is someone with both wealth and influence to spare, and seems to have taken the slight personally. To the point where it pretty much wasn't publicized at all - the Minetan Times made no mention of it, and even Frontino's local newspaper only made a vague, indirect comment about it. There's been rumors going around, of course, but the man assures you that by now what few people might know the truth have been drowned out by twice their number of people gossiping about whatever, and nothing he's heard is something that he feels is worth repeating. That said he is able to tell you the address of where the raid took place, although he warns both of you that the two of you probably will be less than welcome there, no matter how much you think you know of Glamour. Girars seems to have been expecting as much, but you're a little annoyed at the comment. Offended? You're not sure. It's a moot point, ultimately.

In any case you thank the man for his time and information, and head off with Girars towards the address you were given.

--You draw your wand and start casting, choosing to begin with making yourself look more presentable. Once you're done you turn to Girars and ask, "Well, how do I look?" Girars' response, such as it is, is a confused frown. You take out a pocket mirror and try to see what you did wrong, but you don't see anything amiss. "No good? I'm not seeing any purple hair or what have you."

"N-no, it's not that, it's..." Girars slowly notes. "I-I don't know. What spell did you cast? It looks-well, feels like there's a storm cloud behind you." You frown and take another look at yourself through the pocket mirror. You don't see (or feel) anything of the sort, though, and you say as much to Girars. He draws his own wand. "Let me try Negating that Glamour you just cast, see if that makes you look better."

You mentally compliment Girars on his backhanded insult while he works his magic, and as far as you can tell he breaks the Glamour you cast on yourself properly. Another look through the pocket mirror, and...nothing. "I'm not seeing any difference, Girars."

"Really? There definitely is one. I can't explain it, but...it sort of looks like the sun shines brighter behind you. Without the Glamour, I mean."

Are you really so out of practice? Huh. Well, you're just going to take Girars' word for it and assume that you're doing something wrong, since you'd really rather not walk around Frontino looking like a raincloud. People are glaring at you enough as is.

Time to head back and poke your head into a basic Glamour textbook. Again...

I assume a neighbourhood like Frontino would have it's own local newspaper. For whatever it's worth.

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In Defence of the Animals, stage 2:

Spoiler

It only takes a few minutes to find the right place, and from the outside you wouldn't guess that someone recently raided it. You're looking at a large mansion made of clean marble and somewhat covered in greenery - the sizeable front yard, for a mansion located inside the city itself at least, has small terrace-like tiered rows of flowers happily growing in the late summer sun. The mansion's front balcony is much the same, with flowers hanging from the balcony railings, sitting in pots on the railings and even growing in the railing from the looks of it. Even most of the windows you can see from here have some kind of plant in front of them. You're not sure who's mansion this is, but you'd be surprised if it didn't belong to a botanist.

"Surely someone who lives in a place like this wouldn't just...give animals up for dead, right?" Girars asks. You, in turn, look at him with a raised eyebrow. "I mean, think about how many bugs, worms and other such creatures this place must attract and how much damage they must do to all of these flowers and other plants if they're not contained. Sure, you could use magic to take care of that, but wouldn't it be much simpler for a few birds to keep the gardens clean?"

"You don't object to birds eating worms? To worms being eaten by birds, rather?"

"I object to humans plucking the feathers off of a bird and then making dinner out of what's left of it. I don't object to birds doing what birds do, even if they're trained to do it. Within reason, of course."

You don't recall Girars being even this "reasonable", for lack of a better word. Maybe he's mellowed a bit since last year? You don't know and, frankly, you've no desire to look that particular gifted horse in the mouth right now. Or ever, most likely. "In any case the door isn't open and I doubt we could just waltz in, find whoever we need to talk to and ask some very pointed questions right to his or her face, so...do you have a plan?"

"The same thing you always do in a situation like this. If you can't approach someone directly, talk to someone of lower station. See the gardeners back there? They'll probably be open to conversation. Relatively."

"Relatively". Sure, that sounds like a great plan. Of course unless you're got a better one...

-Gossip. Find other servants to chat with.
--You leave Girars to try and strike up a conversation with the gardeners while you walk around the estate and look for someone else to grill for information. It doesn't take long to find someone - a man wearing the uniform of one of Mineta's many guilds, parchment in one hand and a wand in the other. He's casting some kind of spell on the estate's windows, warding spells you think, but you're not sure. "Hey, kid. Are you supposed to be here?" he asks while looking you over. You're not sure exactly what's drawing his attention, though. Your Academagia robes, probably?

"Are you supposed to ask those kind of questions?" you retort. Not threateningly, though not playfully either, more like you're you're asking a genuine question. The man, in answer to your question, shrugs.

"Not really, but if you don't belong here I'd recommend you not stay here. In case you can't tell I'm from Mineta's primary Artifice and Enchanting guild, here to set up wards over the place's windows and walls. Anti-burglary enchantments, so you can imagine how welcoming this estate is to unexpected guests right now."

Yeah, sure. You can name about three guilds who'd describe themselves as such. Still, if this guy is willing to talk on the job, you're more than willing to listen. "Yeah. I don't suppose you know anything about why it isn't?" The man (rightfully) points out that it sounds like you already know about it yourself, but you shake your head and clarify that you've only heard vague rumors, nothing concrete.

"Well, I ain't one to gossip," the man says with a bit of a shifty look to him as he pretends to look over his half-finished wards. Though to be fair you don't know for sure if he's genuinely waiting on them to...do something, you're not sure. Needless to say that the man's spells and techniques go far beyond your own knowledge of Enchant. "I can tell you that these're some of the best wards against people trying to break in and enter that you'll find in Mineta. Hell, maybe even better than you'd find at the Academagia. The current regent of Vernin has a prettier face than his wand carve a likeness of, as my guildmates like to say. 'Course I don't have any concrete information about that myself. So..." Yeah, yeah, you get it, gossip for gossip. A trade of information. And honestly, you're game.

You spend a while chatting with the man about the estate mistress' dealings with the man's guild (using her purely as a hypothetical example of their fine service model, of course) and Professor di Lucca Alazzo's shortcomings as an Enchanter. The parts that interest you is that, as far as the man has heard, on the night of the estate raid three teenagers around the age of Academagia students (which the man admits doesn't say overly much in Mineta, even if the average person in Frontino thinks it does) broke through the front door of the estate and just started flinging spells around. It resulted in a right mess, with the gardens trampled and a small fire breaking out in one of the hallways and so on, but no one was seriously hurt. The man has no idea why the estate was raided or who the three raiders are, but as far as your rumor about them being crazy animal rights activists and the estate still hurting animals is concerned, the man hasn't heard anything of the sort - no strange noises, no weird looking plants that might be used for feed, nothing overheard from any of the servants working here, and most importantly, the wards he was contracted to place are strictly against "intelligent" creatures, not animals. Familiars, possibly, but even that's not a certainty. And when someone is literally coating their walls in wards the man assumes that anything that isn't a certainty isn't deemed worthy of consideration. Frankly you don't disagree with him.

Once you're done gossiping your say goodbye to the man and return to Girars, asking if he managed to get anything out of the gardeners. He actually nods, but sadly most of it is the same as what you've just been told. There's one possibly important detail that the guild man didn't know about, though - based on the fact that the gardeners were allowed to leave at their usual time instead of being told to work extra hours indicates that whatever event was held wasn't overly special, at least it didn't involve anyone that the estate mistress wanted to impress. Normally when that happens the gardeners work overtime to make sure the garden and all the plants around the mansion look just right, but that was not the case during the estate raid. It's also worth mentioning that the gardeners agree with the guild man insofar that they've got no idea where this rumor about the estate mistress (or someone one) hurting animals came from, though. The gardeners also haven't heard any strange noises, or noticed any strange plants being grown and going missing, or anything like that.

Girars, for his part, looks conflicted, but you're feeling pretty good. Confident that with any luck you'll have this case closed by the end of the hour. "So where do we go from here?"

"Back to the Academagia, I think. We need to track down these older students and ask them some pointed questions. No one here has given the slightest indication that this animal abuse rumor is true, so I say we try and track the rumor down at it's source."

Girars shrugs. Seems like he doesn't have a better idea.

--While Girars tries his luck with the gardeners you walk around the estate and try to find someone else to talk to. You do find a number of people who, to their credit, don't have you hauled off immediately, but no of them willing to talk to you as soon as you mention the summer incident, either.

You're left to wonder whether this estate attack was, in fact, caused by Academagia students, because otherwise you're not entirely sure what you're missing here. It is a roll of parchment and a quill? It's a roll of parchment and a quill, isn't it? Rikildis always has one with her and she gets everyone's stories whether they want her to have them or not. It must be a roll of parchment and a quill. Presentation, you know. It's important. Yes, that must be it. Alright, slight delay while you grab that, get some quick practice in so it looks natural, and-

"Find out anything, [PC FIRST NAME]?"

"Eheywhat? Oh, Girars! Yes, actually, I did - we're going to need a parchment and quill! You can't go around asking people for juicy gossip without a parchment and quill, it just doesn't look right."

Girars stares at you confused. "Ah...I-I see?" he says with a tone of voice that makes it clear he doesn't see. "S-so do you think we ought to, I don't know, c-call it a day, for now? You, eh, I-I think you've spend too long in the sun, maybe."

"You're not one to talk about spending too much time in the sun, ghost boy, in fact you're looking a little red. Anyway, let's go back to the Academagia and get some practice in. Roll of parchment, quill, come back and get answers. We'll get them when we properly look the part."

Girars shrugs and just nods along with what you say. Particularly the part about going back to the Academagia for now...

-Incantation. Offer the gardeners a magical hand.
--You and Girars walk up to the gardeners, but Girars misses the fact that while you two do you draw your wand. The gardeners do not fail to notice this. "No wands 'round here, student," one of the gardeners says as intimidatingly as a man holding a watering can...can at someone who can conjure fire out of thin air. "Seriously, no 'pranks'. Stuff happened 'ere recently 'n the mistress is goin' to kill someone if it happens again."

Somehow you don't think the point of that attack last summer was to trample the gardens. Though, was it collateral damage? Maybe. Either way you shake your head as reassuringly as you can. Girars, for his part, is staying quiet. Thankfully. No need to have him run his mouth every which way. "As a matter of fact we're interesting in learning more about that, what happened during the summer I mean. But...well, you'd probably know better than we do how unapproachable your mistress is on that subject." The gardener you're talking to actually vigorously nods at that. "So, here's an offer - I'll give my wand a workout in terms of watering the plants for you, and in return you'll inform us about what you know about what happened last summer. I know, you're just gardeners, I'm not expecting names or anything. Just a general outline, a better idea of what happened. The incident was kept pretty quiet from what we've heard and...well, not found out so far, so even just basic information would be good for us."

The gardeners exchange curious glances between themselves, the vast swathes of plants they've yet to water (apparently they only just begun, from the looks of it), and your wand. "Tell you what," one of them eventually starts, after exchanging some hushed words with his colleagues. "If you two can properly water all the plants - I take it you haven't seen the backyard or the small park that the mistress owns yet - we'll take the rest of the day off and tell you what we know of that summer night. I can promise you right now it ain't any great revelation, we're only servants that weren't personally there after all...but the rest of the servants who were there that night filled us in when we saw-well, let's leave that for later. Suffice to say we're not completely ignorant, either." That's...a bit more work than you thought you signed up for. But you've got a wand, right? Surely it won't take that much effort! And you've got Girars to help you! Although...good question, actually. You ask Girars if he's studied Incantation at all. He shakes his head in response. Well...you've still got a wand, so let's get to work! "Also, I'd like to see proof that you can actually water the plants properly, equally, give each one the water they need rather than just summoning a tsunami an' calling it good. If these plants drown it'll be on my head, you know."

You confidently nod and start working your magic. Within moments the water within the man's watering can floats out, spreads out until there's a nice, flat square of water floating in the sky, and gently (so as not to let it splash everywhere) you slowly lower it onto the rows of flowers and let the soil absorb the water. One minute, and a whole half of the front yard's flowers are happily glinting in the sun. You turn to look happily at the gardeners, but Girars taps you on the shoulder. "That's not enough water for these flowers," he notes. "I guess you didn't notice, but these flowers usually start growing in earnest a bit later in the year. They'll need more water to compensate for the higher temperature and increased sunlight."

Right, you weren't paying attention to that. And of course Girars would know, he might not have studied Incantation but he knows his Botany. The gardener looks equally impressed. "Your friend's right with regards to the amount of water for this field, but other than that, yeah, if you can pull that trick of another dozen-odd times I think we'll be good." A dozen-odd times. Well...you roll up your sleeves (for what that's worth) and say you're ready to get to work.

Your dramatic gesture makes even less sense when, fifteen-odd minutes later, every plant the gardeners care about has been watered. Yes, even the balcony plants, the backyard, the park, everything. Girars even chimed in with making sure the plants got enough water. Sometimes you forget how trivial magic can make these mundane tasks, and it reminds you of how happy you are to be studying at the Academagia. "Ah, thanks for the free day, kids!" the gardener (and his colleagues) happily says once the last tree has been watered. "'Course I keep my promises, don't think that I'd forget. Now, keep in mind I wasn't there that night myself, I get off shift long before the mistress' little gathering even started and if there were early guests I didn't see 'em since I'd be working in the park at that time. But I did come in for work the next day and saw what remained of the mess. Gardens trampled, signs of a fire in one o' the hallways, through that window o'er yonder...there were even a few guards going in and out of the estate every once in a while. I talked with one of the other servants that were serving the guests that night. She said that all seemed fine until there were a few crashing noises from the front door, and a trio of masked weirdos showed up and started flinging spells around, just completely out of nowhere. Everyone assumes that they were Academagia students, since they were around that age, but...I mean, I gotta be honest here, it's Frontino. You show them any kind of problem caused by a young or younger teenager with a stick and they'll blame the Academagia for it, it's like they never heard of a cram school. Anyway, I don't know what happened beyond that, since all the servants did what smart people should do in that situation - run away."

Three kids just appear out of nowhere, inside a noble's estate, and start flinging spells around? Huh. That sure is a way to get something done, you suppose. You ask the gardener if he has any idea why these three "weirdos" would do something so reckless. The gardener shrugs. "No clue. I'm sure the mistress has enemies of some kind running around somewhere, everyone with enough wealth or influence gets them eventually, but hell if I know anything about that." Huh. Interesting that this guy doesn't even know about the "animal rights activists" rumor. If he doesn't, does that mean there's nothing to it? You'd think he'd have suspicions if there was a reason to believe it's true. Regardless you ask the gardener about the rumor that Girars heard - that the attack was caused by crazy animal rights activists, and that the estate might still be hurting animals even now. The gardeners response, a confused shrug, looks genuine as far as you can tell. "I've honestly got no idea where that idea even came from. Never heard anything about animal abuse in all of my years working here. No rumors, no weird noises, no weird plants being grown or brought in as feed or whatever, nothing. Seen a few odd Familiars, I guess, but that's it. 'Far as I've heard that night wasn't special, either, just a family gathering. Not that I'm an expert on high society meetings, mind, but usually whenever someone important shows up that the mistress wants to impress we gardeners get to work overtime to make sure everything looks just right, right up until the minute before the special guest arrives. That night we got off after our regular shift, 'bout a minute's walk from the estate, so..." The gardener shrugs. He's more than made his point, though.

"So, where should we go from here?" Girars asks.

"I think we should return to the Academagia and try and track down these older students you overheard the rumor from. If the idea that these three are crazy animal rights activists didn't come from the estate it must have come from somewhere else, whatever that means insofar as the rumor's credibility, and I have no idea where to look for the answer to that question otherwise."

Girars nods, looking a bit conflicted, but you're feeling pretty good right now. With a bit of luck you'll have proven this rumor completely false within the next hour and have Girars back to being his usual overzealous, confrontational self rather than the quiet and reserved guy he's been since Juvenalia.

...At what point did you think this excursion was a good idea, again? Oh, no matter. Too late to quit now.

--You and Girars walk up to the gardeners, Girars missing the fact that you draw your wand as you do so. The gardeners don't fail to notice this. "No wands 'round here, student," one of the gardeners says as intimidatingly as a man holding a watering can possibly could. At someone who can conjure fire out of thin air, at that. "Seriously, no 'pranks'. Stuff happened 'ere recently 'n the mistress' goin' to kill someone if it happens again." Yeah yeah, you've heard it all before. You nod, and skipping introductions and small talk get straight to business - you succinctly explain that you and Girars are here to investigate the incident that happened during the summer, that the gardeners know enough about it to be worth talking to, and that they've got a whole bunch of work ahead of them that your wand can get done more easily. The lead gardener, or at least the one taking conversational lead, frowns at your forwardness, though his colleagues are looking between themselves and the mass of work they've got ahead of them and are, at the very least, silently contemplating your offer. "Oh, alright," the head gardener eventually says, after noticing his fellows and their (clear as day) opinion on the matter. "Fine. Show me that you can properly water the plants evenly, and we'll talk. Otherwise, eh," the man looks up and down your Academagia uniform. "I mean I would point you towards Esteban's, but given the fact that you're an Academagia student I'm sure you can figure out where and how to better study Incantation yourself. So let's see what you're made of."

Water the plants evenly, huh? You confidently nod at that. Girars mentions that he never studied Incantation and that these flower, in particular, will need a fair bit of water, and you nod as you use your wand to direct the water from the man's watering can into the sky. It comes out in the form of a ball and you try to shape it into an even, flat surface, but it's harder than you expected, and after about a minute of fiddling and getting distracted by a few of the gardeners quickly grabbing a table to set up a betting pool you have, at best, an aquatic representation of some hilly terrain.

"Are you sure you can maintain control of that?" Girars asks, nervously drawing his own wand, not that he knows any spells to help you with this.

"Oh, calm down, I've got this," you say as you decide to try and "shave off" the excess bits of water and so end up with the flat surface you wanted. And that plan does work. Unfortunately you didn't account for maintaining control of those shaved off bits, so that ends up flying right into your face. The surprise causes you to take a step back, trip over your own foot, and fall to the ground, wand still in hand and controlling the water. The "surface" the water was floating on topples over like a table, and the water ends up spilling from your control. Right on top of you, as it turns out.

The curse you spit out, along with a mouthful of water, is soundly drowned out by the hysterical laughter coming from the gardeners. And Girars, to a lesser extent. Based on their reactions it seems that most of them actually had faith in you. So the few that didn't ended up rewarded that much more. Great.

Needless to say that that display did not impress the gardeners, at least no in the way you wanted it to. But on the bright side you didn't mess up their work at all, so you might get a second chance. If you'll ever dare to show your face to them again...

The one thing worse than an awful pun. An awful double pun. I make no apologies :P.

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In Defence of the Animals, stage 3:

Spoiler

"And what are you two nuisances doing here?"

You'd just decided to return to the Academagia and taken your first step towards it when that question, asked with a sharp tone, causes both you and Girars to stop dead in your tracks and turn around. Before you stands Catherine Chard, arms crossed, looking more irate than usual, glaring at you two like you've got no right to be here. Girars seems to take it a bit personally. "Right back at you, Catherine: What are you doing here? Does the Academagia not have enough of a high-and-mighty atmosphere for you to absorb?"

You're not entirely sure where that question came from, and from the looks of it, neither does Catherine. Or she just doesn't care enough to react to it. "Nowhere near enough, as a matter a fact. And I'm afraid to say that if you two are looking for culture, as it's more properly known, you'll need to find it elsewhere. I would have advised you two to visit the estate that you were so conspicuously sneaking about, back when it still offered tours as a proper high-class art gallery, but alas, those days are now over. So instead I'm left with only a single question: For what reason are you two here? Are you not aware that Academagia students - at least those without proper clout - aren't welcome in Frontino?" Girars, in (an attempted) answer to Catherine's question, rapidly blurts out everything he knows about the crazy animal rights activists rumor and the attack on the estate that happened during the summer in an incomprehensible mess of information. Needless to say it does not impress Catherine in the slightest. "Girars, please, slow down. Your rants and ramblings are difficult enough to follow when you're not repeatedly tripping over your own words. So the short version is that you're chasing wild rumors, if I understood that mess correctly? Of course, what else should I have expected from cretins. [PC FIRST NAME], I can understand that Girars' obsession would cloud his judgement, he's always been that way, but pray tell why you are here? Can Rikildis not regale you with 'interesting' tales of which senior student is cheating on his girlfriend with a magic tree, or what have you?"

"I'm here to help Girars, plain and simple," you answer, staring curiously at Catherine. She'd never admit to it, but she's acting rather...beyond her usual self here.

Catherine lets out a weary sigh and lowers her head. Underneath her breath she mumbles, "Cretins, all of you, I swear...fine." Catherine composes herself as best she can and, looking pointedly at Girars, notes, "Girars, I take it you've heard about the Quarantine House before? Large building, near the docks, used to be the kind of place that would cause your head to explode until a collection of interested parties and a few notable individuals cleaned up? Most notably the very same Professor Pachait who's Zoology class you undoubtedly attended last year, as well as the very family who's estate you two were just loitering around? You can ask the professor if for some inexplicable reason you doubt my word: The De Simone family is one of the ones who organised the renovation and change of management of that place, and is one of the families that helps finance it's operation to this day. Or did you believe the poor farmers and pet keepers of Mineta could get basic medical care for their animals from there on the good grace of a Dragon?" Girars definitely recognizes the place Catherine mentioned, and seeing that he does, she turns her attention to you. "I have little hope for Girars, truth be told, but I do still have some slight measure of hope that this little revelation is enough to convince at least you that a matter as petty as animals cruelty is something the De Simones would not lower themselves to. Gods forbid. Now, pardon for the sudden departure, but I actually have important matters that I must attend to. So if that is all, I bid you two a good day." Girars sputters out a vague demand for Catherine to stop, but she doesn't listen. You don't even bother trying.

"What was that all about?" Girars asks you, though you can't answer his question with anything but a shrug. Girars shrugs himself in turn. "Well, Catherine's lack of manners aside, if what she says about the Quarantine House is right I'd definitely like to confirm that, so I'll be heading there next. Or do you have a better idea?"

A better idea, you wouldn't say so, but a desire to ask Catherine some pointed questions? Yes. So...

-Temperance. Leave well enough alone, this time.
--...As much as you want to run up to Catherine Chard and give her a piece of your mind, perhaps...yeah, you definitely shouldn't. It's not even that Catherine Chard is, you know, Catherine Chard, necessarily, it's that something has clearly gotten to her and you don't want to be the one she takes her frustrations out on. And you'd bet money on Catherine not knowing how to vent her anger other than taking it out on those she considers beneath her, assuming she's even in a state of mind to keep that requirement in mind. And frankly, to you she didn't seem like she could.

"So, do you have a better idea or not?" Girars asks, looking curiously at you staring at Catherine's back.

You shake your head. "No, just...thinking. Come on, let's go check out the Quarantine House." Girars nods and immediately runs off. He definitely has been there before. Multiple times, probably. Hopefully that history is a good thing, and not a bad thing. You shrug and start walking, like a normal person. No need to tire yourself out, Girars isn't going to get his head cut off. Hopefully.

"Can you really not let this go?"

You turn around and stare curiously at Catherine. You didn't even notice that you walked right past her. Did Girars notice? Probably not, honestly. "You're the one who can't let things go, Catherine," you retort, actually regretting your choice of response a second later. Not that Catherine doesn't deserve it, the proper time to kick someone isn't when they're on the ground.

Catherine, for her part, has to bite back a few choice words. She's trying, to her credit, but she's not succeeding as much as she probably wants to. And should. "Point taken. Still, if you're aren't convinced yet that I'm not good enough to bother with, would you mind doing me a small favor?"

...That's how Catherine asks for a favor right now? Yikes. You'd reconsider just letting her go, but...she'd probably be better off if you gave her her space, anyway. Hopefully. "I-I can't make promises, but you can certainly ask."

Thankfully Catherine didn't notice you stutter. "Good. Please, go after Girars and convince him to drop this ridiculous rumor of his. The De Simones abusing animals...I've got no idea where he got that notion from and frankly I don't even care to know, but either way I don't want him running around like a headless chicken over this. He's not going to accomplish anything he'll be proud of if you don't stop him, [PC FIRST NAME]. I don't mind him 'fighting the good fight', within reason of course, but the De Simone estate isn't the place to do it. Not to mention that Girars and 'within reason' have yet to meet, last I checked."

"He's not that bad. Hasn't been so far, at least," you say like a poor salesman. Catherine doesn't seem to believe you, which you suppose is fair enough. "In any case, I can't honestly say I know for sure exactly where this rumor came from and how truthful it is or isn't. But your opinion is noted. And I'll make sure that Girars doesn't do anything stupid, you needn't worry about that. I don't intend to be dragged down with him, you can trust me on that."

Catherine shrugs. "I suppose I couldn't ask for more. Still, thank you."

With that said you feel like you should probably start running after Girars and making sure he doesn't get himself killed. You highly doubt the Quarantine House will want to kill him, but...just to make sure...

--You want to march up to Catherine and demand a few answers, but...ergh, should you? Is it really the best idea? To tick off an already ticked off Catherine Chard? N-no, not by any sane measure, but...

"So, do you have a better idea or not?" Girars asks, starting curiously at you glaring holes through Catherine's back.

"...No." you force yourself to say. It takes far more effort than it should.

"Alright," Girars says a bit awkwardly. "Than let's go to the Quarantine House. Do you know the way?" You slowly nod, and Girars says he'll see you there and runs off. And boy does he run fast.

And of course now that it's time for you to go after him you hesitate. Worse, when you look in the direction that you thought Catherine walked off in you instead see her standing right in front of you. "You really can't let it go, can't you?" she asks, pointedly.

"Get off your high horse, Catherine. You're no better at it than I am."

"So you admit that you can't let it go?" she asks, which you interpret as an attempt to deflect her own shortcomings. Gods, what an insufferable brat she is sometimes. Of course you don't want to act like one right after mentally calling Catherine that, so instead you just silently nod. Your face probably has a few things written all over it, but still, you nod. "I won't pry," Catherine says, which you think was intended as reassuring? You're genuinely not sure on that one. "That said, I will remind you that you're playing private investigator with Girars de Periarde. I know this isn't what you want to hear, [PC FIRST NAME], but realistically, you're the one who's going to have to be the better person between the two of you. Girars...you know him. He's not going to do it. And I'd very much prefer it if you two didn't make complete fools of yourselves looking into a ridiculous, completely nonsensical rumor. I don't know where you heard it from, frankly I don't want to know, but I can assure you that there's no truth to it."

"I'll be the judge of that as soon as I figure this out," you try to not spit out at Catherine, but..."try", key word. "And I don't plan on making a fool of myself regardless, Catherine. Or having Girars making a fool out of me, for that matter."

Catherine lets out a weary sigh. "I suppose that's as much as I can ask for. In any case, good luck handling Girars."

You resist the urge to with Catherine good luck handling herself. Instead you silently nod and start running after Girars, towards the Quarantine House, wondering about things you should (and shouldn't) have said the entire time...

[PC FRIENDS WITH Catherine Chard]-Go after Catherine and (calmly) demand an explanation.
--Catherine has never shown much respect to people, and Girars is by no means a student that really inspires a lot of respect in anyone that doesn't follow his personal crusade, but even so this is well beyond normal for her. Something is bothering her, and as her friend you feel obligated to go after her and lend her worries an ear. Girars can wait - he's clearly familiar with the Quarantine House and you doubt that place is as hostile towards him as Frontino is, so he should be fine. And if he can't behave himself as least that much than, frankly, that's his problem, not yours. You ask Girars for directions to the Quarantine House and say you'll meet up with him later, if possible - Catherine seems like something is eating away at her, and you're worried. Girars nods, gives you directions, and wishes you good luck with dealing with the princess. You're not sure whether that last part was intended as an insult, but you don't really care either. You run off in the direction Catherine walked off in, and within a minute you catch up to her. She turns around and sneers when she sees you. "What, [PC FIRST NAME]? Oh, right, I take it you want directions to the Quarantine House? Could a guard not suffice for that purpose? Or...wait, didn't Girars run off ahead of me a second ago? What's going on?"

You cross your arms and stare right into Catherine's eyes. She tries to meet your gaze, but eventually looks away. "You know full well what's going on, Catherine. And if that outburst was any indication you need a listening ear. So...talk to me. What's gotten into you?"

Catherine frowns deeply at your answer as well as your question, but in the face of you staring her down she can't maintain her composure for long. No matter how proud and stubborn she is at the end of the day she's clearly hurting, and despite her earlier words you really aren't just "a cretin" to her. "Can you please just drop this, [PC FIRST NAME]?" Catherine asks, her voice sounding a bit broken. "This doesn't involve you. Shouldn't involve you. There's nothing about this that I want to talk about, or that I should have to talk about to others. Bad things will happen whether I want them to or not, [PC FIRST NAME]. I can't let it get to me."

You shake your head. "Can't, but it will. You can't just throw away your feeling either, Catherine, you're not a golem. If you don't want to talk about the details, fine, I know better than to pry. But at least tell me what I can do to put you at ease. I'm not going to just stand around and pretend like everything is alright when one of my friends is clearly hurting."

You calling Catherine a "friend" causes her to smirk, and underneath her breath she mumbles something you didn't catch. For what it's worth you did manage to put a slight smile on her face. "Fine. If you're that insistent, there is one thing you can do - go after Girars and convince him to drop this ridiculous rumor of his. I don't know where he got it from, frankly I don't even want to know, I just know for sure that it's completely bogus. Honestly, the De Simones, committing animal abuse? I've no idea...well, it's not a relevant crime they've made themselves guilty of, I know that for a fact. If Girars objects, just convince him that he won't end up doing anything he'll be proud of if he continues to play investigator like this. He won't accomplish anything, I know that much."

Interesting...but good enough. You nod and tell Catherine that you'll do what you can. And indeed, a weight seems to have lifted from her shoulders. A slight weight, but a weight all the same.

You're not entirely sure what to make of Catherine dismissing Girars' rumor like that, truth be told, but you suppose that's something that you can consider later. At the very least you don't believe that Catherine would lie or try to deceive you in a situation like this, so you're willing to trust her on her word - if she says that Girars isn't going to accomplish anything he'll be proud of pursuing this rumor, than surely it'd be best if you pulled him away from it. Of course he won't give up so easily, you know he won't, but a careful guiding hand and interpreter should do much to ease his concerns, and make him dismiss the rumor as just that - a rumor.

So, for Catherine's sake if not Girars' sake, that's what you'll do.

-Manipulation. You're not just a "cretin", so get Catherine to talk.
--In answer to Girars' question you march up to Catherine and tap her on the shoulder. She turns around on a Pim. "What, [PC FIRST NAME]? Wasn't I clear enough?"

"No," you answer plainly. Girars looks like he's not sure what kind of approach you're going with here. Neither does Catherine, for that matter. "You mentioned that the De Simones wouldn't lower themselves to animal cruelty. You didn't mention why."

And now Catherine just looks confused. "Need I even clarify that? Does the fact that you're talking about the De Simones not tell you everything you need to know?"

"If they were someone you spoke highly of, sure, it would. But you didn't seem too impressed with them. Strange that you'd both defend them and dismiss them, actually. Usually you're a consistently good judge of character." Girars looks at you with a face that says he doesn't even know what you're going on about anymore, but you meaningfully hover a foot above one of his. He gets the message and says he'll just go on ahead to the Quarantine House, leaving you two to it.

Him leaving is actually good for both you and Catherine, since it gives her time to think. "About me dismissing them, don't let that cloud your judgement. That's just a personal matter, nothing more," Catherine insists, but you're not sold on it being "just a personal matter". You don't press the issue, though. "The De Simones are one of the more prominent families in this city, old allies of my family and, as I said, long time beneficiaries of the Quarantine House. That alone should tell you that animal cruelty is completely beneath them. As should be the rumor claiming as much be to you, for that matter."

As you expected, being able to lecture you was Catherine's "talk" button. Now to milk it for all it's worth. "Any idea where this rumor could come from, than? Rumors are rumors, I know, but usually there's at least a hint of truth to them. Everyone would dismiss it out of hand, otherwise."

Catherine shrugs. "I really couldn't tell you, and frankly I'm not convinced that finding out would make you any smarter. Honestly I suspect it was Girars interpreting something else as something more in line with his pet peeves, but you'd have to ask him where he got his inspiration from." You mention that Girars said he overheard older students talking about the rumor, but you admit that he might have misheard them as well. And honestly, it's really not impossible that he did. Catherine might genuinely be on to something here. She certainly seems to think as much. She lets out a sigh and says, "I'm glad I was right to have some hope left for you, [PC FIRST NAME]. That said, can you please go after Girars and convince him to drop this ridiculous imaginary goose chase?"

"Well...I'm not sure. Beyond the Quarantine House business is there anything else you can think of that could convince Girars to stop investigating? It's not that I don't believe you, it's that...you know how stubborn he is. And with him sinking his teeth in a supposed case of animal abuse and all..."

Catherine mumbles something underneath her breath about Girars that you probably should be happy you didn't hear. "It really shouldn't take more than just the Quarantine House business, honestly. Still, you're right, this is Girars we're talking about, so...ah, I can't think of anything. Sorry, but could you please just bring Girars back around kicking and screaming, if necessary? There's no truth to this rumor of his, I'm sure of that, but...beyond the Quarantine House there's not much I could think of to say that would actually convince Girars. Unfortunately he's not the most reasonable of individuals..."

Or, put another way, this is the extent of what Catherine knows about the situation. Still, you think you got some good information out of her. At least you got her to talk, that's got to be worth something. "I can't promise I'll drag him back to the Academagia, but I'll stick around him and make sure he doesn't get any crazy ideas. Well, even more or even crazier ideas, at least."

Catherine nods, thanks you for understanding, and you run off towards the Quarantine House. Hopefully you'll get there before Girars makes a fool of himself in some fashion...

--In answer to Girars' question you march up to Catherine and tap her on the shoulder. She turns around on a Pim. "What, [PC FIRST NAME]? Wasn't I clear enough?"

You try to trick Catherine into spilling some useful information in a manner that's easier to understand, but frustration on both sides turns manipulation into an interrogation, that into a competition of wits to see who can better insult the other first, and after that...well, suffice to say that Catherine has a surprisingly literal definition of the idea that a noble should have a stiff upper lip.

You'll just leave Girars to have fun over at the Quarantine House while you drag yourself back to the Academagia and try to fix Catherine's approach to poetic irony. Or go to the infirmary and have the nurses do it, depends on how you feel by the time you get there...

-Heraldry. What do you know about the De Simones?
--Your mind quickly sorts through your knowledge of political entities in Mineta, and you're left having to admit to yourself that you honestly know surprisingly little about them. You know the De Simones are active in Mineta's political landscape, vying for a seat on the Golden Council, and that they're old allies with the Chards, so their attempt at securing that seat seems destined to succeed. Beyond that, though, you just don't know a whole lot about them.

The issue is that you've never really had a reason to think about them before, ultimately due to the fact that you're an Academagia student. The De Simones are known masters of Astrology and financial supporters of College Avila, who can be hired to cast spells for you, as well as active players in Mineta's politics. But none of that matters to you right now. You couldn't possible learn anything from them, it's far beyond your capabilities right now so there's no reason to go knocking on doors when you can just head to the Venalicium. Managing College Avila isn't your job, it's Professor Badcrumble's job, so that's not something you have any reason to meddle with. Getting a consultation from the De Simones is far beyond your price range, for one, and more importantly completely unnecessary when you've got professors, senior students and probably at least a few other people you could ask help from first. And for a significantly smaller fortune, at that. And if you've got something worthwhile to say about Mineta's political situation? Well, Catherine Chard herself is hanging out over at the Vernin dorms, so...no reason to even leave the Academagia.

This stuff about an art gallery, or whatever it was that Catherine mentioned, is all news to you. Odd that she'd be so...dismissive? Disinterested? Well, interesting that she'd talk so negatively about it, though. Her family and the De Simones are allies, last you heard, and that art gallery sounds-or sounded, rather, like it was right up Catherine's alley. Did something happen to change her mind? She is rather...eh, she's got a way with quickly dismissing people, but surely a De Simone wouldn't just be dismissed like that?

Something is going on with Catherine, and honestly, you'd like to know what...

--Not a whole lot. You vaguely recall overhearing the name before in a conversation about College Avila, though exactly in what context you don't recall. You also vaguely remember hearing the name before when talking about Mineta's Golden Council, but...you don't know. Maybe the De Simones are on it, maybe not, maybe they're trying to overthrow it, you've got no idea.

It may not be obvious, but there is so much to juggle this adventure...

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In Defence of the Animals, stage 4:

Spoiler

When you finally arrive in the Quarantine House you find out that...it's actually relatively empty, and peaceful. Quiet atmosphere, people calmly walking around, doing their jobs or waiting patiently for people to do their jobs...for some reason you were expecting doom, gloom and disaster, with Girars caught right in the middle. But no, he's just carefully petting a little girl's fluffy pet rabbit while she waits for her father, a rancher who's come here with one of his cows, to get done with business.

Sometimes it's nice to not walk face-first into random disasters and be asked or, more often than not, forced to solve them, you know. That's happened way too many times last year, from what you recall...

"Ah, [PC FIRST NAME], finally," Girars says as he notices you approaching him. The little girl he's with, like four years old or so, turns to face you and happily introduces herself. You introduce yourself to her in turn, a bit awkwardly. A cheerful ball of energy you can't keep up with, that one. "I asked around here a bit, but no one I talked to seems to know about that family that Catherine mentioned. Or their estate in Frontino, or about what happened to it last summer, for that matter. I don't think she was lying, but...maybe she misremembered?"

Huh. You honestly doubt that, but than you suppose you can't entirely rule out the possibility either. Or think of a better explanation off the top of your head. "So what do you want to do? Go to Professor Pachait and ask him about it?"

Girars shrugs. "I'm not sure. He might know, he might not. He's not really a professor that I'd expect to know much about high society stuff, you know?" Yeah, he at least doesn't give off that impression, but if the Quarantine House is a matter he was personally involved in than surely he heard about it? And remember it, even if that's not a detail that comes up very often? Not really a convincing argument. "We could try asking the professor, if you think that'll get us answers, but maybe you could try asking around yourself first? I didn't talk to everyone here, maybe someone working in the background might know more about the...Des Imones, right?"

"De Simones," you correct. Girars stares awkwardly at his shoes in response, while you frown at him.

"I thought I might have misheard that," he mumbles underneath his breath. "Well, all the more reason for you to give it a shot, right? At least I don't see any harm in asking around, while we're here and everything anyway, before going all the way back to the Academagia just to ask a professor one or two questions."

You suppose Girars is right, but man. Way to make himself useful, huh? In any case, asking around the Quarantine House. How to get information out of this place?

-Accounting. Examine the Quarantine House's finances more closely.
--You politely ask someone who seems like a person who works behind the scenes whether you could be allowed to examine the Quarantine House's financial records, claiming (entirely honestly) that you're here to try and help a recently betrayed animal loving friend to break out of his gloomy mood. The man you're talking to first tries to direct you to City Hall, which you admit probably would be a better location to do this, but you're trying to break your friend out of his gloomy mood, and not by convincing him to jump through a window. "Fair enough," the man answers, as he takes you and Girars into the back and shows you the Quarantine House's personal copy of official donations. And their collection of prepared thank-you letters they keep prepared. Girars, however, isn't moved by the obvious proof that people do, in fact, care about animals in Mineta. Curious, and a little frustrated, you ask him why.

"Wouldn't be the first time someone who should have cared about animals was only concerned about their reputation," he answers a bit darkly as he meaningfully points to the stack of generic, prepared thank-you letters. It makes both you and the employee here a bit uncomfortable, but neither of you comment on it. "Still, I guess I shouldn't complain about people keeping this place running even if it's mostly to toot their own horn. And people with money to spare throwing money around...kinda cheap, don't you think?"

"Not everyone donates money," a voice from behind you suddenly says, You, Girars and the employee turn around and look at, as it turns out, a guard who just walked in. "Hey there Jake, you know why I'm here. You two kids-students, rather, I see Jake's with you so I assume you're meant to be here?" You, Girars and the employee, Jake, all nod. "Alright, just wanted to make sure. This room isn't normally open to non-staff. Anyway, little known fact for the teenage curmudgeon," the man adds while staring right at Girars, "it ain't just Pims that people throw at this place. And even than that's what it needs most of all to be fair."

Now there's a word you don't think you've ever heard Girars be called. Or anyone, for that matter. "Such as?" Girars asks the guard.

"You're the one holding this place's records," the guards jovially notes. "Use 'em." Girars blinks, confused, and looks through the records again, as do you, and you actually end up finding what the guard is talking about before Girars does. And it's interesting information indeed. Turns out that the De Simone family itself is one of those families that supplies more than just Pims to this place - according to these records a cargo ship named the Sky Gallery delivered a load of "exotic animal feed" and donated it to the Quarantine House, in name of the De Simone family. "The Sky Gallery is that family's private cargo ship," the guard adds while you show Girars the record in question. He looks at it with wide, confused eyes. "Most people tend to forget, but a city of mages is a city of Familiars, and most of them don't have the Academagia itself supporting them and their often ignorant masters. Rare feed like that is what allows this place to treat them, when they're brought here."

Well...that's certainly something. You ask Girars what he thinks of it. "It's...I mean, it's something, but..." The guard snorts in response and tells Girars to get a hobby, since he's far too young to be so world-weary. Of course this isn't Girars as he normally is, he's definitely not lacking for hobbies usually, but you suppose the whole deal with the older students might have hurt him more than you thought.

"So what do you want to do?"

It doesn't take more than a few seconds of thinking for Girars to answer that question. "I want to check out this Sky Gallery, assuming it's in port," he confidently states. "Remember that the estate attack happened sometime last summer? Well, this feed was delivered around the same time, and if there's any truth to those rumors than I'll bet that cargo ship is involved somehow. So let's go there and check it out."

It figures that Girars wouldn't give up so easily. That was to be expected, though, and you know better than to try and convince him otherwise. The fastest, simplest way to convince him there's nothing off about this cargo ship is to show him there's nothing off about this cargo ship, so...to the docks both of you go.

--You are, with some effort and pointed ranting from Girars, able to talk (bully, more like) your way into looking through the Quarantine House's recent financial records. Unfortunately you don't find anything connected to the De Simones. Either they support the place indirectly, through intermediaries, or...you're not sure, you're blind? You're quite sure that you're not blind, though. And of course Girars has no idea where to go from here.

You suggest that the two of you just call it a day and come back later, and give the place's records a more thorough search. If there's really nothing here than you'll either need to track down the specific intermediary the De Simones use (which would be...not a fun experience) or find someone who knows and ask for that information.

That's a bridge you can think about crossing later, though.

-Persuasion. Talk to the employees here.
--All of the employees and volunteers you talk to know, vaguely, that the Quarantine House is supported by local noble families, though none of them really know the De Simone family. Some have heard of the name before, but that's about it. Your lucky break comes when you talk to the few members of the Minetan Guard stationed here to maintain order and, in theory, be prepared to put down a violent animal in case one manages to break out of it's cage and attempt to escape into the city. In practice such cases are of course vanishingly rare, as such animals are only rarely transported to begin with and anyone with the wealth to do so in the first place can easily find a few magic-trained people willing to keep dangerous animals in check with their wands in this city. But in theory it's part of the guards' job. And since it's a job that's not really calling to them right now they're more than happy to discuss what they know about the De Simone family, and their relations with the Quarantine House.

Long story less long, the De Simones are indeed one of the noble families that provide financial support to the Quarantine House, allowing it to continue operating as it currently does. Their support, in particular, isn't limited to just financial aid either. Just a few months ago, one of the guards tells you, the De Simones brought in a shipment of rare animal feed from some distant, exotic place, using their private cargo ship, the Sky Gallery. The guard further explains that many people (including you, you're ashamed to admit) forget that a city of many spellcasters is also going to be a city of many Familiars, and not every mage has the knowledge and resources of the Academagia at their disposal in terms of taking care of them, or even learning how to properly do so in the first place. Many end up at the Quarantine House, and without the rare stuff that the Sky Gallery brings it from time to time they wouldn't be able to be treated.

Girars, surprisingly, is not thoroughly moved by the story as you thought he would be. Confused, you ask him why that is. "Wouldn't be the first time someone who should have cared about animals was only concerned about their reputation," he answers a bit darkly. You had no idea the apathy of those older students hit him this hard. Or maybe there's more to it. Either way Girars doesn't make it clear which it is as he continues. "[PC FIRST NAME], let's head to the docks and check out this cargo ship. Assuming it's currently in port. I don't think the timing of when they dropped off this feed and when the attack on that estate happened is a coincidence. 'A few months' would put it right around the time that attack happened, and if the De Simone family is abusing animals, I'll bet their private cargo ship is involved with it."

You don't necessarily disagree with Girars' reasoning, but nevertheless it feels like a setback. In any case you figure that the simplest way to convince Girars that there's nothing suspicious about the cargo ship is to show him the cargo ship, so you nod along with his suggestion and head off towards the docks together.

--You talk to pretty much every employee and volunteer that is willing to give you a minute, which amounts to less than you'd hoped, but you only encounter the same situation that Girars did - no one knows of the De Simones, at least not by name. "Professor Pachait, than?" Girars asks, and with a shrug you say that he's welcome to give it a shot, but you feel like you've asked enough people enough questions for one day. "Fair enough, I'll try to catch him in his office later and ask him about it. Though if that doesn't work out...what should we do then? I mean, unless Catherine is just plain wrong, surely someone would know the name 'De Simone', right?" You don't disagree, and suggest that the two of you simply come back to the Quarantine House and try again. There's more volunteers here than full-time employees, so if you come back on a different day you might very well find different people to talk to. "Sounds like a plan," Girars says, and after far too long the two of you finally call it a day and split up. That questioning session took far longer than it had any right to, especially given the lack of result...

For reference, the Quarantine House is an actual location ingame:

Quote

Students interested in Zoology can visit the Quarantine House to examine new animal arrivals, gaining 1 Step each to their skill with Mammals and Animal Husbandry. Those competent to help with veterinary care can also volunteer at the in-house clinic, gaining 20 pims and 2 Steps each to Chirurgery and Anatomy with successful Intelligence/Animal Husbandry Rolls v. 11.

Despite its name, the Quarantine House isn't much of a house at all (though some do say it was once a palace). It's actually a very large building near the docks where animals from other islands are kept and treated while the ships on which they're transported are being loaded, unloaded, or serviced. In years past, it had a reputation for disease, filth, and cruelty to the animals, but in recent years a coalition of nobles and notables (including Professor Pachait, who reputedly dueled the former manager of the House to drive the man away) have forced a more caring atmosphere. In fact, these days it's not uncommon for the poorer residents of Mineta to bring their own pets and livestock down to the docks for the basic medical care they can't afford from veterinarians.

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In Defence of the Animals, stage 5:

Spoiler

The docks, in stark contrast to the Quarantine House, is it's usual bustle of activity. Sailors unloading cargo, moving stuff around, loading other cargo, passengers trying to find the ship they're supposed to board, guards to try and keep it all organised, it's a right mess. How anyone manages to get anything done in this chaos is beyond you, frankly. "So where do you want to start looking for the...what was the name again, the Sky Gallery?" You nod, thankful that Girars at least correctly remembered one name. "Alright, so where do we look for it? There's a lot of ships around here and it might not even be in port right now, so what do you think? Should we try questioning the sailors around here?" Somehow you don't think a private cargo ship is going to use just whatever hired help one can find in whatever port it happens to stop at, or that said hired help will remember this one specific ship out of all of the other ships they happen to have served on within recent memory if you're wrong on the first point. So either way asking the local sailors will probably yield a less than satisfying amount of answers. You think you'd be better off asking the local guards or, better yet, the customs officers. They should be familiar with a private cargo ship owned by a wealthy and influential family local to Mineta, especially if it makes regular trips in and out of Mineta. And let's be honest here, if it doesn't than what's the point of owning a cargo ship in the first place? You suggest your idea to Girars, but he seems skittish. "I don't disagree, it's just...don't you think asking the customs officers about this directly sounds a little...I don't know the right word for this - don't you think it sounds a little too much like we're trying to accuse them of something? I mean if you can think of another explanation for why we'd be asking about that particular cargo ship, be my guest, but I'm not really comfortable asking pointed questions like that just because we think something might be related."

"That's never stopped you before. Like, literally earlier this very day it didn't stop you," you point out, but Girars just silently shakes his head. There's more going on in there than he's telling, that's pretty obvious, but you're not able to get him to admit what.

So it looks like this one is up to you. Again. How to approach the customs officers, though? Do you have another reason, or maybe another plan, or...?

-Passion. Of course you do!
--You can't help but roll your eyes at Girars' behaviour. Or, rather, his lack of refined taste, and ability to put two and two together. "'Can I think of a better reason'. Good joke, Girars," you say as you grab him by the arm to drag him along. He's confused, but not fighting against you. Not that a malnourished stick of a sleep-deprived boy like him could put up any sort of fight anyway. "You want to see a better reason? I'll show you a better reason." You march right up to the nearest customs officer, who looks a bit strangely at you dragging Girars around. You let him go, motion him to stand aside (which he does), and boldly ask the customs officer whether he knows if the Sky Gallery is in port in Mineta right now.

"The Sky Gallery? Ah, give me a minute to think about that one, eh...?" You politely introduce yourself, and when the customs officer asks you why you're interested in that particular ship you launch into a passionate speech about all of the glorious artwork, music, sculptures, books of poetry, and yes, more esoteric forms of creative expressions that few would ever think to see as an art form that find themselves taken into the city of Mineta by way of the Sky Gallery - a name not chosen on a mere whim, for it's owner is the largest importer (and exporter) of all manners of art pieces. But alas, ever since the incident sometime last summer the gallery at the estate has been closed to the public, a fountain of creative expression run dry. You off-handedly add that you noticed the ship returned to port around the same time the mansion was raided by a band of marauding brigands, but the poor customs officer is so confused that he doesn't even hear it. Instead, after the half minute it takes the man to compose himself, he asks, "Ah...o-okay, so...you want to know whether it's still shipping stuff? Like, whether that art gallery is going to re-open sometime in the future?" You actually didn't ask anything of the sort, but in terms of being told where the ship is located (assuming it's in Mineta) that's actually a better excuse than you could come up with...and you're more than happy to take that off of the officer's hands! So you nod and say that since you couldn't get an answer from the actual owners of the estate you asked the servants about it, but they sadly didn't know either. So to try and answer your burning question you decided to try and track down the ship, hoping that it's captain could tell you whether the gallery is due to re-open based on his schedule - if he's due to pick up another round of artwork and return within a month, that would certainly indicate that the gallery will gloriously re-open it's doors after all.

You're lying there a bit, but the customs officer simply cannot keep up with the speed at which your (genuine) enthusiasm for artwork shows, so he doesn't even notice it.

"Ah...hah. I-I see. Right, art...stuff. Ergh, lemme think, the Sky Gallery...is currently in Port in Mineta, yes. Just take a left over there and walk like three crossings straight down, can't miss it. Don't know whether you'll get any answers from the captain, though. He's under no obligation to tell you his schedule. Though I doubt an...enthusiast like yourself would have trouble convincing him to spare your life or however much that gallery is worth to you. Or the guy might be sick of transporting a full cargo ship worth of art all over the place all the time. I don't know."

"Did that ship have any odd cargo on it, when it entered port a few months ago?" Girars suddenly asks.

The customs officer narrows his eyes at Girars, but he puts his foot down. The man than turns to look at you, you shrug, and the man turns his attention back to Girars, looking more curious than suspicious. "Not that I'm aware of, I've never seen or found anything out of place or undocumented on that ship. And a few months ago was no exception. Why, do you have a reason to believe there was something special on it?"

"I'm not sure," Girars notes, and you, visibly, give him a shift jab to the ribs. It nearly causes him to lose his balance and fall to the ground. Kinda forgot you were with Girars for a second there. "Don't worry about this guy," you tell the officer. "He's had some bad luck with his peers lately, but he won't cause any trouble. Wouldn't hurt a fly."

The officer nods and tells you to "see to it that he doesn't". With that said he bids you both goodbye and walks away. Once he's out of earshot you turn to Girars and ask, "Not comfortable asking accusatory questions, huh?"

"I wasn't," he answers. You plainly ask Girars for an explanation, again, and this time he thankfully gives you one. "I'm still not sure what to believe. Who to believe. I didn't want to ask a question like that, I didn't feel comfortable doing it, but I had to. If I knew that the De Simones are guilty of what I heard them be accused of, that'd be an entirely different story, but with them supporting the Quarantine House like they do...I don't know. It's either a clever ruse that really needs to be torn down or a case of me flinging accusations at someone that doesn't even remotely deserve it. And I can't tell which is which."

"Well, maybe a chat with the ship's captain will solve that problem."

Girars doesn't seem overly optimistic that it will, but it's not like he's got a better suggestion.

--You recall Catherine mentioning that the estate "offered tours as a proper high-class art gallery" up until some point recently, and their private cargo ship is called the "Sky Gallery". Maybe you're just crazy, but you nevertheless wonder if there might be some kind of excuse in there for why you'd be interested in that cargo ship. The real question is if you can sell it well enough - Girars isn't much of an art connoisseur, and frankly neither are you. Still, it's a legitimate reason. Surely that'll work well enough, right? Surely. You drag Girars over to the nearest customs officer you can find and, pretty bluntly, start asking questions about the Sky Gallery.

The good news is that your excuse goes over well, so no uncomfortable questions are asked about your interest in this particular ship. The bad news is that the customs officer doesn't know whether that particular ship is in port currently, as it's not one he's ever been called to check as far as he remembers. And with regards to asking the ship's captain whether or not the estate's gallery is planned to be re-opened...it's not illegal, as such, but the customs officer points out that it's frowned upon to make inquiries about the business schedules of cargo ships, as such can easily lead to cases of insider trading. Which is illegal. Of course you try to argue that you and Girars are only Academagia students, but the customs officer counters that, by the same token, you've got as good a chance as anyone in this city to have some manner of wealth or influential background - the Academagia does take in students right off of Mineta's streets at times, but it's far more common for it to take in students from wealthy, influential families. And you have to admit, Catherine Chard is a more common example of an Academagia student than, say, Aaran Ledale is. So...that's unfortunate.

Of course Girars doesn't want to give up so easily, but you don't feel like giving anyone a reason to believe you're doing anything..."frowned upon", as the customs officer put it. The docks is a pretty big place, though, and there's people aplenty here. You decide to just give that man a moment to forget that you ever existed and ask questions in another part of the docks later. With any luck, assuming that ship was ever in port to begin with, it'll still be in port by then...

-Endurance. The docks are large, but not infinite - look around.
--"If you don't feel like being yourself, Girars, how about we go the whole nine yards and turn you into a physically fit tower of leg muscle?" Girars' "response" of a blank expression on an otherwise confused face is the only response you get. You suppose it'll do. "The docks aren't infinite, there's only so many ports that the Sky Gallery could be in, so if you don't want to ask questions I suggest we just look around. It'll take a while, probably, but it's either that or asking for directions."

Girars looks around, weighs his options...and lets out a sigh. "Fine, I guess I'm up for a round of walking. Though, do you have a plan beyond just 'walk around'? I mean we could, but I'd rather split up and split the work. We'd have a much better chance of finding the Sky Gallery that way." You don't disagree with that, so the two of you quickly work out a general plan, split up, and get to it.

You ultimately end up covering more ground than Girars, simply because...well, it's Girars you're talking about. Endurance is a debate he's got more than covered, but endurance physically walking around? Not so much. Consequently it's not a surprise when, after what feels like forever spend searching, you end up finding the Sky Gallery before Girars does. So it is in Mineta! That's a lucky break if you've ever seen one!

Now to find Girars and bring him here. Hopefully he hasn't walked himself half to death yet...

--You and Girars spend an awful lot of time - an awful lot of awful time, at that! - first walking, and than eventually dragging yourselves from seemingly one end of the docks to the other, but no port that either of you two look at holds the Sky Gallery. "M-maybe it's...not in Mineta...after all...?" Girars eventually asks as he sits down, drawing ragged breaths.

"Maybe, but...maybe we're just not looking in the right location. I mean we avoided the less reputable areas of the docks, because obviously, but...maybe it's like right on the edge of it, somewhere?"

Girars is clearly in no condition to go check, and to be honest if you have to walk around for much longer than it'll take you to drag yourself back to the Academagia you'll soon join him. You didn't think just walking around would be this tiring, but when you do it for long enough you suppose...

In any case the two of you mutually agree to call it a day and check the docks another day. Of course The Sky Gallery might very well set sail if you wait too long, assuming it's even here, but...well, trying to ask questions while unable to breathe would be equally useless, so...call it a calculated risk, you suppose.

If any of you have noticed the general lack of options, it's because there is so much I need to keep in mind and it...well, it limits my options. For instance, this stage? Used to have a Debate option (removed because of what was formally established in stage 3, which wasn't always the case, and reasons) and a Hide option (reasons), there's intentionally an Endurance rather than an Astrology option (reasons, albeit different reasons) and I'm still on the fence about there being an option that goes "sorry, but your ship is in another port as of this date" since that is a thing that'll happen once the ingame calender passes a certain point, but that means that either the adventure dies right there and that has it's own issues or information gained from stage 6's main text will have to come from elsewhere and that's reasons central right there, so...yeah. Little bit of a mess, this one.

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In Defence of the Animals, stage 6:

Spoiler

Turning one last corner you finally arrive at the Sky Gallery, docked and seemingly being loaded up. There's some shuffling of cargo going on, at least. You and Girars try to approach the ship, but the sailors shuffling around boxes quickly try to shoo the two of you away. When that doesn't work they threaten to have you dragged away by the guards, but before that particular conversation can get any further than that the first mate aboard the deck calls for the captain, and when he shows his face the sailors know that you two are no longer their problem. "What is going on here?" the captain asks, and his first mate points to you and Girars. The captain stares at the two of you with a confident, albeit slightly distant look in his eyes. You're not sure how he feels about you two, based on his expression, but "threatened" certainly isn't it. "Kids, huh? Fine. Keep loading up, I'll handle this." The first mate nods and runs down the plank to start shouting orders, while the captain calmly walks down onto the docks and approaches the two of you. "What can I help you two with?" he calmly asks, being surprisingly polite compared to how his crew treated you.

Girars stumbles awkwardly over his words, trying to accuse without flinging accusations around, so you step in for him and succinctly explain that you two are trying to look into the attack on the De Simone estate that happened during the summer. "A rumor has surfaced about the estate engaging in animal abuse, and we're trying to set the record straight."

The captain frowns, but mostly he looks confused. "Animal abuse...? Cute. In any case, you two should leave detective work to the guards. Do you really care that much?" You cut Girars off before he spends half an hour rambling about his favorite subject. You let him ramble enough to get his point across, though. Or at least the one point you suspect this captain cares about. "Kids wanting to look after things smaller than themselves, huh? Again, cute, but fair enough I suppose. So what does that estate business have to do with me, or my ship, exactly?" You explain that you've heard, through the Quarantine House, that the captain's ship entered port and offloaded cargo basically right around the same time the estate was attacked, and so it's only natural to suspect that the two events are related. The captain does not look impressed, though he doesn't look offended either. He doesn't look much of anything, really. "This is why you should leave detective work to actual detectives," he says, though it doesn't sound anywhere near as condescending as you'd expect. More like a disappointed professor calmly lecturing a student. "I entered port about three weeks before that mansion raid happened. I would not call that 'right around the same time', personally." Three weeks!? Okay, yeah, that's definitely a lot less close together than you thought. "If you two think there's anything I transported that would trigger a raid three weeks later, you two can try to review the records of my ship's cargo manifest in the docks' administration building. They are not entirely public, but months old records are not as well guarded as current ones. Cargo shipments can clue in competitors to someone's trade secrets, after all, but months after the fact those secrets tend to no longer be secrets if anyone cares for them." Somehow you don't think you'll have any problem talking your way into checking those records. Not after you've already come so far. "In any case, is that all? I'm afraid I can't offer a tour of my ship, as you can see I'm quite busy with preparing it for a very long assignment we'll embark on at the end of Athonos. We won't be back in Mineta for another year, thereabouts."

A year? Yikes. That's some heavy-duty shipping assignment!

"How far out do you trade? That your trip will take about a year, I mean?" Girars asks, looking a bit perplexed.

"The assignment is not that exciting," the captain calmly explains. "Just travelling around to different ports and transporting basic cargo. It's not interesting work, but it's something to do until the estate calls on me again. Most sailors get antsy, if they stay grounded for too long, anyway. And no sense in having a cargo ship if it's not transporting cargo." Makes sense. Shame that the captain's travels will keep him away from home for so long, though. Though you suppose he must be used to it. "As for how far out we trade, again, just look through the cargo manifest. If you really care that much."

"I do," Girars says confidently, and the captain shrugs and wishes the two of you good luck before saying farewell and walking off. Very polite man, for how aggressive his crew was. "So, to the administration building?"

You nod, although there's one thing you're not certain of. Getting access to those records, sure, you've shown that you can worm your way into that, no problem. But how to find the right one? How to make perfect sense of it? You doubt that record will be polite enough to say "important thing that enemies of the De Simone family could be interested in"...

-Bureaucracy. Find the right record.
--Someone once told you that any day you don't have to visit City Hall is a good day, and you wonder what that person would say to you visiting the Dock's administration building instead. Would this be a good day, or a bad day? Or a lukewarm day?

In any event you drag Girars over to the administration building, obviously you know where it is, easily talk your way into the building's archive of old cargo manifests, and waste no time in tracking down the right area. You'd have found the exact record if you could, but unfortunately you don't know the exact date that the Sky Gallery last entered port, so you're going to have to search around a bit.

It doesn't take long to find the right record, though. Now, piecing together the shoddy penmanship that wrote it, that's another story. It takes the combined efforts of you and Girars to make even the slightest sense of it, and from what both of you can figure out the Sky Gallery wasn't shipping anything obviously important, suspicious or otherwise significant when it entered port before the estate attack three weeks later. Just a whole lot of paintings and other art pieces that you're never heard of before...assuming you're reading these names correctly, which frankly you wouldn't bet money on. Beyond the art there is of course the load of Alesfan feed, which was delivered, in full, to the Quarantine House, but...actually that was technically the most exotic item on board at the time. Go figure.

It's also definitely not what you're looking for, though.

--It's simple enough to talk your way into being allowed to review the cargo manifest, purely because the guy on duty at the administration office doesn't have the time to care about months-old archives. The unfortunate downside to that is that he also doesn't have the time to explain exactly how these archives are sorted, and where you should start looking for a record that's from a date you only have a vague indication of.

You try to just wing it, figuring that surely the docks would use the most straightforward, sensible and boring system imaginable, but...that turns out to be a mistake on your end.

A solid hour of looking later and even Girars is wanting to call it quits. Not for good, but at least for today. You can't bring it in yourself to disagree with him at this point, so...going to have to come back and do this again...another day...

-Decipher Handwriting. Carefully read the record.
--The administration office isn't hard to find, the people working there don't care enough about months-old cargo manifests to put up much (if any) fight against the two of you snooping around, and finding the record isn't...well, it's not easy considering you don't have an exact date for the Sky Gallery's arrival in Mineta (or the estate attack, for that matter), but you know roughly when the ship entered port and that's good enough. It takes a bit to find it, sure, but not too long.

The record itself is...well, suffice to say that your diligent study of making shoddy handwriting legible through magic wasn't a waste of time. It takes effort to even read the cargo manifest...as least if you're willing to count "cast three simple spells" as "effort". Which you don't think most would. Regardless, some wand waving later you've got a cargo manifest to read through. Unfortunately there's nothing of special note or clear importance recorded on it. Apparently the Sky Gallery, true to it's name, brought in a large number of paintings, most of which you've barely to never heard of before, some other pieces of art like a stone bust of someone you've never heard of, a few other random bits and pieces, and of course the load of Alesfan feed that was delivered, in full according to the manifest, to the Quarantine House. Funnily enough, that feed was actually the most exotic item on board at the time.

You let out a sigh, shrug, and hand Girars the manifest, who nervously looks it over himself. "Nothing on there that stands out," you say, merely hoping that Girars is paying attention.

--Talking your way into seeing the records isn't a problem, ultimately. Finding the right record...well, let's just say that it takes trial and error, since you don't know the exact date that the Sky Gallery entered port about three weeks before the attack (or the exact date of the attack, for that matter)...should have asked the captain about that, in hindsight...but in any case a healthy dose of thick-headedness and perseverance eventually gets you to the right record.

You do not want to talk about how long that took.

As for the record itself, it's not even that useful. Whoever wrote it apparently didn't much care about people being able to read it, because the handwriting is nothing short of atrocious. How can people that work in a Minetan administration building not know how to write in Formal Script in a way that's reasonable legible? Bah. Goes to show you how often people even look at these records, you suppose. Through an unreasonable amount of effort, and even more time that you honestly didn't want to spend here, and some magic, you're eventually able to make out what's written on it, though you're not sure what that effort is worth. The cargo manifest details a number of paintings you've, at best, vaguely heard about before, a stone bust of something you've never heard of before, a few other miscellaneous items along those lines...nothing that really stands out. Things that people might want badly enough to attack a mansion for, maybe, but...nothing stands out as an obvious, especially juicy target. The cargo manifest also mentions the rare feed that was delivered to the Quarantine House, and ironically enough it was actually the most exotic item on board at the time. Apparently it came all the way from Alesfa! Interesting, but ultimately not useful to your investigation.

"Alright, here's my idea," Girars says as you hand him the record. "We call it a day here, because frankly you're looking more ready to fall over dead than I do on a bad day, and come back to finish this later. We know we can get in here, we know where the record is, and I'll swing by the Venalicium and research some handwriting spells before that point so I can take a close look at this record for myself. Because I want to take a close look at it myself, but...I'm not reading two words of this thing to save my life. Not without doing some studying first. Sounds like a plan?"

You slowly nod. Gods, you need to go back to the Academagia and soak in a hot bath right now...

I know I no longer clarify when a given option pauses/stops/proceeds the adventure, but I'm hoping that just reading the text is enough to make that clear. Next stage's intro text should make it clear, if it isn't in this case.

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In Defence of the Animals, stage 7:

Spoiler

One last time Girars uselessly squints over the poorly written cargo manifest...and puts it back where it belongs. "This is just useless. Piles of artwork and the like, sure, but who cares about that? If that's why the estate was targeted than that doesn't tell us anything, there's artwork there all day every day it seems like." Well, at the very least there was at the time, yes. "If any of the Alesfan feed was brought to the estate, than sure, I'd be more suspicious. But it was all brought to the Quarantine House, according to the cargo manifest. So that estate apparently didn't have some kind of rare animal imprisoned in it, to be shown to the estate guests as some kind of cruel sham of a zoo, waiting to be rescued by a band of...well, reckless animal rights activists, admittedly, but animal right activists all the same."

You know, sometimes you get the impression that Girars lives in his own little world, and him interacting with the outside world is just his attempt at trying to reconcile the differences between the two. An estate in Frontino keeping a secret zoo, sure. Though admittedly you're heard weirder.

"I think...I think the next step is going to be finding someone who was there that night and asking them about it directly. We need to get a better idea about the night the estate was attacked, why the estate was attacked, otherwise we'll never figure out whether Catherine was right or not." You ask Girars whether he really doesn't believe Catherine. He shakes his head. "Not solely on her word. I can admit to being wrong, if there was nothing at that estate that an animal rights activist would be interested in. But I don't know if there was, so I want to find out."

"That I can agree with, but one important question: How do you plan on tracking down someone who was there that night, exactly? I don't suppose you've got a guest list?"

Girars naturally shakes his head, but there's something scheming in that head of his. "Of course not, but I do have an idea. We can check the student roll at the Academagia. I mean, a rich and influential noble family local to Mineta...decent odds that one of them would be attending the Academagia, right?" You slowly nod and admit there's at least a reasonable chance that's true, yes. "And with their estate right in town where else would they stay over the summer?" Personally you'd think that someone like that would be of the opinion that a quick vacation to Meril for a change of scenery after having sat through ten months of being cooped up in the Academagia and before sitting through another ten months of Mineta would be pretty nice. But personal opinions aside you agree that that there's worse places to check, but it doesn't take two people to look through a simple list of names. So you ask Girars if he's got a plan B in mind - chances are you two will need one anyway. "Well...not really, in terms of finding people who were guests at the estate that night. But I think if we do some general research into the family's history, see what they're notable for and who their allies are and what have you, we'd at least be able to narrow down our search pretty well. I mean, you wouldn't invite your worst enemies over for a casual dinner, right? You'd invite your friends."

Sounds reasonable. Of course you're the better researcher, so that means Girars is going to get the easy task of looking through a literal list and checking for a name on it. "I mean...it's not a short list?" Girars says in a vain attempt to make you feel better. He's trying, at least. "Let's just head to the Academagia. I'll swing by the Great Hall and check the list, you can head to the Venalicium immediately, and one way or another I'll catch up to you and help do some research into the history of the De Simone family. Does that sound like a plan?"

That sounds like a plan, yes. Researching an old family, though. How to go about doing that...

-History. Dive into some history books.
--You don't know off the top of your head how old this family is and when you should be looking for information, but thankfully you do know where to find that information! So, off into the history section you go.

A large number of books and assorted texts that the Venalicium has later, and you feel like you've got as good an idea about the De Simones as anyone. The De Simones, despite being elevated into proper prominence only relatively recently, actually trace back their lineage as far back as the foundation of the Empire, when the New Gods drove off the Dragons occupying the islands and established the Empire of Man...well, obviously there's a little more to that story. But, as for the De Simones, they took up wands to study the "new" magic that the New Gods brought with them, the Phemes of Astrology, and managed to make somewhat of a name for themselves in the process. Nothing too major, but noteworthy enough to be remembered for it many centuries later, and in fact mastery of Astrology magic is what they're known for to this day. Now, the De Simones are originally from the island of Mineta, if not the city itself, but they are from the area. The De Simones had no official political affiliations during those days, although they were loyal to the Empire, and by extension, it's Emperor at the time. As such they were chosen to be send to what is currently modern day Meril, which wasn't an official member of the Empire of Man at the time, on a secret mission from the Emperor to spread his word and influence there.

Incidentally, the significance (and irony) of you being able to read about this "secret mission", that at the time only select people would have known about, in one of the many history books housed in just a regular library is not lost on you.

The De Simones accepted, and embarked on what must have been the longest journey in all of history to do as their Emperor commanded. They emigrated to Meril, settled down there, and starting from humble beginnings spend generations growing, climbing the social ladder, reaching out, and making sure that their (really, their Emperor's) word was noticed and heard. Now, historically speaking Meril did eventually join the Empire of Man in a fashion, albeit for more reasons than just the De Simones greasing the wheels of course, but nevertheless the mission that the De Simones were send out to accomplish was done. However, by that point they'd have established themselves so thoroughly, and had spend so many generations there that the nth descendants of the original (relative) few that received the original mission from the Emperor had no more ties to Renaglia. Essentially, they succeeded, but ceased to be the De Simones that one day received a mission from the Emperor. So, they remained there in Meril, aiding the old administrative Kingdom of the Empire as the Merillian noble family loyal to the Empire that they had become.

Of course that Empire eventually fell into decline, to the point where it ultimately collapsed outright. That's the point where the De Simones, or at least a (by now centuries old) generation of them, decided to return to their ancestral homeland and re-establish themselves there. So, once again, a generations-long mission to rise to prominence began, since by that point it had been over a millennia since member of the De Simone's main family lived on Renaglian soil and obviously any connections they had (either historically or specifically to the Empire) were long gone. It wasn't as much as an uphill struggle as it was the first time, since of course they had their Merillian "branch" to support them, and so within "just" a handful of generations they worked their way up from unknown, if wealthy and somewhat influential foreigners to a bona-fide noble family. Also a very interesting historical read is that the De Simones and the Chards actually have a bit of a history together - Academagia Legate Donatio Rosada's attempted coup in Mineta in 1522, to replace (violently or otherwise) the Golden Families of Mineta with his Fratellanza dei Saggi, resulted in one of Mineta's oldest and most significant families, the ancient Dell'Acqua family, to marry off a daughter to a nobleman from Chagnac named Etiphien Chard. Chagnac being a province in Meril. Meaning that the Chards, originally, are from Meril as well. They are the De Simones share a homeland, effectively, since the De Simones lost touch with their Renaglian roots. Although they had been working to establish themselves in Renaglia already, by 1522. Nevertheless, the De Simones welcomed a new, familiar face in their new home away from home, and were happy to aid the Chards with adjusting to their new seat of prominence in return for them giving the De Simones a leg up, politically. Of course the Chards neither could (nor should have) elevate the De Simones to their new level, ironically above the De Simones, but it was a mutually beneficial political alliance all the same. And one that was at least as much a personal alliance as a political alliance, from what you're reading. And that alliance, incidentally, continues to this very day. Or at least it did, Catherine's comments notwithstanding. The most recent happening on that front is that the De Simones are trying to secure a seat on Mineta's Golden Council, with the aid of the Chards, but they've been unsuccessful so far. It's not that the Chards don't support them properly, it's that none of the other members (understandably enough) wish to give up their own seat in favor of a De Simone. It's been suggested that one of the two Chards can make way for a De Simone, that way everyone will have at least one seat, but unsurprisingly the Chards haven't taken anyone up on that offer.

As for political enemies, well, you actually don't find much information about that. It's not that the De Simones don't have enemies, it's that you can't find any enemies prominent and damaging enough to be recorded in the history books. And of course, most of the ones that you do find information about are in Meril. To name one example, sort of: The Republic of Pievre. All you can find is the De Simone's side of the debate so you remember to take it with a grain of salt, but a person that the De Simones divined as being a spy for the Republic of Pievre once attempted to buy some of their magical secrets, with intent to take them back to his homeland and offer them to Pievre's government. The De Simones, as such, refused to do business with him, and before the man could be arrested and taken in for questioning he vanished into this air. As far as the De Simones (and many others, to their credit) is concerned, that was as good as an admission of guilt. That event did happen in Mineta, point of order, but it did several years back, so you doubt that this is connected to the estate raid. At the very least you'd expect that if Pievre was behind the attack than it wouldn't have been performed by a group of teenagers. Most likely.

...Where is Girars, actually? Looking at the literal stack of books right next to you reminded you of how long you've been here now, and all he had to do was check the student roll. Surely it couldn't have taken that long! You reason that it's not like you're likely to find anything more than you already did and you know where to find these books if you need them again, so you decide to clean up here and wait outside the Venalicium for Girars to finally show up. Gods, what's taking him so long?

You wait around the entrance to the Venalicium for several more minutes before Girars finally shows up. Gods, he better have a good excuse for this...

--You obviously know where the history section is and you're no stranger to books, but unfortunately every book you pick off of a shelf ends up telling you nothing at all about the De Simone family. It doesn't help that you don't know exactly how far back you can (not to mention should) look, it doesn't help that you don't exactly know where the De Simones are from, but even so. You'd think that you'd be able to find something.

No such luck this time, though. You're still empty-handed when Girars finally pokes his head into the Venalicium. Though why did it take him so long to look through a list, anyway? "Okay, so that student roll idea? I'm afraid it's going to have to wait," Girars, annoyed, begins. This can only end well. "Turns out Rui da Casga got into some sort of prank war with someone and they made it a competition to sabotage the student roll or something. I don't know, I tried to tell the professor there that I don't need permission to check the roll and that I'm not secretly Rui beneath a Glamour, but no, the guy still wouldn't believe me. And no, that professor doesn't know a lick of Negation, apparently. Some skills for a professor at the Academagia, huh?" Well, not even professors necessarily know the fundamentals of every magic school, but yeah, that's a real bummer. "And you know what the worst part is? I actually ran into Rui on the way here."

Oh! Well, speak of a Dragon you suppose. You ask Girars if he couldn't have dragged Rui to the professor and just prove who he was, as much as he shouldn't have needed to.

"Could you really see me physically dragging anyone around?" Girars asks. And no, you have to admit that you can't. "At least I gave him a right piece of my mind, causing trouble like that. I don't think he cares, mind you, but at least someone told him what result his pranks have without sugar coating it."

For what that's worth, you think to yourself. In any case you're not getting anywhere and Girars didn't get anywhere, and you really don't feel like getting tangled up with Rui's business just to check the student roll before it's more convenient to do so, so...you're just going to call it a day here.

-Research. Look into more recent texts.
--Navigating the Venalicium isn't difficult. After all the time you spend here last year you're familiar enough with it to quickly find what you need. The De simone family, a few biographies and old newspaper articles tell you, is most known for their mastery of Astrology magic. They earn most of their wealth off of the magical discoveries they've patented and are willing to sell to others, for a price, either directly or indirectly. Sometimes guilds, other noble families or other sufficiently wealthy (or influential) groups can convince them to sell the rights to learn and practice their secret ways, other times they'll refuse to share their discoveries with anyone and will only sell the results of them to interested, private buyers, usually for a princely sum.

Not much is said about their political allies and enemies. It's noted that they and the Chards, Catherine's family, are old allies. The De Simones have tried, for a long time, to secure a seat on the Golden Council with the assistance of the influence of the Chards, though it hasn't worked out so far. From what you're reading it's not that the Chards are against it or arguing in their favor poorly, it's that the rest of the Golden Council members, not unreasonably, refuses to give up their own positions. It's been offered that either of the Chards, Catherine's parents, could step down in favor of a De Simone, since that would give the De Simones a seat without entirely removing the Chards, though they obviously haven't taken the council up on that offer. As for enemies, if the De Simones have any known enemies you can't find any records of it, at least in this section of the Venalicium. You find one newspaper article that claims that the De Simones refused to do business with a foreign man on the grounds of having divined his intentions of betraying his end of the bargain and selling their secrets to the Republic of Pievre, but the man left (fled, some say) Mineta before he could be arrested and questioned by the guards on suspicion of being a spy. The man not staying in Mineta was, according to the newspaper article, taken as an admission of guilt. Honestly though, you really can't imagine that this is at all relevant to the estate attack that happened however many months ago. For one this newspaper article is over two years old, for another if the mansion attack was a retaliatory strike or an attempt to steal whatever this man tried to bargain for than it wouldn't have been done by three teenagers with all the subtlety of a rampaging herd of elephants. No, this clearly isn't what you're looking for, so you put that article down and go dive into some more books...

...A while later you look at the pile of books and articles next to you and wonder where Girars is. Just how long is that student roll? You've been here for...how many minutes? You don't even know, you don't remember at what time you walked in, but it feels like you've been here for a while. You've pretty much done what you could in terms of research, too, so...no reason to stay and wait here, you suppose. You pack up and go stand outside the Venalicium's door, waiting impatiently for Girars to finally show up.

Another few minutes later and Girars finally shows up! Gods, whatever delayed him so much had better be good.

--You're more than familiar with the layout of the Venalicium, or so you thought, but trying to research the De Simone family proves to be much harder than you initially thought. You go through book after book after book, but you just cannot find the information that you're looking for. You run up and down multiple sections of the Venalicium, thinking that maybe you're looking in the wrong area or someone filed them in the wrong area, but no, everywhere you look you find nothing.

Huh. Maybe the De Simones aren't as old a noble family as you thought? Are they especially reserved, or something? You don't recall that being the case, but your lack of information here indicates otherwise. It's trivial to find some historic information about, say, the Chards, so you know what you're looking for isn't unreasonable. Shouldn't be, at any rate.

A rather long search later and finally Girars pokes his head into the Venalicium. He looks a bit oddly at you basically tearing your hair out, but doesn't question it. "So...slight complication with the student roll," Girars starts. Oh, this can only end well. "Did you know that a combination of a failed polymorthing potion, Aetherial Ruinous and sugar can cause parchment to explode into cake batter?"

"...What?"

Girars shrugs. "Yeah, it was news to me too. I mean a know a bit about brewing, I've know about Aetherial Ruinous and I've heard it has some interesting recipes that more accomplished brewers can create with it, but...that was a new one to me."

...The student roll exploded into cake batter. The student roll exploded into cake batter. What is with this school sometimes!?

"In any case I obviously couldn't check the student roll, so...[PC FIRST NAME], are you alright?"

Unfortunately for Girars your brain has basically ceased functioning right now. The student roll-seriously, this school sometimes. Rui da Casga knows how to keep it interesting, but Gods. And why now, of all times? No matter. It's not like you got anywhere and it's not like it'll take effort to swing by the student roll and check it whenever it's been replaced...though knowing how well Legate Orsi keeps up with his paperwork that might take a while. Nevertheless, you can recover. You're just going to need a day...

Approval of the history lesson is still pending, mind you.

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In Defence of the Animals, stage 8:

Spoiler

"We're not done investigating that mansion," Girars sighs out more so than says, not paying any attention to the rather large frown you were directing towards him. His face is missing a few shades of color as well, he looks even paler than he usually does. "I...I was completely wrong about this. Remember how I thought that that mansion kept animals imprisoned for people to gawk at, pretending to be a zoo for the high and mighty, all of that stuff?" You don't recall all of those details coming up earlier, but in general, sure. So you slowly nod. "I was right, one of the De Simones who was there that night attends the Academagia, and I just got done talking to her. That event that was held at the mansion that night? It wasn't just any old family gathering. It was a feast."

...Okay? You feel like that should have been some manner of grand revelation, but...eh? Not feeling it. You don't feel like you're missing something obvious, either.

"I thought, hoped, the all of the Alesfan feed being brought to the Quarantine House meant that my zoo theory was off the mark, that this entire animal abuse rumor was off the mark. But it seems like that estate mistress didn't show off any animals. It seems like she was planning to serve some..."

Again, Girars makes it sound like that was supposed to be some manner of grand revelation, but you're just feeling confused. Actually, no, what you've now hit is a point where your earlier theory about Girars living in his own little world is an idea you actually have to give some serious thought to. It can certainly be illegal to serve the meat (or other parts) of endangered, poached or otherwise questionable animals to guests, and naturally it's illegal to serve anything that's not from (something classified as) an animal. But this is Girars you're talking about. He'd flip a table at the idea of someone going to the farmer's market and buying a dinner worth of local Minetan pork. Which, needless to say, is not illegal to buy, cook and serve. Even if Girars would very much prefer it to be. Only one way to find out, you suppose. "Okay. Any idea what illegal meal the estate mistress was supposedly planning to serve?" you sceptically ask Girars.

Girars shakes his head. Not a great start. "I don't know. Apparently it was meant to be a surprise, so none of the guests were told about it." You roll your eyes. Of course it was. You let out a sigh and ask Girars if he's got any great ideas for trying to figure out what surprise the estate mistress was going to serve. Because as far as you're concerned you're not getting any answers straight from the horse's mouth barring Mastery, and obviously that's never going to happen. Girars frowns, but surprisingly, also nods at that. "As a matter of fact I do. I was told the name of the cook that was in charge of preparing this mysterious 'surprise' meal - Pasquale Giordano. If we can track him down we could probably get answers from him. It's been a few months since that estate attack and who knows whether anyone's asked him to cook that same surprise meal before or since then, but...I mean, the estate was raided by a band of animal rights activists and the guy himself was knocked unconscious because of what he was told to cook, apparently. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure I'd remember a recipe if something like that happened to me because of it." You slowly nod, still weary of this whole development but willing to admit that that's a fair point. "So I say we track down the cook and ask him a few pointed questions. Apparently he was the only person cooking that night, for whatever reason. I don't know the guy but apparently he's a famous cook, a bit of a flighty loner or something along those lines? I'm not sure. You might know more about that stuff than I do."

Good question. Pasquale Giordano, does that name ring any bells? And, for that matter, how are you going to track this guy down?

-Minetan Swagger. Go into town and poke your head around, you know the city well enough.
--One would think that without a proper mage or careful analyses of various stuff 'n things you'd never be able to track this guy down. Well, for most people that'd be the case. But you? You've got a secret weapon on your side.

You, dragging along Girars, proceed to go on a self-guided tour of the most obscure, albeit respectable eating establishments this city has to offer. Which, rest assured, are many. Girars frequently complains about how he doesn't see how this is going to lead the two of of you finding Pasquale, but you keep telling him that if Pasquale worked in a famous place than the entire city would know about it, and all you'd have to do was ask around. Since that isn't the case he must be working somewhere more unknown and remote, and as it so happens you know a fair few places that qualify as such. It's all just a matter of finding the one place that advertises that they have Pasquale on staff without mentioning him by name. Because of course they'd do that.

It's a fairly long search, but eventually you do swing by one place in particular that's gotten a new advertisement since you were here last. "The widest variety in meals in Mineta!" a colorful sign says, though you'd still almost have to know where it is in order to see it. Just to make sure you decide to ask the people walking around whether they know if Pasquale works there, pointing at the restaurant in question, and at least one person nods and confirms that he does.

And Girars doubted you the entire time. Admittedly you did as well for a while there, and you were winging it a fair bit more than you claimed, but...he doesn't need to know that.

--You drag Girars along on a lengthy tour of a large number of eating establishments both famous and not, most of which he was not impressed by due to his vegetarian shtick, and you ultimately didn't end up poking your head in the one place where Pasquale is currently working either.

But on the bright side, boy are you stuffed! With the Academagia's meals being the less than stellar quality they usually are maybe you should do this more often...

"I'm glad that you've enjoyed taking me along to see every other slaughterhouse depository this city has to offer," Girars, with the expected amount of sarcasm, notes at the end of what feels like a long day. "This didn't get us anywhere, though. Maybe we should try a different track to find out where Pasquale works? Because frankly I'd rather not do this again. Ever."

You don't pay too much attention to Girars complaining, it's something he's known to do frequently. Still, you do agree that going on a gluttony spree is nice and all, but finding the guy would be nice too. Maybe a more thorough examination of stuff is called for here? Or maybe some ward work?

Either way you're sure you'll think of something. Later.

-Astrology. Time to apply some magic to the problem.
--You break out a star chart, a map of Mineta, a Marat deck for good measure, all manners of odds and ends and get to work. Girars sadly doesn't know a lick of Astrology, so all he can do is sit and watch, but you don't need his help to perform a divination. It's easy enough to do this stuff yourself by now, you're a second year after all.

A fair amount of spellcasting and consulting a textbook to double-check your memory later and you've narrowed down Pasquale's current location enough to feel confident in going out there and checking your work the old-fashioned way. Girars asks if you're really not able to get a better idea than this, and after you frown at him he explains that last he heard Astrology could do that, so he assumed you would too. You clarify that it's possible, but you're just a second year, and you don't know Pasquale well enough to really divine information about him that well. You don't know his birthday, for one.

Girars shrugs and admits he doesn't have a better idea, so the two of you pack up and start walking around Mineta somewhat like headless chickens, but headless chickens with a some kind of sense of direction. Sort of. It feels that way, even if you've got an annotated map telling you where to go and all...

After a few dud locations the two of you eventually arrive at am out-of-the-way restaurant boasting about having "the widest variety in meals in Mineta", and...not a whole lot else to say about it. Not from the outside, at least. While you fiddle with your wand Girars instead just goes around and asks people if they know whether Pasquale works there, and both of you are left with the impression that he is, if for different reasons. Nevertheless, that's good enough for both of you.

--You and Girars, not that the latter has even the slightest clue about the basics of Astrology, spend a long time examining constellations, doing Marat spreads and a variety of other stuff to try and locate Pasquale's current place of employment, but all you're getting is conflicting information. You're suspecting that you're going to need to phrase your query differently, because there's some interference coming from the double meaning of where Pasquale currently works and where he currently lives - keeping a house clean is a job in and of itself, after all. Girars, for his part, is just thoroughly confused.

"Maybe we should instead ask someone else to do this...divination stuff for us? I mean, no offence, but this seems rather...useless? How is drawing cards supposed to tell us whether Pasquale works in the eastern part of Frontino or somewhere on the north side of the Via Splendido, anyway?" With a frown you inform Girars that this is only part of the process, the rest should answer that question accurately. Or at least accurately enough to give you two something to go on. Unfortunately it seems that you won't even be getting to that part, and bringing in someone else is just going to be a hassle you don't want to deal with.

Mostly because you don't want to suffer the embarrassment of explaining what you're doing here and asking what you're doing wrong, but that's not a detail you share with Girars.

"Eh, sure, if you say so. In any case I'll...I don't know, I guess go through the Venalicium and try to figure out something? I don't know, but I'll poke my head in a few books and see if that shakes loose anything. I doubt it, but it seems like a more...consistent way to spend my time than this."

Consistently useless, sure, the Venalicium isn't going to have Pasquale's place of employment on record that's for sure. Nevertheless you can't really argue that you've gotten anything more yourself this time, so...maybe you ought to hit up the Venalicium yourself and open a few textbooks. Something has gone awry here, so you're going to need to figure that out. Or try something else, you suppose.

-Economy. Consider where someone famous would probably work in Mineta.
--Depending on what Pasquale cares about insofar as his career as a cook is concerned there's definitely places where he'd be more or less likely to work. In addition, certain locations are more likely to advertise the fact that they've got someone famous working for them, as a means of competing against those based in a "higher" position or location. Just going off of that you can immediately rule out like half of the Upper City, and based on what you know of Pasquale you can eventually rule out most of the remaining half. Girars, once you're done and point to a rather narrow area on a map, raises an eyebrow and asks if you really know what you're doing or just making stuff up on the spot, because he doesn't understand any of it. You stick to your wand, however, and drag Girars to the area you indicated.

Admittedly the two of you do end up checking a number of places, but eventually you come across a restaurant that's shamelessly advertising their "widest variety of meals found in Mineta". A recent advertisement, by the looks of it. To top it all off, people walking by happily confirm that, yes, Pasquale does work there right now.

Girars mumbles something about lucky guesses, but that doesn't get rid of the superior grin on your face.

--After spending a while reviewing the economic situation of the Upper City, what places are especially wealthy and the like, you spend another while trying to narrow your search down, only to come up empty handed. If Pasquale was someone who was most concerned about his paycheck, than yes, you could easily narrow your search down to a few neighbourhoods. But he isn't. If he was he wouldn't be moving around constantly, a stable job generally pays more than a flighty one, even you know that much. Girars likewise doesn't have anything to add. He naturally suggests the usual suspects, but you suspect that you're not going to find Pasquale there - after all those places a very strict and rigid, very traditional since they mostly cater to the largely traditional-minded noble families in Mineta. That's not a place that someone as flighty as Pasquale would choose to work. At least not for very long.

All in all that sounds like you two need to be looking more in the direction of the Middle City than the Imperial Palace, but that's a pretty huge area to guess that Pasquale could be working. Maybe it would be worthwhile to randomly poke your head around there, even though that'd take a while, maybe it'd be better to try and narrow the search down further first.

-Worldliness. Have you heard of this guy before?
--The name does sound familiar. Part of the, eh, "culture shock" of living in the Academagia, in Mineta, and one of the easier things to go out and experience, is sampling the wide varieties of food that people from different cultures make. Whether said food is good is of course a matter of taste, but even just knowing about it can be a shock. Meril, in particular, has a way of preparing slugs that people not from that area would mistake for some kind of disease. And yet it's edible. If you're courageous enough.

Pasquale Giordano...your mind spins around in circles for a while until it finally finds the right memory. You have heard of the man before, actually. He's considered by some to be one of Mineta's most skilled cooks, because he's gone out of his way to master dishes from a wide variety of cultures and places. Everything from national meals to family recipes, he's gone out and collected as much of it as he could. As a result there's fewer people in this city that know more recipes than he does, and in turn, that know how to prepare food in as many ways as he does. Some measure a cook based on how quickly they can turn a table of ingredients into a meal, others praise cooks based on the tastes of their dishes, but Pasquale is someone who's praised for how many he can make. Of course the man carefully guards that knowledge. He's generally known as either a loner or a perfectionist, someone who prefers to cook on his own without any outside help either because he prefers it that way or because he cannot tolerate all the faults he sees in others, but others say it's a matter of paranoia. You've heard that the world of cooking and cooks is a ruthless, merciless warzone where even a Dragon wouldn't feel at home, but...no clue if it's actually all that bad.

You don't particularly care either which way right now, anyway. A man like him...you've got some idea of who he is, and where a person of his reputation might find work. He's a flighty one, doesn't like to work in any one location for too long since his goal is to learn recipes, not cook. That knowledge will be useful for tracking him down, to be sure...

--You ready your mind to spin it's gears, put your full focus and attention to the question, and with a mighty stretch of your mental arms conclude beyond a shadow of a doubt that...!

...You have no idea who this guy is.

As you can tell from the relative myriad of options here, finding this guy is basically filler. Has to be done, though.

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In Defence of the Animals, stage 9:

Spoiler

Having confirmed that this is the right place you and Girars take a seat in the restaurant and wearily order some food. It's not that you're not hungry, at least you are, it's the knowledge that you're so close to your goal...and yet so far. The kitchen is right there, but it's not like you could just march in there and demand to speak to Pasquale. Not to mention the fact that he might not be overly willing to share his secrets with two random Academagia students...

"I say we just go in there and talk to him," Girars quietly suggests, which causes you to state blankly at him. "I know it's not the most subtle method, but how else do you suggest that we get the chance to talk to him? We're just customers here right now. It's not like we're entitled to a chat with the cook just because we ordered a meal." You have to admit that Girars has a point. But it still sounds like a terrible idea, just walking into the kitchen out of the blue like that. "...Okay, maybe not when he's working," Girars notes. "But, I mean, we're investigating a situation where he got hurt in, right? It might not be something he's willing to talk about but we're on his side, aren't we?"

That's not an assumption you'd bet money on, frankly. Though it is something to keep in mind, you can't entirely deny the possibility either. It'd be better to forgo any excuses if you can just go up to him and talk to him, but if you can't and try anyway you'll show your hand and get nothing to show for it in return. And that could be bad.

So how to approach this problem...

-Beguile. Flattery gets you everywhere.
--While you wouldn't bet Pims that this cook is on "your side", as Girars put it, you can't imagine that he wouldn't want to know the truth behind why he was attacked, and be willing to aid those that are investigating it, even if two second year Academagia students don't exactly have the same authority to them as, say, a guard would. So you decide to try the direct method.

You signal the nearest staff member, and plainly state your desire to talk with mister Giordano. Your honesty earns you nothing more than a suspicious glare, so in response you point to the restaurant's menu and it's vegetarian section. You talk up Girars' mission to promote vegetarian options among Minetan eating establishments (a "lie" that he naturally does not dispute), dispense a fair bit of flattery about how this restaurant is "ahead of it's time" and a model example for others to follow...and so on and so forth. As you expected, it's something of a personal matter to the staff here, not just a marketing gimmick, so the flattery finds it's mark. From there you go on to talk about Pasquale Giordano and how it's impressive - and significant! - that a man of his fame has chosen to work in a place that has a vegetarian menu option, even if only temporarily, and how you and Girars would like to get the chance to discuss it with him personally. You quickly add that you know not to expect miracles, but you point at Girars and say that just getting the story off your friend's chest would do him a lot of good. The staff member looks over Girars' perpetually pale and malnourished self, nods to himself, and says he'll see what he can do. And he walks off into the kitchen.

"You know, I hadn't even thought about that. Promoting vegetarian menus, I mean. But now that you mention it, that's actually a really good idea," Girars says as he looks through the restaurant's vegetarian menu section again. You get the impression that you'll know what he'll be doing once this investigation is over.

A second later the staff member returns. "Mister Giordano is on break right now, he's willing to speak with you two."

Perfect.

You and Girars follow the staff member into the kitchen, where Pasquale is casually leaning against the back wall, drinking a cup of tea. He eyes the two of you curiously as you walk up. "So do you two actually want to trumpet the virtues of vegetarian menus, or is there something else going on?" he immediately asks, no small talk or even introductions made. You'd call that rude, but you're sure the man has his reasons. And point in his favor: He's not wrong, either.

Girars opens his mouth, pauses, takes a step back and tells you that you should handle the talking. Thankfully, because you're sure you'll do a better job of it than he would. "Both, actually," you answer, which causes Pasquale to quirk an eyebrow. "We're investigating what happened at the De Simone estate this summer. I'm sure you remember what I'm talking about." Pasquale slowly nods, staring at you a bit suspiciously. "Long story less long, we want to know why the raid happened, what the ones behind it were after. We suspect the 'surprise' meal that was supposed to be served, but we're not sure what it is. And you're one of very few people who know." Pasquale asks why you two don't talk to someone from the estate, and you point to your Academagia robes and explain how you're less than welcome in Frontino. Especially at that estate, specifically, given recent events. Pasquale nods at that.

"I can't go around spilling secrets from the nobility," he says sternly. But then he suddenly smirks, and adds, "I can show you two how to cook a real mean omelette, though. Assuming you ever find a big enough egg."

"What does that have-" Girars tries to ask before you give him a quick jab to the side. Thankfully he gets your message, at least.

"Sure thing. Though, Girars, be sure to write it down. Wouldn't want to forget any important steps."

Girars looks at you strangely for a second before things finally click in his head. He nods and takes out a piece of parchment, as well as a quill.

--You end up scratching your head and getting lost in thought, trying to imagine how this plan of yours could work out. So you call one of the staff members and...what? They're not going to let you see Pasquale just because you think they've got a pretty face or whatever, definitely not, so...what are you supposed to say? What story are you supposed to tell them? And even if you manage to come up with something, where do you go from there? How will you go from whatever you tell them to "oh by the way I'd like to chat with Pasquale", and from there, how do you get information out of him? You keep looking around the restaurant and at Girars, much to his confusion, but you just cannot find an angle here. You could try it anyway and hope you can think of something on the spot, but...well, you don't know if Pasquale is actually "on your side" or not. You might not get a second chance.

Curses! Maybe you're just overthinking it, hopefully you are, but you're just not feeling confident in trying to flatter someone into doing you a favor without some kind of angle. Something related to Pasquale, preferably, but what could that be?

Girars doesn't have any ideas either. None that end with "and that's how we'll get the surprise recipe from Pasquale", at any rate. It feels wasteful to come here and not do anything, but...you don't want to risk revealing your hand either. Maybe there's a different approach you could take here...?

-Sleight-of-Hand. Steal the man's recipe book.
--All this talk about theories and vagaries puts you on edge. You know what it's vague or theoretical? Stealing the damn recipe from right under the man's nose. Of course Girars would never go for that plan, but you do need his help to provide a distraction. While your mind mulls over how to arrange for that your eyes land on the perfect thing. Oh, this is going to work so well it's not even funny. It's hilarious.

"So, Girars, I've got an idea. You've noticed that this place has a vegetarian menu section, right?" Girars nods and, slightly confused, points out that he's indeed not gone blind. "Right. So, here's a plan: After we're done eating out meal walk up to one of the waiters and just...do your normal thing. I mean, we're in a restaurant that's got a vegetarian menu. You've got things to say about that, right? Good things, I mean?" Once again Girars nods, though he adds that he's not sure how that's supposed to get him the recipe. Which, ultimately, is what he's after. "You don't worry about that. Just tell them about your viewpoints and insist on seeing Pasquale to compliment him on his choice of employment, that sort of stuff. Chances are you'll be preaching to the choir and I know that you've got that routine more practised that either of us have ever practised anything, so...go for it. Don't doubt yourself, just go for it."

"And the recipe?" Girars asks, eyeing the vegetarian menu with the look of someone cooking up some ideas.

"I'll handle that. You just do your thing, I'll handle the rest."

Girars shrugs and says that he's fine with it, and so your plan is put into action. Meals arrive, meals are eaten, and after you stand up to (allegedly) pay for them Girars walks off to the nearest waiter and, rather without prompt, starts one of his usual half-hour rants. Albeit, less of a rant and more of a shower of praise this time. It naturally attracts a fair bit of attention, especially when Pasquale is dragged out of the kitchen and forced to play along with the proceedings, and the compliments you suspect he doesn't actually care about that much.

You, in the meantime, use the distraction to quickly slide into the kitchen, find Pasquale's recipe book, and swipe it. Of course you know that he's going to raise all hell if he finds out it's been stolen, and that could very well come back to haunt you. So rather than keep it you make a quick magical copy, place the actual book back where you found it, and take your magical copy out of the kitchen with you. No harm, no foul, as you'd call it. Well, there'd be harm if you tried to sell the man's recipes, but...you really don't care to try and fence recipes of all things. Especially recipes that could easily trace back to the person you "acquired" them from. That's just asking for trouble. No, instead you find the recipe you're looking for, just the one you're looking for, and make a physical copy of it. Then, you dispel your magical copy of Pasquale's recipe book, and watch as all of that potential for needless trouble and uncomfortable questions fade away. Like you said: No harm? No foul.

Eventually Girars gets done with his speech and catches up to you, looking over Pasquale's recipe in a nearby park with a giant question mark written all over your face. You can easily tell that this recipe calls for some kind of vague, large egg. Yes, vague. The rest of it...you're not sure how to even interpret this recipe, quite frankly. "So, did you get it? The recipe?" Girars asks. You nod. "Do I even want to know how you got it?"

"Probably not, no. That said, we got it, let's just take a very close look at it."

--You look around for an opening and check your knapsack in the meantime to see if you could feasibly conceal a book-shaped object in there, unfortunately drawing a bit of attention in the process since you may have forgotten to do so...sneakily. A rookie mistake, on your part. "Looking for something?" Girars asks, and you figure that at this point it's safest to back off and not try anything that people would frown at. Rather, that would justify the frowns people are giving you already.

"Nothing special, just thinking about homework," you lie. "In any case, about your idea...don't think it'll work right now."

Girars looks at you questioningly before deciding to look around. And as soon as the weight of a dozen stares falls upon him he nods. "R-right. We'll just have to, eh, try again at a different time. Maybe when it's not so busy."

Or maybe when it's busier, to try and add to the confusion if you create a distraction? You're not sure, but either way it seems like this attempt was a loss before it could even begin...

Like I said, many things to juggle.

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And because the adventure is now done, In Defence of the Animals, stage 10:

Spoiler

Recipe in hand you and Girars decide to head back to the Academagia to research exactly what kind of egg Pasquale's recipe calls for. The recipe itself doesn't list what kind of egg it is, only it's estimated content. "Estimated", key word. And everything else the recipe needs is measured in ratios based on that, not exact weights or volumes. While your mind keeps mulling over why a cook wouldn't have been given exact measurements Girars continues to dive into book after book, trying to find answers. Answers that, as it turns out, the Venalicium doesn't have. No animals that either of you can find listed in the Zoology section is said to lay eggs around the size that the recipe calls for. In fact, you don't find many, if any, animals that come close, depending on how accurate the recipe's estimation is. For what that's worth. It makes you wonder whether Pasquale was lying, or rather lied to, but you can't be sure of that. It is odd that the recipe's measurements are only estimates and ratios, but...what are you supposed to even make of that?

"I think I've got it," Girars suddenly says as he closes the fifth book since you lost count the second time. "Take a look here, the Alefsan Porphyrian Snake. Couldn't possibly lay an egg this large, right?" You blink, confused, and ask Girars how that's supposed to help you. "Well, notice that this book isn't a zoological overview of uncommon snake species, it's an adventurer's account of his trip through Alesfa. Didn't you notice that none of the books here, old books I might add, have sections specific to Alesfa, or common references to animals from there? And remember the Alesfan feed that the Sky Gallery brought to the Quarantine House?" You slowly nod, seeing the common point, but not exactly how they are supposed to connect. "I think we should ask Malthezar Mhadi about this. There's just not enough information about Alesfan wildlife in the Venalicium, not compared to everything else, but he'd definitely know about it. Or have the means to research it, I would assume." Oh that's right, Malthezar's Familiar is an Alefsan Porphyrian Snake. That's why. In any case you really don't have a better suggestion at this point, so...you shrug and say as much. Girars nods and stands up. He goes two steps before turning around and eyeing the rather large stack of books he almost left behind, as well as you tapping a finger against the table. "We should clean up here first, huh?" he asks a bit meekly. You nod.

A round of library clean up later and the two of you track down Malthezar, reading a book in the Morvidus Common Room. He looks wearily at the two of you when he notices you approaching him, Girars more so than you, but he doesn't object to the two of you sitting down in front of him. "Good afternoon, Malthezar," Girars begins, sounding more tired than anything.

"Good evening to you too, Girars," he answers. Well...that'd explain why. "I take it you two require something of me?"

Girars nods, though in the interest of time you take over for him and explain, succinctly, what the two of you need without any needless detail: Information about what kind of wildlife exists in Alesfa. "I don't suppose you know a lot about really large Alesfan birds, or fish, or...certain kinds of reptiles, by chance?"

Malthezar shrugs. "I'm not a zoologist, but if you've got any question about Alesfa I'd be more than happy to try and answer." You nod, show Malthezar Pasquale's recipe, and ask if he knows of any animal in or around Alesfa that lays eggs roughly that size. You further explain, while Malthezar stares curiously at the recipe, that the two of you already turned the Venalicium upside-down, but couldn't find any useful information. "And why do you believe that this...bird? Must be from Alesfa, than?"

"The general lack of information about Alesfa in the Venalicium, most of the books in there are older, and the fact that we know, for sure, that the cargo ship that...presumably brought this egg into Mineta stopped in Alesfa to pick up a load of animal feed for the Quarantine House. Could also have been smuggled in and bought off the black market, of course, but I've got no idea where to even begin tracking the supplier down in that case."

"I don't know why you're taking this 'estimated' recipe seriously in the first place," Malthezar plainly states. "If you want my opinion, I think it's more likely that whoever thought of this recipe wasn't sure how many people would be eating, and so he devised a recipe that could be adjusted on the fly. In which case it's more likely that this 'massive egg' of yours is actually a calculated number of regular eggs." You quietly mention to Malthezar that an estate in Frontino was raided, violently, by a mysterious group of people for reasons unknown last summer, and the best - only, really - theory you've got is that they were attempting to steal this "large egg". Malthezar frowns at that, and looks over the recipe again. "Well...I know this isn't what the two of you want to hear, but have you considered the possibility that this estate raid was a misunderstanding of some sort? Or a prank gone wrong, or some such? Because, I'm sorry, but I don't know of any animals that lay eggs this estimated size, either. Bigger ones, sure, you'd be looking for an ostrich in that case, but..." Malthezar shrugs. "I don't know what error ratio this recipe is working with. Or how large ostrich eggs are on average off the top of my head, either, though I'm pretty sure they're usually bigger than this..."

The saddest part is that you really don't have a better suggestion at this point. It'd be kind of disappointing if this is where the wild goose chase ends, not with conclusive evidence but rather with a lack of leads and nothing but vague information to draw shaky conclusions off of, but you suppose it'd be for the best too. Maybe it'll be enough for Girars to finally be able to sleep again. As much as he usually seems to, at any rate.

"I can actually believe that theory," Girars says, much to your surprise. "After all of this...I don't believe the De Simones would engage in animal cruelty. Smuggling stuff into the city through customs or buying it off the black market, being vague to people like Pasquale to try and hide what they're doing, maintaining false appearances by supporting the Quarantine House...all of that so they can serve themselves something more exotic than chicken eggs at a family gathering? When they've already got one of Mineta's famous cooks working for them, someone who could certainly accomplish something impressive with just the regular stuff bought from the farmer's market? I just don't see the point, honestly." Malthezar nods in agreement, and you don't have anything to say to the contrary either. Finally, thankfully, it seems that your long search is over. Not a very climactic ending to it, but...the ending part feels long overdue. "The recipe being as vague as it is is odd," Girars adds, "but honestly, Malthezar's theory is sound enough in my ears. And I can see how a group of overzealous, if well-meaning, animal rights activists would misinterpret the recipe and draw the wrong conclusions. Ultimately, I think I'm done investigating this. [PC FIRST NAME], I take it you feel the same way?"

-"I still want to get back at Professor Storey, but other than that..."
--"Wait, 'get back at Professor Storey'?" Malthezar asks. "What's that all about?" You explain how you initially suggested to Girars that he bring his concerns to his regent, but despite dragging him there yourself all the two of you got in return was some hysterical laughter and a threat to get expelled. For what that was worth. Malthezar looks confused at your story. "Ah...huh. I guess...I don't even want to know honestly. Do you really think it's a good idea to keep trying, though? Wouldn't it be better to let sleeping dogs lie?"

"Maybe, but no one laughs in my face and than threatens me without some kind of retribution."

"You're a student," Girars observes. "He's a regent. I'm not saying he should have behaved how he did, but that just sounds like a fight that's not worth picking."

"Agreed," Malthezar says. "Taking revenge is cathartic and all, but diplomacy is better in the long run. Why does he care so much, anyway? Do you know?"

You shake your head. "Oh, if only I did. Girars, I don't suppose you'd be interested in-"

"Let sleeping dogs lie, [PC FIRST NAME]. At least when they're acting slightly crazy and are one of your professors."

...Fine. It's past time to put this mystery to bed, anyway. But you won't forget the professor's actions. One day, you'll have your revenge.

One day!

-Yes. Yes, you do.
--It took long enough, but finally you've managed to drag Girars off the case, as Catherine asked you to. Sure, the recipe is a bit odd and all of that, but is it odd enough to call Catherine's arguments into question? Honestly, you don't think so. Catherine definitely know the De Simones better than you and Girars combined, and one odd recipe isn't enough to doubt that. Finally Girars sees that, too.

"Yeah. So, Girars, about that idea of yours to promote vegetarian menus, or at least options in Mineta's restaurants, have you given that any more thought? I assume that's what you'll be working on next."

"If I can find the time, definitely," Girars answers. A second later Malthezar pipes up and asks what you two are talking about, and the matter of the mysterious recipe is soon forgotten...

-Hmm...
--Catherine was pretty convinced that the De Simones would never commit animal abuse, and you have to admit that Girars' argument of "they've already got Pasquale working for them" does have something to it. But still, you're not convinced. Why such a vague recipe? Why such an extreme, violent response? Malthezar called it a "misunderstanding", but what kind of understanding even was there to begin with? How did these raiders learn about this recipe in the first place?

Too many unanswered questions for your tastes, but on the flipside you really don't care to try and convince Girars otherwise, now that he's finally decided to drop the subject as Catherine told you to do, so...hell, and then there's Catherine, for that matter. Was she lying to you? Does she know something you don't? You remember what you read about the De Simones and their alliance with the Chards, if the former does something bad you can't necessarily trust the latter, can you? Or can you trust Catherine to be above that? Or, at least, think it's beneath her.

You don't know. And with Girars finally deciding to drop this subject in favor of his new-found hobby of promoting vegetarian menus in Mineta you don't think there's enough merit to keep digging, either. You don't want Catherine on your back, for starters.

Seems like you've got no choice but to let this one go. Not that that's a bad thing, necessarily. You're plenty busy yourself, these days, so...who knows. You'll try to keep an ear to the ground, but aside from that it's time to close the curtains on this case and see where, if anywhere, things go from here...

Obviously the first option would only be there if you tried to drag Girars to Professor Storey all the back in stage 0. Also, yes, that's the end. "Seems like a set-up for a follow-up", you say?

Eh...maybe :rolleyes:.

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Not promising that I'll get this one finished on time since I'm nowhere near done with it, but...let's just say that I need some motivation to pull me away from OpenXCom. A Matter of Honor, stage 0:

Spoiler

One quiet day in the Venalicium you find Antonio de Long Name (as most students remember him) staring daggers at one of his textbooks. Not just staring daggers, even, he's glaring at it like he's trying to set the book on fire with his eyes. Which, considering this is the Academagia, wouldn't even be the third weirdest thing you've seen this month. Eventually it becomes so distracting that you sit down next to Antonio and ask what's bothering him. "Mercenaries get such a bad rep in these history books," Antonio quietly whispers to you, so as not to attract the ire of the librarians. "Just look at this nonsense - hundreds of mercenaries, people trying to make ends meet and put a meal on their family's table, tossed aside like nothing. So what that they weren't part of the royal army, they fought and died just as much as any of them. And yet historians make just one off-hand comment about them and move on to describe the glorious leader of the royal army in needless detail." For emphasis Antonio practically shoves his book into your face and points out the part he's talking about. You quickly skim the relevant section and have to admit that he's got a point, though you also point out that the author of this book was the general's own son. He probably wasn't trying to write a history textbook so much as his father's biography, and that it didn't end up being used as such isn't his fault. Probably.

"I'll believe that as soon as you can show me a high and mighty noble family who doesn't blow their own trumpet whenever possible," Antonio counters. "Hell, have you heard about the Laevateinn band? How they're being treated? Rikildis should be jailed for the amount of slander she's throwing at them." Wait, what? Rikildis, jailed? Like, sure, she's a gossip and a half, but thrown into prison for publishing her newspaper? You ask Antonio if that isn't going a bit too far. "I wish it was, but no. Laevateinn is literally about to disband and disperse due to bankruptcy, leaving a number of soldiers without any place to go, and all Rikildis can do is pile on their failures and drag the closest thing they had left to a leader through the mud. That kid's only fifteen, you know."

...A fifteen years old leader of a mercenary band. Huh. You ask Antonio to elaborate.

"Oh, he isn't their leader in that sense - 'closest thing to', remember? I meant that he's the son of the prior leader, and his lover. Both of them mercenaries who died in their band's last battle, before getting the chance to see their son reach adulthood and fight by their side. The boy's talented enough that he could have taken over leadership of his parents' band at a very young age, relatively speaking, but...not that young. I'm not saying he'd have taken over entirely on his own, either, just...now none of that matters anymore because the band is breaking up before he could get a word in on that subject. Or even just find a place to stay. And all Rikildis can do is try to think of ways to undermine his skill and slander his accomplishments. I swear that girl needs to send off into a proper battle herself, maybe that'll teach her some manners." Yeah...no. Rikildis could do with some etiquette lessons, no doubt about that, but being send into a warzone is a fate you wouldn't wish on anyone. You'd think that Antonio would feel the same, too, especially given how he just spun a story about this really tragic former mercenary orphan and all, but apparently he's missed the memo. That's the one good thing you can say about Rikildis - she doesn't miss stuff like that.

Of course she does readily ignore it if it doesn't benefit her, but...

"That kid is actually in Mineta right now," Antonio adds, which causes you to raise an eyebrow. "Mercenaries without a band tend to head for a neutral ground to find new opportunities for recruitment, since if you try to get recruited in a hot area you tend to get mistaken for a spy and imprisoned. Given the kid's talents I've no doubt he'll find someone to impress, even here. I just hope he'll actually manage to find a good home, and without getting his name covered in dirt in the process." While your mind mulls over the oddity of a mercenary looking to be recruited in Mineta, a city that (last you checked) actively discourages mercenaries from recruiting, Antonio lets out a sigh and stares at you with a wistful expression. "If it's not too much to ask, [PC FIRST NAME], could you possibly find this kid and take note of his actual achievements? Talk to him, follow him around, basically witness and write down the person he actually is before Rikildis manages to bury his name under layers of grime and muck in yet another piece of 'history'? I can't really approach him myself, as the son of two mercenaries people looking to recruit him are going to misinterpret that and try to sabotage me 'trying to steal him' every step of the way. You should be able to approach him, though. Even if you've got nothing in common, just talk to him and find out what he's really like. I don't believe a word of what Rikildis is saying about him, and I don't want to just stand by and watch her heap slander on someone who doesn't deserve it. I'll keep Rikildis out of your hair in the meantime, so don't worry about her."

Hmm...

-Help Antonio.
--You're no stranger to Rikildis and her school newspaper, as well as how she tends to treat people. It's rare that she latches on to someone outside the Academagia, but it does happen from time to time. Whenever someone interesting enough comes around. And it sounds like this mercenary kid is interesting. At least to a lot of people who are probably very interested in knowing exactly how good this kid is or isn't.

Yeah, you don't want to just stand by and watch this happen either. You nod and promise Antonio that you'll see about tracking this kid down and figuring out who and what all he really is.

-You're a bit busy right now...
--Antonio frowns, but is thankfully too swamped with his own history project to object to your excuse.

It makes you wonder whether there's something of real merit to this story. Obviously Antonio's approval is only worth so much, but some kind of talented freelancer that so many people are desperate to recruit? There might be something of value to be found in there. The real question is whether it'd be worth the trouble, though.

[PC IN COLLEGE DURAND]-"You'd ask a Durand student for help?"
--Antonio frowns. "This isn't a matter of either of our Colleges, [PC FIRST NAME], this is a matter of a honor. Of making sure that someone who's home broke apart because his parents will never come back again isn't left to rot in rumors and gossip about how he's secretly faking his talents and doesn't deserve what few good things life has given him. Even King Aranaz wouldn't stand for that kind of slander, at the very least there'd be a method to his madness. But Rikildis is just out to get to the kid, knock him down a peg to make herself feel better because she doesn't care about his feelings. And that just isn't right. Surely even a Durand student, especially a Durand student, can see where I'm coming from."

You sort of hate to admit it, but yes, Antonio does have to trapped between a rock and a hard place in that regard. Rikildis has done little to nothing to ease the tensions between College Aranaz and College Durand, and frankly the only reason you can't say for sure whether she has it in for your college, specifically, is because she demonstrably has it in for everyone. Durand, Aranaz, student or faculty, it doesn't matter to Rikildis: If there's slander to be had, slander shall be had.

Can you really, in good conscience, ignore Antonio's concerns and leave this mercenary kid out to dry? He might not be a stranger in a strange land or whatever other tragic circumstances you can imagine him being in, but even if he isn't...does he deserve the attention of Rikildis? No, no one deserves that. So, honestly, you don't think you can just ignore this. If Antonio can say, with a straight face, that what Rikildis is planning is something that King Aranaz would shake his head at than you can't just ignore this. Not completely. You're going to need to look into this at least enough to form your own opinion on it. If Antonio is wrong and Rikildis has the kid's actual story lined up you'll just decide where you go from there, cross that bridge if and when you get to it.

Pardon the overused mythology reference, but the last time I came up with an original name I ended up with that athletes guild, so...it has it's perks ;).

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3 hours ago, Metis said:

Fixed. And surprised if that's really the only mistake you noticed ;).

I notice many mistakes in your writings, but have not enough time to note them down.

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Yeah, proofreading is one of those tasks that seems more futile every time you do it. Because something always slips though. Anyway, A Matter of Honor, stage 1:

Spoiler

The first step to learning more about this mercenary wunderkind, or whatever the Vilocians would call him, would be to...find out more about him. Antonio has heard about his band disbanding and how the talented child of it's former leaders is now a free wanderer, along with some other really vague rumors that no one could get any useful information from. He didn't catch somewhat important details such as, oh, say, the kid's name. Which, if you're going to help Antonio make sure this kid's actual story is told, rather than whatever version Rikildis comes up with...well, it'd just be really helpful to know his name. Needless to say.

As such you find yourself heading to the Mercenary Guild House in Mineta, where retired mercenaries gather to get together, share old stories, play a few games, and yes, keep an eye out for freeroaming talents they can recruit or "recruit". Officially the city discourages the hiring of new mercenaries, hence why this chapter of the mercenary guild is only open to retired members, but if someone who displays a sufficient amount of talent - like, say, an Academagia student - shows an interest in joining a band, well, arrangements can be made. And sometimes arrangements are made regardless, but only rarely. That tends to tick off the Academagia's professors, and that rarely ends well.

Once you finally arrive you find the Mercenary Guild House caught in an absolute flurry of activity that you don't think you've ever seen before, at least not in Mineta. It seems benign enough, mostly just lots of people talking or running around getting drinks rather than fights or weapons being drawn, but still. How are you going to get anyone's attention among all this hubbub? Whatever it's about...

-Velocian. Talk to the mercenaries in their own language.
--The mercenaries initially seem weary of talking to you. Oddly enough, usually they're more than happy to talk to "future talent" whether you speak the language or not. Still, once you start talking to them in Vilocian you're quickly welcomed to join their discussion and readily told about what's going on. Long story short, most of the mercenaries here are representatives from various bands looking to recruit the orphan mercenary that Antonio told you about - Matthias Neumann. As you suspected. The issue, and what's caused all of these different bands to...well, band together, despite basically being each other's competition right now, is the fact that they're not the only one looking to recruit Matthias. Catherine Chard's family is also looking to invite Matthias to join their court, as a page, and apparently they're pushing to get an answer from him sooner rather than later.

In fact, one of the mercenaries you're talking to points further into the building. Far in the back, next to a bodyguard who's keeping one hand on his untied sword, is another Academagia student. Catherine Chard. The mercenary explains that she's come here personally because, according to her, the letter of invitation that they send to Matthias is being kept from him. Or so they accuse, since they refuse to believe that Matthias would do anything but accept their invitation, if he actually gets it. The mercenary freely admits that he doesn't know for sure whether or not Matthias would, and that it's an offer that certainly has it's perks to it, but he's equally convinced that the Chards are just being their usual arrogant and pompous selves blindly assuming he undoubtedly would. Considering that you trying to learn more about who Matthias really is is kind of the entire point of you being here in the first place you can't help but agree with the mercenary on this point.

Beyond that there's not much more that the mercenaries can tell you. They've got no idea where Matthias is, they assume he's hiding somewhere but for all they know he could have slipped aboard a ship and skipped town by now. "In fact I imagine that's what Matthias will do sooner or later," the mercenary adds. "It can't be comfortable, being basically hunted down by half the town, but any of us here'll be damned if we let some high-and-mighty noble just walk in here and tell us what one of ours is going to do. If Matthias genuinely wants to join their court, that's his decision. We know we can't force him to come with us, even if we tried he'd just find a way to escape and wouldn't help us besides. But we don't want him to be bullied or tricked by people he can't say no to into doing whatever they wish and pretending it was totally all his idea, either."

That...sure is a situation all of these people have found themselves in. Poor Matthias, really. Still, that's the extend of what the mercenaries here can tell you, so you politely wish them good luck and continue on your way.

--You get the attention of one of the many mercenaries here and try to converse with them in their own language. But your attempt is met with odd stares, and a second later, hearty laughter. Not a promising start, all things told. "Alright," you ask in plain Renaglian, hoping that one of these people speaks it. "Tell me straight, how badly did I do?"

After recovering from laughing one of the mercenaries answers, "Roughly speaking, you just asked how I found my war with the taste of my drink." Hearing it again causes the man's friends to start laughing again. Of course. Though, to be fair, that is kind of a major blunder.

"Alright, so I don't know Velocian as well as I thought, blame a student for trying. I don't suppose you would be willing to help me practice?"

Good news, the mercenaries happily nod and help you practice your Velocian a bit more, ultimately you do think you've learned something from them. Bad news, you don't know if you'll ever recover from the embarrassment. You feel like you'll still remember this day years from now, and hesitate if you ever had to do this again. And of course you didn't manage to get any question in that you wanted to. Still, not a total wash of a few hours you suppose.

-Awareness. Is there anyone else around who you could talk to?
--That there's many mercenaries packed in this building is clear enough to see. Less clear, but still visible if you pay attention to the right details, is that this place seems packed with different mercenaries. Many small groups of just two or three people from, you imagine, different bands. But instead of being huddled together and talking amongst each other everyone seems to be talking freely. There's something going on that has drawn representatives from many mercenary bands over to this place, but they're all discussing the situation together as one big, happy, probably slightly intoxicated family. You...don't know whether to call that a good thing or a bad thing. Less conflict is obviously better, but what would cause all of these people to bunch up together? The enemy of their enemy, perhaps? Who'd get the attention of every mercenary band in- and probably outside of town, though? Rikildis' school newspaper definitely doesn't reach that far.

Wait, hold on. Far in the back, the one guy with the shinier armor than those around him. His sword doesn't have a peace knot tied to it, and he's got a hand on the handle of his blade. No one seems to pay him any mind though. All the other mercenaries have peace knots tied or have left their weapons at home. What makes this guy so special? After moving around a little you get a better angle of the guy's uniform and notice a heraldic crest sewn into his sleeve. And you'd recognize that crest anywhere, that's the sigil of the Chards! And, yeah, sure enough, it was difficult to tell when you only had her back to work with, not to mention where you are and all, but yes: That is Catherine Chard in the back there, talking to one of the patrons here. The guy next to her must be her bodyguard, and you imagine he's also acting as a translator.

What would bring Catherine Chard to the Mercenary Guild House, though? Of all places...you're here for information about Antonio's story, of course, but...come on. Should you walk up and talk to her?

--You look around, but all you see are mercenaries, other mercenaries and more mercenaries. It's strange that they've all gathered like this, though. Did something happen? You didn't think that Antonio's concerns were...well, major, in the grand scheme of things, but this amount of noise seems to indicate something "major" in your eyes. And ears. It won't help you get anyone's attention, but you feel a bit more confident about the situation at least.

--Heraldry. Talk to Catherine Chard, maybe ask her what in Octavius' name she's doing here.
---You walk up to Catherine, only to get stopped by the free hand (not the blade, thankfully) of her bodyguard. Catherine doesn't even seem to notice, she's engrossed in conversation with an older mercenary who looks somewhere between irritated and bored out of his mind. For your part you apologize to Catherine's bodyguard for approaching his protectorate unannounced and ask, as politely as you can, whether Catherine Chard can spare a moment of her time for you. The guy shrugs, tabs Catherine on her shoulder, and lazily points at you. She looks you over curiously, but not as much as you were curiously looking her over a moment ago. "[PC FIRST NAME]? Sorry, but can whatever situation you've got for me wait? I'm a bit busy right now-actually, why did you come here exactly? If you've got a message for me you should have just passed it along to my bodyguard." You answer that you're here because Antonio asked you to track down and witness the actual greatness, or lack thereof, of a talented mercenary kid that recently arrived in Mineta to find a new band to join, since his old one is disbanding. Catherine nods at that, recognition clearly visible in her eyes. "Him, huh? Did Antonio not give you the boy's name?" You shake your head, and Catherine lets out a sigh. "Honestly, [PC FIRST NAME], you need to find better people to do favors for. Not only did Antonio not give you even half of the story, but I'd bet Pims that he didn't send you to find Matthias merely out of some feeling of 'respect'. Whatever that's worth to the son of two mercenaries, anyway."

The older mercenary that Catherine was talking to glares at Catherine for that comment, though her bodyguards glares at him better than he does. You're not really wanting to offend anyone, you don't know if Catherine's bodyguard would bother to protect you if push came to shove, but Catherine isn't wrong with what she's asserting, technically, so you slowly nod. Catherine lets out another sigh.

"I figured. Well, [PC FIRST NAME], if you're interested in doing a favor for someone a bit higher up the importance ladder than I've got a job for you - the person you've been asked to track down, Matthias Neumann, has been invited to attend my parent's court. They plan to take him in as a page, give him the opportunity to study the art of the nobility under one of our family's retainers." Oh, wow. That's...actually quite an honor for a no-name mercenary teen. Even the old mercenary raises his eyebrows at that. Apparently Catherine hasn't gotten to that point yet...and you're honestly willing to bet that this guy lied about being able to speak, or at least understand Renaglian. "The invitation we send him doesn't seem to have arrived, however," Catherine continues. "We suspect espionage, or sabotage, or whatever you'd call a deliberate attempt to conceal the fact that Matthias was requested to attend my family's court from him. If you manage to track him down and find him, [PC FIRST NAME], do inform him and make sure to bring him to my family's estate. I doubt that anyone would knowingly refuse such an invitation, so it's obvious enough that someone is trying to hide it from him. Needless to say that my parents are less than happy about that." You nod and tell Catherine that you'll certainly relay her message, if you manage to track down Matthias. She nods, though before she turns her attention back to the old mercenary you ask her one more question that's been burning in the back of your mind - why is Catherine here, personally? In response she shakes her head, almost sadly. "I'd rather not, believe me, and so far it seems that the feeling is mutual. But my family needs confirmation of Matthias' decision before the end of Pramidi. Any later and we'll be forced to hire someone else in his stead."

Huh. Invited to become a page in the court of the Chards, and on such a tight deadline, huh? Goodness, is that why all of the mercenaries here are bouncing off the walls? Do they object to-well apparently someone does, unless whoever tried to deliver that message managed to misplace it, and it's extremely doubtful that that's what happened. You'll need to keep quiet about what Catherine asked for you, at least for now, but you're sure that it'll come up again.

---You try to walk up to Catherine, but her bodyguard spots you approaching and casts a meaningful glance at the sword he's keeping a hand on. Eh...honestly you expected that you'd be able to at least attempt to get a word in, given your Academagia robes and all, but somehow you just don't feel like testing that theory right now. Somehow. Strangest feeling, truly, and yet...here you are.

You decide to turn around and leave before things turn ugly. Because if that bodyguard draws his weapon, with real intend to use it or not, in this building right now, you know - it's going to turn ugly...

Yes, that implied time limit is intended to be an actual thing, as was the case in In Defence of the Animals. No, the stage options don't reflect it here either. I'm honestly not sure what all Y2 is capable of, mechanically, so I have an excuse to be lazy am waiting for clarification on how to best do that before putting in more effort. I'd rather not have an "oops, time's up!" variation of every single stage and time-based exits leading to said stages if I can help it.

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A Matter of Honor, stage 2:

Spoiler

You exit the Mercenary Guild House with mixed feelings. You got a name, Matthias Neumann, and that's certainly appreciated. But instead of further (any, really) directions to where he's staying you've instead got a whole host of complications. Catherine Chard's family wanting to recruit Matthias for themselves, huh? There's no chance in hell that any mercenary in Mineta, local, retired or otherwise, will be able to top that offer. Not even remotely, not in a hundred years. That's entirely on Matthias, whether he wants to accept such a position. And everyone else interested in getting him on board with their band must know it. They definitely do, if this matter of the missing letter is any indication. Huh...the Chards looking to recruit some talent, a talented mercenary looking for a home, and a whole host of mercenary bands looking to recruit the talent themselves before word of his options reach him. That's...certainly a mess. So where are you going to go from here? How are you going to track down Matthias and figure out who the boy behind the name really is, without giving people the wrong impression? You're obviously not a member of Catherine's family, but random mercenaries don't know that, and based on the fact that you're wearing an Academagia uniform you imagine that people's first interpretation of you talking to Matthias isn't going to be "having polite conversation". Hell, they might think that you were send by a professor to nab him for the Academagia. It wouldn't be the strangest thing that's happened this year, not by a long shot.

As much as a pain as this sounds like, you want to track down Matthias and at least attempt to do what Antonio asked you to. You are curious about how Matthias is reacting to this whole situation, how he feels about it...at least as far as he knows about it...really, you're curious to know who Matthias really is. So how will you go about tracking him down? No one in the Mercenary Guild House could or would give you any directions, if they knew where he was they wouldn't be sitting around drinking the days away, and even if they secretly know you doubt they'd ever tell anyone wearing an Academagia uniform. Catherine Chard's presence kind of poisoned the water, in that respect. So...

-Astrology. Tried and true Academagia tracking methods.
--It won't be easy to track someone you don't really know beyond their name, but given that Matthias is almost certainly not hiding anywhere within the city itself you should be able to pull it off anyway. Not too many places he could realistically be, anyway.

You head back to the Academagia, just to make sure you've got a quiet place to cast your spells. Those spells point you towards an overgrown part of a forest, where a figure who reminds you of King Durand watches birds fly overhead.

...The Durand Prayer Grove? It's pretty overgrown, since it's only caretaker is sadly getting on in years, and it's been a while since the place has seen a lot or even a few frequent visitors. Well, human visitors. Birds frequently use it as a place to rest their wings. You don't have a better idea, so you decide to head there to check it out.

--Tracking someone you don't know is difficult, but you've got a name and not a whole lot of areas to search, ultimately, so you think you can manage. First off you head back to the Academagia, though. Just to make sure you've got a quiet place to practice your spells.

Said spell shows you a vague, blurry picture of abundant greenery, while an old, shadowy figure gazes at the skies above. Nothing else is clear enough for you to make out.

...You're not really sure what to make of that, honestly. Abundant greenery sounds like the Imperial Reserve, maybe the Palace Gardens. But the old figure...gazing at the skies above, perhaps something Astrology related? Matthias is lost and looking for something, presumably, so that sounds reasonable, but where should you look? The Forest of Stars? No, those trees are known for their white color, that doesn't match with the abundant greenery. Unless the greenery is meant to symbolize the grass, the ground in general, like Matthias is down on it it something? Argh, too many questions! Just forget about the deep philosophical meanings of colors and what have you, just go there and check it out. Worst case you don't end up finding Matthias and know you're going to have to go back and try again, or you do find him and can contemplate those questions then. That sounds like a plan.

Unfortunately you don't end up finding Matthias anywhere in the Forest of Stars, despite looking around thoroughly. Is he better at hiding in a forest than you give him credit for, or is your spellcasting less good than you thought? You're not sure, you don't know what Matthias is capable of. In either case, time to call this expedition a bust and figure out what approach to take next time.

-Patrol. Search the wilderness, you doubt Matthias is in the city proper.
--It makes sense that Matthias wouldn't be staying in the City of Mineta itself and you're pretty confident you could find him, but where could he be hiding? The mountains? Downriver? Up the river? The Imperial Reserve? Where? Hmm...

Call it a hunch, but if you were trying to hide from the armies of mercenaries trying to recruit you, you'd prefer to hide somewhere where those mercenaries (and you, to be fair, not that you'd care about it) aren't allowed to go. Which close to Mineta would be the Imperial Reserve, and not much else. So Matthias is probably hiding there? Where within the Reserve, assuming he's in there, though? The Imperial Reserve is a pretty big place, and some of it is more travelled and welcome than other parts of it.

...Ah, forget about it, you're not in the mood for playing twenty questions with a hypothetical version of yourself or what have you. You know the Reserve well enough and you're familiar with how to notice it when people have gone through areas that would normally not be visited as frequently. You'll just poke your head around and see where, if anywhere, you find something of note. And if you don't find anything noteworthy, well, you'll consider plan B then.

--You head off in basically a random direction, since who knows where Matthias could be hiding and there's wilderness he could be hiding in all around Mineta, and send a long time searching to no avail. Though, in hindsight, you're not really sure what you were expecting in the first place. You're going to need some kind of hint, something beyond just "the wilderness" if you're going to find someone specific. At least within a reasonable amount of time. You could spend days if not weeks patrolling the area around Mineta, just trying to find this guy...

-Gossip. Ask around, see if anyone knows where someone's been hiding lately.
--Though you doubt anyone has seen Matthias, reports of people seeing "someone" around his age (fifteen, if you remember what Antonio said correctly?) should be easy enough to find, and from there you can poke your head around. And if that fails you can just poke your head around the usual places. You don't think it's likely for Matthias to be in one of them, assuming he's never been in Mineta before and doesn't know the usual places to hide, but if no one has been spotted in any odd locations, well, where else could he be?

You first put some distance between yourself and the Mercenary Guild House, just in case, and while keeping an ear open start to first question city guards about whether they're heard any strange reports of a mysterious person. Naturally it earns you more than a few odd stares, but you've picked up a few ways to deal with that. You didn't spend the entirety of last year at the Academagia being a decorative statue, after all. In any case the guards haven't heard anything useful, so you start to ask around for anything that could be of use to you. Some convincing, waving of wands and quite a few people later, you eventually end up hitting paydirt - no reports of a mysterious fifteen year old loitering about somewhere, but apparently the Durand Prayer Grove has picked up a new gardener recently. Someone young and apparently quite mysterious, if only because you wouldn't expect someone young to care about picking up such a job. Surprisingly little is known about this kid, however. People don't know his name, hair color, exact age, anything. And of course no one really cares to investigate because, you know, it's the Durand Prayer Grove. As nice as it is that place hasn't been relevant in centuries.

Sounds like you've got a lead. You decide to head out to this prayer grove and check out this "new gardener" for yourself. Somehow, you get the impression it'll be worth it.

--You figure that anyone who doesn't know Mineta all that well would probably end up hiding somewhere in a location where they're spotted and noticed, but neither the guards nor the people walking around Mineta seem to have heard anything about anyone around Matthias' age trying to hide and stay out of sight somewhere. There's plenty of concerns (complaints, really) about the situation, though. Most Minetans really don't like the idea that their city ends up being the place where this drama plays out, and pretty much all of them would prefer if the mercenaries took their business elsewhere. Some even suggest the city guard should put their foot down and enforce the city laws for once, but somehow you doubt it's that simple.

You know it isn't, actually. Throwing Matthias out of town is just going to result in the army of mercenaries knowing where he is and going out there to try and grab him, and that situation would probably displease the Chards considering their own stakes in the situation. You need to figure out a way to track him down, and fast. If this complaining from Mineta's public continues it's just going to make the situation worse. Better step in before that happens, if you can.

This stage is a bit awkward if the PC doesn't know about the Durand Prayer Grove, once again it's an actual ingame location:

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A visit to Durand's Prayer Grove will Increase all your Religion Subskills by 2 points for the duration of your stay.

The small grove at the back of campus is fairly neglected now--the old woman who tends it for the school doesn't get around as well as she used to, and she has no kids of her own to help her, so the weeds and the bramble are starting to win some space.   Even when it was at its most thoroughly managed, though, it wasn't a very big deal to the wider world - it hasn't been for centuries.  

That said, it was once a place where Durand the Valiant took vigil and prayed that the gods would protect his enemies and rivals, even the worst of them, from the dragons' wrath.  It was also the place where the old gods stepped forth into the light and said, "No."  

So the stories go, anyway.  Now it's a place where doves stop and rest their wings.

But I figured, it's Y2, the PC could have heard tell of some of these locations by now even if s/he doesn't know exactly where it is and all of that.

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A Matter of Honor, stage 3:

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As you step into Durand's Prayer Grove you notice someone roughly your age standing before the altar, or whatever it's called, looking around annoyedly at the brambles and other plants that are seemingly in the process of taking this place over. Alas, the old woman who tends to this place isn't getting any younger, and by the looks of this place no one has stepped up to take over for her, still. It's a shame, but to be expected considering this place hasn't really been prominent for the past few hundred or so years. In any case, the good news is that you've found someone. The bad news is that whoever you found isn't Matthias, since the person standing in front of you is a girl.

You decide to call out to the girl, and cringe as soon as she turns around to look at you. In hindsight you should really have expected as much, but you didn't expect to run into Grainne Inneith here, of all places. "Well. Good day to you too, [PC FIRST NAME]," Grainne politely starts, though whether that politeness is feigned remains to be seen. "So, here to offer some prayers to King Durand? Perhaps doing some research for a history paper-or, oh, don't tell me, have you decided to take it upon yourself to clean this place up a little?"

Frankly you're not sure why Grainne is even bothering with the pretence. It's not like she has any other reason to be here. "Same reason you're here, Grainne. Unless you can play that game any better than I can." Grainne puts on a disappointed face, but you can tell that she's mostly trying to hide the fact that she realized that she indeed can't play that game any better than you can right now. Of course she doesn't hide it well, but she tries. "Not buying it, sorry. Anyway, you know why I'm here and I know why you're here, and I doubt there's room for two of us, if there's even room for one of us, so how do you want to do this? Info for info, a duel, rock-paper-scissors, what?"

Grainne chuckles at the offer of playing rock-paper-scissors, but of course she doesn't take it. Whether or not you're thankful that she doesn't you're not entirely sure. "Just to make sure, you're here for the mercenary kid?" You nod, seeing no point in trying to hide that fact. In theory you might be able to lie to her, but that'd just put you in an awkward position when the time comes to actually look for Matthias, so no need to bother really. Grainne, for her part, lets out a sigh. "Of course you are. I don't suppose you're also responsible for Rikildis getting into some College trouble? Or Sigalis getting caught up in a 'personal project', as she calls it?"

That part about Rikildis definitely sounds like Antonio's doing. No clue what Sigalis is up to, though. Honestly you forget that she's a member of Rikildis' little school newspaper crew at least half the time - she's so much quieter about it than Rikildis and Grainne. Much more subtle, too. "What makes you think I am? Hell, what makes this mercenary kid such a big deal in the first place? He's not an Academagia student last I heard, so why write about him in your school newspaper?"

With an untrustworthy grin Grainne answers, "Read my article once it's out, maybe you'll learn. Anyway, back to your whole 'no room for the two of us deal' idea, is that your final answer? I wouldn't object to working together, necessarily, but if you really want to keep this story to yourself, than..." Grainne taps her wand. Apparently if you don't want to have her along you'll have to...persuade her the hard way.

Hmm...even putting that aside, though, the question of whether to join forces with Grainne might actually be a more serious one than you initially gave it credit for. On the one side you don't feel like you can really trust Grainne to behave herself, be it in front of Matthias (where- and whoever he really is) or behind his back. But on the flipside if Grainne does behave herself, be it through the easy or the hard way, and you both learn who Matthias really is, you could have Grainne use the school newspaper to spread that truth around. Assuming he cares, of course. Somehow you doubt that Grainne (or Rikildis) would agree to that, they'd want something scandalous to report on if they're going to report on anything at all, but perhaps you could convince Grainne to push for the article anyway? Or perhaps Antonio is completely clueless and Matthias actually is some kind of crazy monster or whatever? If that's the case than having Grainne with you would be a very good idea, thank you very much, and Antonio said that he wanted people to know the truth, not the opposite of whatever Rikildis had in mind. So if Rikildis' idea turns out to be the truth, and let's be honest here, that has been the case rather more often than not...

Huh. Tempting, but...is it a good idea to bring Grainne along? It is worth the effort of getting her to back off, or rather, give you some space? Hmm...choices, choices...

-Duel. You'd rather work alone. So...
--Can you, at the end of the day, really trust Grainne not to run her mouth (and quill) every which way regardless of what she learns about Matthias? It sounds like such a nice idea, having Grainne and Rikildis publish Matthias' actual story and sorting out all those rumors, but are they really going to do that? Is Matthias really going to care, at the end of the day, whether or not this random school newspaper spreads the story about how...eh, something stupid or another? Honestly, you don't think so. In which case...you let out a sigh and slowly draw your wand.

Grainne, observing your hesitation, grins with a measure of confidence that you don't think she should have. Though you suppose you'll find out, one way or another. "First to land a hit wins, five paces before we turn around and start slinging spells, no distance or movement restrictions?" Grainne asks as she dramatically draws her own wand. "Sorry, I don't really know the formal terms for duelling. But I know how to fling some mean spells! Got Milena to teach me a few."

...Are you really about to duel someone who doesn't even know the term First Blood? Oh dear, this might end poorly. For everyone, not just for Grainne, this is one of those situations where you're going to have to be very weary of the duelling circle. And as for Grainne's boast, that's inevitably going to be some kind of two Pheme spell that she'll try to cast to win the duel immediately. It's the quintessential "trick" used by novices to try and secure a quick win, and used by professionals to actually secure a quick win every now and than. You don't expect Grainne to have you beat in terms of Demi-tour, though, and two can play that game. "Fine," you say in answer to Grainne's offer, not even bothering to lecture her about the proper terminology. Yet. "Are you sure you can help set up a good duelling circle, though? I'd rather we not set the forest on fire, if it comes down to that."

Grainne rolls her eyes, but you don't trust that her confidence is rightly placed. "I know, I know. Please, don't mistake me for Kurt. Come on, let's draw the circle and set this show on the road." You nod and help Grainne set up the circle, and your worst fears are realized when you quickly notice that she barely has any idea as to what she's doing. You honestly could easily pull a fast one on her by tricking her into a duel with a ton of restrictions that she wouldn't be able to break free from since she'd never break the circle, but you could. Some call that underhanded and dishonorable, but by the official rules of duelling, breaking the duelling circle is a valid move. You don't even want to try it in this case, though. Who knows what damage Grainne might do.

After the circle is drawn you and Grainne walk up to the centre, turn your backs, walk five paces, and before Grainne can finish her second of three Phemes to complete her quick spell you've already finished your own two Pheme spell and send it flying at Grainne. She was not expecting you to get initiative and choose to attack her first, so she completely fails to defend herself or try to dodge. Your spell flies right into her face and knocks her on the ground. And, as confirmed by the fading of the circle, end the duel.

"W-where did you learn a spell like that!?" Grainne shouts as she picks herself up. "Are you telling me Milena tricked me? She said that was the easiest spell she knew, how did you draw one even quicker?"

"Easiest, sure, but not fastest," you point out as you walk up to Grainne and show her the spell you used, and the "trick" to how you're able to cast it so quickly. "Drawing both the Phemes already links them together, see? So you don't have to spend time on that, just draw the Phemes and send the spell flying. It's also easier to draw from reflex or memory, since you're drawing the same Pheme twice, rather than three different, albeit simple Phemes."

Grainne, though listening intently, still seems put off that she lost the duel. She tries to hide that latter part, but of course it's pretty obviously written all over her face. "Well...alright, fine, I guess I have to-wait, who's that? W-watching us from the trees, behind you?"

You roll your eyes. "Oh for-come on Grainne, I'm not going to fall for that."

"Gibt es einen Punkt in Ihrem Gespräch, an dem Sie mich nach meiner Meinung fragen werden?" a distinctly non-Grainne voice call out from somewhere behind you. You still don't turn around and look, though. After an awkward pause you quietly ask Grainne whether she happen to have studied Velocian mimicry. Naturally she shakes her head. You than ask her if Sigalis' "personal project" involves any Vilocian mimicry. Grainne shrugs and admits that she really can't be sure, but it doesn't sound like something Sigalis would sink her teeth into. At the very least she'd think Sigalis has better things to do than shadow her around just in case someone showed up to duel her for the rights to this scoop and all of that. And, you have to admit, you do have a hard time imagining Sigalis going along with that plan. She's rather...specific, about what plots she'll bother to involve herself with.

So, reluctantly, as Grainne starts to cast a translation spell, you let out a sigh and slowly turn around. And, indeed, there is actually someone standing-well, jumping out of one of the tree branches in the distance, slowly walking towards you.

--At the end of the day you don't trust Grainne to not run her mouth (or quill, as the case may be) every which way no matter what she learns about Matthias, so unfortunately you're going to have to...persuade her to back off. So, you dramatically draw your wand.

"First to land a hit wins, five paces before we turn around and start slinging spells, no distance or movement restrictions?" Grainne asks as she draws her own wand. "Sorry, I don't really know the formal terms for duelling. But I know how to fling some mean spells! Got Milena to teach me a few."

You shrug, not too familiar with the duelling terms yourself, and none too threatened by Grainne's boast. "Sounds fine to me, just be careful not to, you know, destroy this place or set it on fire. And yes, I know the same goes for me as well. I don't intend to burn the place down to the ground."

"Good. Though we better draw a circle anyway, just in case." You nod and help Grainne set up the circle, stand in the middle, walk five paces, and the duel is on!

Grainne immediately opens with a quick three Pheme Incantation, undoubtedly hoping to win the duel within a quarter second, but you're not a fool - you've heard of that strategy plenty of times before, and you knew it was coming. Using your own rapidly assembled three Pheme spell, which admittedly hurt your wrist casting, you manage to deflect Grainne's petty attempt at an icicle and send it flying off into the sunset.

Except, rather than the duelling circle stopping the projectile as it should, it goes right through and literally flies off into the closest thing to a sunset that you're going to find during the afternoon. It whizzes through the treeline, where out of nowhere a pained yelp following by confused noises and a series of crashing sounds can be heard. Followed by a very irate voice screaming loudly in Velocian. Somehow, you don't think that you just deflected that spell into a bird.

Grainne, sufficiently confused as to forget about your duel (to be fair, you're feeling the same right about now) takes the time to cast a translation spell. You, for your part, slowly walk up to Grainne and quietly ask her whether she could possibly...edit the story of how your duel went and ended. Grainne quirks an eyebrow and you quickly add that you're fine with spinning a story about it having ended in an epic draw. Just...you know, not how it actually ended. You don't think you could ever live it down. Grainne doesn't say anything in response, just a glare of "seriously?", but you know she wouldn't want to tell people the truth any more than you do in this particular instance. Right?

All the while the Velocian screaming, actually more like furious ranting at this point, continues unabated, until the owner of the voice slowly walks into view.

-Rhetoric. Agree to cooperate.
--You can say a lot of things about how Grainne (and, by extension, Rikildis) isn't trustworthy and all, but at the end of the day, can you really be sure that Antonio is trustworthy? He seemed genuine enough and you can easily believe him being upset about how Grainne and Rikildis were planning on dragging Matthias through the mud, but is that really just a personal issue or is Antonio scheming something? And even if he's not, what are the odds that he's simply wrong about Matthias? That there is something that Grainne and Rikildis can (and perhaps even should) genuinely report on? Ultimately, you can't be sure. Not until you meet Matthias and get his story straight from the horse's mouth. So until that point it seems prudent to keep your options open. Grainne could be of help or a pain in the backside, so until you're sure...why refuse a potentially helping hand? Or at least why bother going through the effort of slapping away that hand, if you might not want to after all.

"Alright Grainne, I've got an idea: I help you investigate the truth of whatever rumors you or Rikildis dug up about Matthias, and you two report that truth, whatever it may be. Sounds fair?"

Grainne considers for a moment...and shakes her head. "If at least some of what he heard is true, sure, but if this is a case of wild rumors being wild rumors there's really nothing we could make an article out of. I mean, 'foreign mercenary actually proves to be utterly boring', not really a catching headline do you think?"

How someone so focussed on gossip can be so short-sighted sometimes you'll never understand. "First of all, Grainne, you're writing for the Academagia's schoolpaper - don't you think that the concept of being chased by wild rumors is something that'll appeal to a lot of people's personal interests, and how you can make an example out of this story of how such rumors come about and how to deal with them, if indeed that's all those rumors are?" Grainne slowly nods, though she doesn't look too convinced yet. "What if I told you there's more to this story regardless of Matthias'...whatever you'd call into question?"

"I'd ask what you're talking about, first off," Grainne answers, staring at you with a meaningful expression on her face.

Before you can answer Grainne's unspoken question, though, a voice from somewhere behind you suddenly calls out. "Ich würde sagen, Sie sind ein schlechter Tratsch und ein schlechterer Lügner."

Confused, you turn around and see a person-shaped figure jump out of one of the trees and walk up to you. Grainne, for her part, draws her wand and quickly puts together a translation spell.

--"Eh, I don't really mind working together," you say. "I've got a story that needs to be told and you're looking for a story to tell, I'm sure you can see how this can work out for both of us." Grainne, in response, looks you up and down with an untrustworthy grin. Ten second into this conversation and your patience is already being strained. Great start, but you're not giving up that easily. "Right. So, truce?"

"Maybe," Grainne offers, still looking you over. "You said you've got a story to tell? Surely you don't think that you've gotten your hands on a set of rumors that I didn't?"

Of course not. One-upping Grainne in the gossip department is like one-upping a Dragon in the intimidation department. You shake your head. "I doubt it, just a favor someone asked me to do, nothing special. Nevertheless, truce?"

Grainne's expression doesn't change. "No, I think I want to know more about what you're talking about first. Come on, don't be shy, tell."

You frown at that. Though before you can respond a voice from behind you suddenly calls out. "Um meiner Vernunft willen, finde ein paar echte Freunde die dich stören!"

You turn around and state blankly at the voice's owner jumping down from one of the tree branches, while Grainne draws her wand and casts a translation spell.

-Danger Sense. What's this odd chill crawling up your spine...?
--You're getting the feeling that you're being watched, and you'd bet money that it's not the old caretaker of this prayer grove that's glaring holes through your back.

You look around, but don't see a person hiding out in the trees. Shapes and figures, sure, but whether those aren't merely birds or some kind of Reserve animal you're not sure. You do, however, notice an odd patch of brown among the green overgrowth, close to where Grainne is standing. Dirt, or some kind of animal that's about to pounce? You don't want to look like a paranoid idiot in front of Grainne, that's just asking her to add a section to the school newspaper dedicated to your antics, but if your senses are right and you just choose to ignore it...how to respond to this situation...

--You slowly, carefully look around...and notice the source of your impending sense of dread and horror.

You brushed your leg against some poison ivy! Darn it, now that you've noticed it even starts itching. Oh what was that spell that fixed this again? Argh, so many spells and so many Phemes that you've learned last year, but so few that you actually use somewhat frequently. These are the most annoying ones of all, too, the spells that you only rarely need but not so rarely that you go out of your way to practice them enough for them to stick in your head. Gods, you'll just deal with it for now. It'll come back to you sooner or later.

--War. "Invite" your invisible friend to join in on the conversation.
---You draw your wand, which causes Grainne to assume you've chosen to duel her and so she draws her own wand. She looks confused and then blankly stares at you awkwardly when, instead of discussing terms, you instead turn around and use your wand to scan the treeline behind you. "Eh...w-what, do you want to take this duel elsewhere? H-hello?" Grainne awkwardly asks to your back, undoubtedly looking either confused or offended that you're not even looking in her direction. You ignore Grainne's question and, in as commanding a voice as you can, call out to the figures dancing in the trees and half-suggest, half-demand whoever is watching you to reveal himself. When you don't get a response you nod and say that in that case you'll drag them out the hard way, which quickly causes a spell to come flying in your direction. You manage to Negate it before it hits you, though.

"Grainne, shine some light on the treeline!" you shout as you start to piece together your own magic. Grainne does as you ask, but she gets interrupted by the brown patch you noticed earlier shifting and moving closer. As you suspected, it's some kind of animal. Probably a Familiar, actually, if you're dealing with a spellcaster. In which case you definitely don't want to try and kill this animal, not that you were intending to in the first place, but it still complicates matters a bit. You tell Grainne to jump back, and a split-second after she does a snake jumps out of the undergrowth and completely misses Grainne. She's obviously startled by the snake, but you throw your spell down and create a circle of ice around her. "Wh-what do you think you're doing!?" she yells as she starts over trying to cast her Glamour.

"Making sure that snake can't get to you. As for me," you answer as you cast a quick levitation spell upon yourself and start unsteadily hovering in the air a bit. It's a bit iffy, but you should be up high enough that the snake can't reach you. Hopefully whoever is throwing spells from the treeline also no longer has an angle on Grainne, since she can't defend herself very well against attacks. You, however, can.

Another spell comes flying at you, and once again you Negate it before it reaches you. The snake tries to jump up to your shoes and bite into it, but it comes up short and falls to the ground. It then turns it's eyes towards Grainne again, but being a cold-blooded creature it doesn't fancy trying to slither through your circle of magical ice. The snake instead slithers back into the overgrowth, trying to hide so that it might surprise either of you two again later.

Not that it gets a chance. Grainne finishes her spell and illuminates the entire treeline like every branch and leaf suddenly evaporated, and not only does this light reveal your mysterious attacker, but it also blinds them long enough for you to complete your own offensive spell and send it flying towards your defenceless target. You know your spell hit it's mark when the figure falls out of the tree and a string of curses can be heard from his direction, about a second after you hear a loud thud. At this point you feel like you've proven your (and Grainne's) point. "Is that enough?" you call out in the direction of the figure, hoping he can hear you over his own cursing. "We don't mean you any harm. Show yourself, we only want to talk." Grainne quietly starts to tell you to speak for yourself, but she cuts herself off when an irate response from the treeline rings out.

"Das kannst du zu meinem Stolz und meinem Arsch sagen!" the voice yells, as it's owner slowly starts walks up to the two of you. Grainne, rather than questioning your words, instead quickly casts a translation spell.

---You slowly turn around, confusing Grainne somewhat, and in the most commanding voice you can muster (it's...not much of one, honestly) demand that whoever is hiding out there reveal himself before you do the revealing yourself. At first you get no response, other than Grainne quirking an eyebrow and asking what you're talking about.

Then, rather out of nowhere, Grainne's question (and yours) is answered by a spell that flies at you out of nowhere, too quickly for you to draw your wand and Negate it. The spell knocks you down onto the ground, somewhat painfully, and you fumble holding on to your wand, which is send flying somewhere into the overgrowth. Basically, you're not getting that thing back in time. Grainne, for her part, draws her wand and tries to cast some sort of spell, only for the brown you noticed earlier to quickly start moving towards her. You try to call out a warning, but too late. A brown snake slithers out of the overgrowth and jumps at Grainne, biting down into her wrist. Grainne, not unreasonably, cries out in equal parts pain and surprise as she drops her own wand and starts freaking out. You figure that since you're not finding the wand you dropped any time soon, and Grainne's is right next to her, that you should get up and rush over to help Grainne get the snake off of her. It's a sound plan, but unfortunately another spell comes flying at you after you turn your back, and so without you even noticing until you're send flying down onto the ground once more you end up crash-landing unceremoniously right on top of Grainne, taking her down to the ground with you. The snake, as if to mock you, lets go on Grainne just in time to slither underneath your feet as you take your spill. All things told...that was not your finest moment.

"Ernst? Ich hatte von zwei Kindern, die diese Uniformen trugen, etwas Besseres erwartet," the figure calls out from his comfortable and unassailable perch somewhere in the treelines. That he sounds more confused than proud or haughty is, hopefully, the final nail in your coffin.

Grainne, understandably annoyed at the situation, shoves you off of her as best she can and grabs her wand. While she casts a translation spell you pick your sorry self back up and look around for where you dropped your wand, and for better or worse you don't have the look long - the brown snake has slithered back into the overgrowth and is helpfully poking his head out where your wand is. Great. At least you won't have to look for it.

Meanwhile, the figure jumps down from the trees and slowly starts to approach the two of you.

This stage, naturally, was brought to you by Google Translate.

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A Matter of Honor, stage 4:

The figure that walks up to you and Grainne is a teenage boy, probably about a year or so older than you, wearing what looks like a brown military style uniform. There's a dagger securely tied to the boy's belt, a wand in the boy's hand, and a deep frown on the boy's face. From beneath the overgrowth a brown snake slithers into view, and the boy quickly lowers a hand for the snake to jump and slide up on. You have to assume, based on that, that the snake is the boy's Familiar. "So, I hear the two of you are looking for a mercenary?" the boy asks, presumably in Velocian. Grainne cast a translation spell on both of you, so you actually do have to assume right now. "Don't suppose you're looking for someone specific?" the boy sarcastically adds. "I know a lot of mercenaries you two can bother instead of me, if you're interested."

"You're...Matthias? Matthias Neumann?" Grainne slowly asks, looking the boy over several times.

Matthias lets out a large sigh. "Yes, I am. Pleased to meet you too and all of that. Now can you two maybe, possibly, potentially, just state your business and leave me alone? Unless you're here to invite me to attend the Academagia, and if you two actually are for some incomprehensible reason than rest assured I've got a lot of questions to ask whoever put you up to this first, I am not interested in whatever mercenary companies either of you may represent. If I want to sign up with someone I can find them myself."

You motion to Grainne to stay quiet, which she reluctantly agrees to, and turn your attention to Matthias. The whole thing about Catherine's invitation runs circles in your head, but...this isn't the right moment to bring that up. "Look, I'm not here to scout you, for the Academagia or otherwise. Don't worry about that. Grainne here is, eh..."

"Looking to write an article about me in your school newspaper, if I caught that part correctly?" Matthias asks. You and Grainne nod, neither of you with any real measure of confidence. "Right. Now, question I feel like I've got a right to ask: Why? What makes me so interesting to you students? Is there something going on there that I don't know about? Something I should know about, by chance?" Matthias' questions seem to hit Grainne like punches, and you have to admit that he looks pretty intimidating. Between the dagger that Matthias is tapping an impatient finger against, his Familiar slithering on his shoulders occasionally hissing in Grainne's direction and Matthias' deep frown, you have to ask yourself whether it's really safe to have this kind of conversation. You doubt that Matthias would attack you out of nowhere, but...you can't be sure that he won't, either. Grainne, sufficiently intimidated by Matthias but nevertheless unwilling to give in, hides behind you and admits that she and Rikildis are trying to figure out the truth behind the myriad of rumors floating around about Matthias' supposed exploits, and intend to run an article detailing what he actually did and didn't do. Grainne claims that it's to report the truth behind a bunch of rumors, but somehow, you're having trouble believing her. You won't question her on it, though. "Seriously? That's it?" Matthias asks, looking more confused than anything. Grainne nods and assures Matthias that, yes, that's it. After a tense moment of Matthias doubtfully staring at Grainne, what little he can see of her while she's hiding behind you, he slowly nods. "I guess...wild rumors about strange magic is something that would interests you guys, huh? Studying magic yourself and all?" Grainne quickly nods in agreement. Matthias than turns his attention to you, and after a second to think about it you have to admit to yourself that, yes, as someone studying magic you are interested in stories about people using strange, weird magic that you've never heard of before and all of that. So you also nod. Matthias, after a second, lets out another sigh. "Well...fine. I guess I can understand that. Still, did it not occur to either of you that maybe I don't care to get tracked down by random people and asked inane questions? Particularly about a past that I might not be so willing to discuss with people I don't even know? Hell, do you two even know what kind of nonsense I've had to go through in this city so far?"

You can imagine, and you assume Grainne can as well. If she can't, though, there's a non-zero chance that she will in about two minutes, because the awkward silence between the three of you is suddenly broken by someone heavy stepping on a branch in the distance, loudly snapping it in half. The noise echoes a bit through the forest as a number of birds suddenly take flight, and you three all turn towards the direction of the noise. "Son of a...are you two lying to me?" Matthias asks, to which both you and Grainne shake your heads. "Followed, then?"

"I got here before you did," Grainne insists, but Matthias shakes his head and says she just needs to pay more attention to her surroundings. Grainne frowns, but can't really argue the point either. As for you you don't think you were followed, but than you can't say that you went out of your way to check and make sure, either. You tell Matthias as much.

"Fine. Both of you either run or hide, your choice, just know that if you blab you'll regret it." With that threat made Matthias runs towards the treeline and starts getting back into his earlier hiding spot.

"Hiding is for people who can't just talk their way out of situations," Grainne says as she rolls her eyes at Matthias, although not in a way that allows him to see that fact. "[PC FIRST NAME], what'll you do?"

Good question. You don't see anyone yet, so you've got a second to think, but time's ticking...

-Deceit. Stay with Grainne and lie your way through this situation.
--"Do you have an actual story in mind? You know, a reason for why you'd be here other than Matthias?"

Grainne's confidence slowly drains as she realises that she doesn't, and looking does not give her inspiration either. "Do you?" she asks a little nervously. Not that she isn't trying to hide that, mind you. She's just not succeeding.

"Of course. Let me take the lead, you back me up. I'll sell that guy his own Reserve, just watch."

Grainne gets halfway through saying something about her being willing to make a bet on that, but she gets interrupted by the sound of a man suddenly hailing her. When you both turn to look you see a large adult male, wearing the uniform of the Reserve rangers, walk up to you. "Good afternoon, kids-eh, sorry, students. What might you two be doing here in the Imperial Reserve? Don't you need permission to be here?"

Rather than answer the ranger's rhetorical questions you point at the shrine to King Durand. "We're here for a detention project. Professor Briardi has us writing an essay on that statue of King Durand."

The ranger looks you over with a sceptical eye and turns towards Grainne. "Here for detention? Both of you?" he asks her. Grainne, while maintaining eye contact, manages to "confirm" your story with a straight face. The ranger, in turn, nods. "Very well. In that case be sure to remind him to give you two a written permission slip next time. There's trouble afoot in the Reserve, and we rangers don't need more unexplained trouble popping up."

...Wait, remind "him"? Professor Briardi is many things, many more depending on who you ask, but a man is most certainly not one of them. How (in)famous are Academagia professors among the Reserve rangers? You can understand that they work different fields and all of that, but that seems like a rather obvious thing to not know. Especially because it's a thing that many adults seem to care about, too.

"We'll be sure to tell...him?" Grainne tries to fill in for you while you're staring a bit dubiously at the ranger. Of course as soon as she notices the mistake she also quirks an eyebrow. "Eh, Professor Briardi is a woman, sir. I mean, we'll remind her not to forget next time, regardless. That said, exactly what kind of trouble is afoot? Anything we might be able to help you with?"

You're not sure if Grainne should volunteer like that, but than you suppose it would be entirely in character for an Aranaz student to do so given her "circumstances", so you'll give her a pass on it. Not like you'd be stupid enough to question her right in front of the ranger if you didn't, anyway.

"Ah, no, no-no-no, this is something I need to-I mean, this is a matter for the Reserve rangers! Call it a pride thing. That said, I don't suppose either of you have heard about a vagrant who's been illegally camping out around here? About your age, brown military-style clothes, talking snake Familiar? Does any of that ring any bells?" Grainne, the stone-cold liar that she is, tells the man that neither of you have seen anyone fitting that description. In the short time that you've been here, at least. You, meanwhile, quirk another eyebrow at how this guy is acting. Is he a new guy desperate to impress his boss, or something? You're getting an impression like that. "Ah, that's unfortunate. In any case, you two should definitely head back to your school now. This vagrant's dangerous, so-"

You're about to mentally comment that Matthias really isn't that dangerous, all things told, but no sooner does that thought cross your mind than your eyes notice a spell being flung at the man from Matthias' direction. The spell hits the man, who falls down, and from the overgrowth Matthias' Familiar jumps out and pounces on the now helpless ranger. Grainne draws her wand, but doesn't react aside from that. You draw your own wand as well, but rather than use it you grab Grainne by the arm and pull her back. She protests at first, but you point out to her that this ranger has been acting very bizarrely, and push comes to shove, you don't want to take his side or get between him and Matthias. The latter seems to have made up his mind already, anyway. Grainne reluctantly nods and takes a few steps back with you, but it ultimately doesn't change anything. Matthias quickly finishes what he started, and by the time you and Grainne have gotten some distance away the man is on the ground, unconscious.

--You don't fancy your odds trying to stay hidden in this situation, so talking it is. You patiently wait with Grainne until a large man, wearing the uniform of the Reserve's rangers, walks into view and up to the two of you. The man doesn't even introduce himself, he immediately starts asking pointed questions. Unfortunately your ability to keep a story straight is not up to snuff with Grainne's ability to lie to people's faces, so the two of you end up coming off as rather suspicious. That's also the point where the conversation takes an odd turn, however. Grainne, in her infinite wisdom, decides to try and worm her way out of this situation by admitting to the "lesser" of two secrets - that she did, in fact, come here looking for, basically, Matthias. Same as the ranger, who says he's here on the trail of a vagrant. But when Grainne starts asking the ranger questions about Matthias and him "supposedly" being here, the ranger suddenly has no answers to give either of you two. Much like how you didn't have straight answers to give him.

It's a very odd and awkward situation which the ranger tries to get out of by ordering the two of you to go back home, but Grainne continues bickering until, after what feels like far too long, Matthias ends up resolving the situation for you two (or three) when he sends a spell towards the ranger. He falls to the ground, and before he could do so much as ask himself what's going on Matthias' Familiar jumps out of the overgrowth and pounces, giving Matthias a chance to continue attacking uninterrupted. You and Grainne both panic at the sudden action and try to back off, only to stumble over her own feet (in Grainne's case) or only to run away in the wrong direction and get hit right in the face by one of Matthias' spells (in your case), which leads you to fall face-first into the ground as well. Needless to say it's a less than pleasant experience.

At least that awkward conversation is over...

-Climb. Follow Matthias' lead.
--"I'll keep an eye on Matthias, make sure he doesn't run off. Grainne, you're sure you'll be fine?" Grainne nods, she even jokingly asks whether she ought to be offended at your lack of confidence. You're willing to take that as confirmation that she'll be fine, so you turn your attention to the trees behind you. Climbing up into the treelines both quickly and without making such a mess of things that it's obvious that someone decided to mimic the world's least agile monkey isn't as easy at it sounds, but you can manage it. There's enough low hanging branches to act as a starting point, you're able to jump from one higher branch to another without breaking any branches (and your back in the resulting fall) and lift yourself up without too much effort. You're not sure whether you got up here faster than Matthias did, but the important thing is that you've managed to get up here in time. Matthias notices you making your way towards him and gives you a nod right when a large man, wearing the uniform of the Reserve's rangers, walks into view and hails Grainne.

"Does that guy look familiar?" Matthias quietly asks while the ranger walks up to Grainne and starts asking what look like some pointed questions. From this distance you can't hear what they're saying, but by the same token he shouldn't be able to hear the two of you either. Overall you'll call that a good thing. In answer to Matthias' question you shake your head.

"Not that I can get a good look at him from here, but...no, doesn't look familiar. I don't suppose you know him?"

"No, and that's a problem. The times I had to hide from the rangers patrolling around here it's always been the same guy, and always around the same time. I've never seen this man before, and the one I know shouldn't be showing his face here for a few hours. I don't suppose you're familiar with the patrol routine of the rangers, whether they've got a rotating schedule or whatever?" Obviously you don't know that, so you shake your head. "Well, in that case...what's the penalty for knocking out one of these guys?"

"I-I beg your pardon? W-why would you...?" you ask, perplexed. Right on cue Matthias' Familiar, the brown snake, slithers up to his master and whispers something into his ear. You can't understand a word of it, but you use the time to check on Grainne and see if there's anything you're missing. As far as you can tell, there isn't. Just a ranger talking with an Academagia student, as far as you can see. You wouldn't call their conversation casual, from what you can see and all the nothing you can hear of it, but it doesn't seem like he's interrogating her either.

"Yeah, that's what I thought," Matthias says as he draws his wand, and his Familiar quickly slithers back down to the ground again. It's an unnerving sight, not to mention situation you're in right now. "You didn't find it odd that a ranger would be so clumsy as to step on a branch like that, after hearing about a vagrant illegally camping out somewhere around here and, presumably, coming here to find him?" Eh...you suppose not, but what's Matthias getting at, that this man in a ranger's uniform isn't a ranger? It's (also) true that, last you heard, no one in Mineta had any clue about Matthias' whereabouts, despite the Chards wanting him to visit their estate. But you've got no idea who this guy could be, if not a ranger. You briefly consider whether he might be the bodyguard that Catherine had with her in the Mercenary Guild House, but no, even from this distance you can see that this man has a significantly different build than that bodyguard. Who is this guy, if he's not a ranger?

In the end, while your hear continues to run in circles, Matthias springs into action by flinging a spell at the completely unaware man, startling Grainne and giving his Familiar a signal to do it's thing. Matthias uses that brief moment of utter confusion and chaos to send another spell at the man, which sends him, face-first, onto the ground.

You really hope that either Matthias' suspicious are right or that this guy didn't break his nose or something, because otherwise chances are that you're going to end up in some kind of major trouble...

--Given a choice between Matthias and Grainne...you're going to go with Matthias. To keep an eye on him, if nothing else. To that end you run up to the same tree that Matthias just seemingly jumped up without any effort, expecting you to be able to do the same.

Unfortunately, the tree is not that kind. First you don't find an appreciable amount of footholds, than you get nervous because of the time crunch you're under, leading you to decide to just take a few risks since you don't have time to dawdle...and, naturally, the first branch you try to grab snaps under your weight, causing you to unceremoniously fall down to the ground. To add insult to injury you don't even manage to crash-land successfully, you end up landing on the ground legs-first, twisting a knee in the process. Not what you wanted to do today, but compared to some other spills you've experienced you're frankly used to worse by now. That probably shouldn't be something to brag about, though...

"Wh-[PC FIRST NAME]? Are you alright?" Grainne calls out as soon as she hears you crashing into the ground, and after you initially fail to respond she runs over. "Eh, is this bad? Do I need to-this is not the time to be dragging people to the Infirmary, [PC FIRST NAME]!"

She says like you haven't used your wand to whip your knee into shape enough to drag yourself there a dozen times before. Although, maybe you could use this to your advantage, actually.

"What's going on here?" a large man, wearing the uniform of the Reserve's rangers, asks as he runs up to the two of you, wand drawn. It's clear from his expression that you two aren't what he was expecting, and he's not sure how to respond to it either. "Did you fall trying to climb into one of the trees?" You weakly nod, trying your best to convince the ranger that you're in worse shape than you are. Grainne sees through it, but of course doesn't call you out on it. The ranger, again, looks lost for a few seconds before turning his attention to Grainne. "Can you carry this kid to a medic?" he asks, although Grainne shakes her head - apparently you're too heavy for her. Which you can honestly believe, Grainne isn't the most muscle-bound student in the Academagia by any stretch of any imagination, but still...she didn't have to make it sound like it's your fault. The ranger, for his part, lets out a large sigh. "Oh...alright. Come on kid, let's carry you back to your school. Those are Academagia uniforms, right?"

Is this ranger new, that he doesn't recognize you two as Academagia students immediately? Well, it ultimately doesn't matter. You're in no position to play twenty questions with this man and Grainne (surprisingly, for her) doesn't seem interested in doing the same either. Instead she silently leads the ranger to the Academagia, where you're handed over to the first professor that the duo manages to find. Regrettably, for you, that turns out to be Professor Massioti. And he is less than impressed at not just your apparent inability to climb and stuff, but also your seeming inability to not mend your own injuries at all. Of course that last part is completely wrong, but what are you supposed to tell him? That you were putting on an act to hopefully distract the ranger from noticing someone illegally camping out in the Reserve? You're caught between a rock and a hard place, here.

Ultimately the Professor treats your injury, admittedly doing more than you could have with your own wand, but also assigns you detention for your abject lack of competence. That's just...wonderful.

"Well than, [PC FIRST NAME]," Grainne begins right after Professor Massioti steps out of hearing range. "If you don't mind, and I get the impression you either won't or won't be able to stop me even if you did, I'm going to go back to try and find Matthias - he's definitely left the Durand Prayer Grove by now, but I might be able to pick up on his trail - and get that exclusive interview without you being able to get in my way." Of course. Somehow, though, you don't think she'll get anywhere. Wilderness tracking is not Grainne's specialty, and Matthias must have some experience covering his tracks if he's managed to keep the rangers off his trail. "That said, I will say: Good job with your quick thinking, turning that spill into an excuse to get the ranger out of there. I guess you're better with thinking on your feet than jumping on them, huh?"

...Why. You're already been reprimanded, what did you do to deserve Grainne's puns on top of that?

"In any case, good luck. I'll let you know if anything changes."

Somehow, you doubt anything will change. You just hope that you'll be able to track down Matthias again yourself, later. Assuming he doesn't skip town first, anyway.

-Wilderness Survival. What are your options? Anything you're missing?
--The overgrowth isn't enough to hide a teenager, that's the most obvious one. You could try to pass yourself off as some manner of devout of King Durand, or something else that uses this location to your advantage, since this is a human you're most likely dealing with. A lion wouldn't care, but a human might. Grainne would have to cooperate with you to make that story work, though it'd probably work better than just saying absolutely nothing. As for climbing, also an option, but you'll need to follow Matthias' lead if you do. Two people trying to hide separately are more likely to get caught than one team working together, and given that Matthias has apparently been hiding out here you're reasonably sure he knows what he's doing as far as hiding is concerned.

...Actually, looking at Grainne...and with Matthias apparently hiding out around here...yeah, that could work. If you changed yourself into the shape of an animal you could probably pass yourself off as Grainne's Familiar. She's got a wand in her hand and wearing an Academagia uniform, no one would question her being here with her Familiar. Assuming your can pull off a spell like that, of course.

--If you needed to hide from, say, a lion, you easily could...eh, actually you're not sure what you could really do in that case. Lions are excellent climbers so trying to hide up in the trees would be less than perfectly effective. And bluffing a lion probably wouldn't work too well, so...yeah. Not really sure what to do in this situation other than following either Grainne or Matthias' leads. Those methods will work, can work at least, really it just better because you're not sure if there is another way.

--Revision. Disguise yourself as Grainne's Familiar.
---"Grainne, what's your Familiar doing right now?" you ask a bit out of nowhere as you feverishly start to trace Phemes. This is not a quick spell to cast and you'll need to get it done quickly.

"Eh...sleeping? Most owls around this-what are you doing, [PC FIRST NAME]?"

An owl, huh? Perfect, than it's just a matter of casting this magic properly. And you're sure you've got the magic set up properly. You release your spell, and within a few seconds your human form gives way to that of a large snake. It's not a form you're really comfortable with, the lack of limbs is...unusual, to say the least. You did consider turning yourself into an animal that's more common as a Familiar, but you've got a plan. You just hope it works. Grainne, for her part, looks perplexed at your transformation, so much so that she doesn't even react that much when you do your best impersonation of Matthias' Familiar and jump up to Grainne's arm and start slithering up to her neck. "Don't quesssstion thissss," you tell Grainne as she stares at you confused and bewildered. "I've got a plan, trusssst me. Jusssst play along that I'm your Familiar."

You'd say that without the hissing, no need to put on a show for Grainne, but truth is you're not entirely sure how you're supposed to make this split tongue really work.

"Uh..." is all Grainne says in response as you slither up her arm and make yourself comfortable around her neck. You honestly don't even want to imagine what kind of spot you're putting her in, but hey, she said she could just lie her way out of this situation, right? And she's obviously so cunning and observing and clever and all of that since she spends so much of her time with Rikildis' newspaper and everything, right? Right. Time to see her do that.

Not long after a large figure, wearing the uniform of the Imperial Rangers, walks into view and hails Grainne from a distance. She responds in kind, snake-[PC FIRST NAME] still making a home on her shoulders (as weird as that is), and patiently waits for the ranger to approach her. "Good afternoon, ki-ah, sorry, I mean...student," the ranger says once he's walked up to Grainne, looking both her and you up and down carefully. For what it's worth he hasn't looked around the treetops, so Matthias should still be hidden. "Having a bit of trouble with your Familiar? That is your Familiar, right?"

Grainne slowly nods, clearly not sure how to respond to this situation. Honestly, you expected better of her. So...magical talking snake? Magical talking snake, sure. There's Familiars like that, right? "Of coursssse," you hiss at the ranger. Thankfully, you hope, he doesn't look as surprised at that as many others would.

"Oh-hoh, it can talk?" the guard asks you a bit weirdly. Seriously, what has this guy seen that a talking snake gets that response from him? In any case you nod at the ranger's question. "Well than, I..." the ranger starts, though he trails off to take another careful look at Grainne again. "Ah, if this is really your Familiar, than...I don't suppose you've seen any other talking snakes around here of late? As well as a boy roughly your age, wearing a brown military uniform? I've heard reports that someone fitting that description has been illegally camping out here of late, committing vagrancy, and, naturally, as one of the Reserve's rangers I'm looking for him."

Grainne puts on her best winning smile and happily answers the ranger's questions with what Matthias wants him to think, now that she's finally picked up on what idea you were going for with the whole snake transformation, but you're left staring blankly at this man. Would a ranger have been so clumsy as to snap a branch like that, if he was hunting for a vagrant? What reports is he talking about, considering that for one you didn't hear anything about it, and for another if there were such reports going around than half the people in the Mercenary Guild House would be laying seige to the Imperial Reserve right about now? Not to mention the Chards. And this guy...coming of a bit strong, doesn't he? What point does he feel like he has to prove? You don't want to start something, you don't exactly have a wand in your currently non-existent hand right now and all, and you're not sure how well Grainne can defend herself, but at the same time...who is this guy? You want to know what he's hiding. But how to inform Grainne without tipping off this guy...

"Right, sorry for the misunderstanding," the ranger(?) tells Grainne after she's done playing the part of the person who got mistaken for Matthias. Which, again, makes your raise an eyebrow...or it would if you currently had any, at least. Like, talking snake Familiars aren't common, that's a fair point, but the fact that Grainne's a girl wearing the very blue uniform of College Aranaz didn't tip this guy off? How blind was this individual who supposedly reported Matthias' location? That he heard his Familiar talk but couldn't suss out the color of his clothes and his gender? Despite noticing his apparent age? Come to think of it, can Matthias' Familiar talk? He (she?) didn't earlier, all you heard were hisses.

Eh, yeah, no. Dangerous or not you can't let this go, this is too suspicious. As soon as the ranger walks passed Grainne and goes to check out the prayer grove altar or whatever it's called you slither around until you're in the perfect position to whisper into Grainne's ear. Actually, can snakes even whisper? Well, you're about to find out. "Sssstop him!" you tell Grainne as quietly as you can manage. It...doesn't really work, but you're pretty sure the guy can't make out what you're saying if he can hear you speak.

"W-what?" Grainne responds, in an actual whisper. Of all the things to miss when you've turned yourself into a snake, it's the ability (skill?) to whisper. The things you encounter when being a mage sometimes...

"He liessss!" you tell Grainne, hoping that the man doesn't hear. You can't really see him from your current position. "Sssstop him!"

Grainne looks nervously at the man's back. You also turn around to look, and based on how casually he's staring around the trees you assume he didn't hear you. "Wait, really? But I can't-I don't know any spells that can knock a man out! I only studied Glamour."

"You don't know any ssssleeping or disssstraction sssspellssss?" You ask, mentally groaning at your inability to talk properly with this cursed split tongue. You'd say it's something you need to practice, but man, talk about niche skills. Grainne, in answer to your question, shakes her head - distractions spells, sure, but not ones that end with someone getting knocked unconscious. She's a journalist, after all. She prefers her victims to be in a position to talk afterwards. "Dissssapointing, but fine. There'ssss ssssomeone who doessss know what he'ssss doing around here." Grainne frowns at you as you slither off her neck and start making your way into the overgrowth and into the treelines, since as a snake you should be able to slither up the trees easily, and warn Matthias that this ranger isn't all he seems to be. How Matthias will react to a talking snake out of nowhere you're not sure, but than he surely must have noticed you transforming yourself a second ago, so surely he'll believe you...

That's the plan at least, but as it turns out you don't get much further than sliding down Grainne. In the overgrowth, right in front of you, is Matthias' Familiar. The brown snake, who actually looks somewhat puny compared to your somewhat oversized form (which wasn't intentional, it's just easier to polymorph yourself into something that's close to your natural size) is looking at you expectantly. "That ranger issssn't all he sssseemssss to be," you say to the Familiar, hoping beyond hope that he'll understand a somewhat exaggerated serpentine Renaglian. You're doing what you can with the tongue you've got, though. "I ssssusssspect he'ssss trying to trick Mattiassss into being kidnapped, under the pretensssse of being arressssted for vagranssssy." Matthias' Familiar nods and slithers off towards where Matthias is hiding. You're absolutely sure that Matthias' Familiar will be able to get to him faster, more stealthily, and be able to convince him more quickly than you could in any respect, so...alright. Time to slide back up on Grainne's shoulders and watch the show.

Actually, maybe you should instead turn back into your regular form and be prepared to pounce if Matthias' magic falls short. Once the man gets attacked it'll be too late to try and lie or trick your way through the situation, after all. Yeah, good point. You slither behind Grainne and cancel your spell, which causes Grainne to turn around and quietly ask what you're doing. Somewhat ironically you don't change back in time to answer Grainne's question - by the time you're back in your regular form Matthias already send one spell the suspicious man's way and knocked him flat on his face, at which point his Familiar pounced, distracting the man long enough for Matthias to finish his work. Grainne turned around and was ready to help, or at least look like she could, but she didn't have to do anything to help Matthias ultimately. Nor you, aside from warning him.

---"Hey, Grainne, quick question: Where is your Familiar right now?" you ask as you draw your wand. Grainne, with narrowed eyes, asks why you're asking her such a question rather than actually answering it. And you know what? That's honestly good enough. You weren't really asking her for input anyway. Time to start casting.

Unfortunately, between the time crunch and Grainne's (admittedly justified) nagging about what you're doing, you're not able to concentrate well enough to get the spell completely right. When you release the magic you do change form, as you intended, but rather than the (relatively) mundane snake you were supposed to end up looking like you've ended up turning yourself into a human (teenager) sized half-snake, half-human monster-looking creature. Everything below your waist has transformed into a snake's tail, the rest of you is mostly the same, just chaotically covered in scales. It is not a comfortable situation, particularly the area where your snake half meets your human half which is all kinds of confused and messed up right now, and to add insult to injury you're not able to maintain your balance on a snake tail, so you end up falling over as well. All in all, a pitiful sight that's quite a few steps away from what you had in mind.

Of course while Grainne freaks out over your failed spell (she, unfortunately, does not understand Revision enough to know that you're uncomfortable, not dying, or anything of the sort) the person you heard earlier walks into view, a large adult man wearing the uniform of the Reserve's rangers. And seeing the scene he just stumbled upon he does the sensible thing and run over to the two of you immediately. On the bright side he completely ignores the treeline that Matthias is hiding in, so that's one thing you unintentionally managed to get right. You don't even want to imagine what Matthias is thinking about what he just witnessed, though. "What in Octavius' name is going on here!? What is that monster!?" the ranger yells as soon as he notices your snake tail poking out of your partially ripped robes. Somehow, you don't feel like this day is going to get any better from this point forward.

"I-I don't know! M-my friend's spell went wild and I don't know how to fix it!" Grainne yells. Whether her concern is genuine or whether she's putting on an admittedly spot-on act for the ranger you're not sure. Once your insides stop feeling like they're loosely hanging around wherever there's space since they don't know where to go you might even deign to care!

"W-wait, [his/her] own spell did this?" the ranger asks. Grainne desperately nods. "Alright, in that case let me handle this. I've studied Glamour counter-magic, hopefully it'll work."

Oh that does not fill you with confidence. Of course you're not in much of a condition to really object, brilliant student that you clearly are not. "Glamour counter-but [he/she] cast a Revision spell, not a Glamour!" Grainne protests. The ranger ignores it and starts weaving magic together. If it's doing anything you can't notice it, and then the ranger releases his spell.

...You still don't notice any difference.

"I told you, it's not a Glamour!" Grainne yells. For what that's worth.

"Yeah, I'd gathered," the ranger complains, and he puts away his wand. "Damn it, if you can't do anything than...we'll have to carry [him/her] back to your school, won't we? Your professors can take care of this, right?"

Is that a rhetorical question? You're pretty sure half the Academagia would be dead by now if professor couldn't fix these kind of mistakes!

"Of course, but how are we-[PC FIRST NAME], are you alright? Can we transport you?" Grainne asks. You explain, as best you can, that you should be fine to get transported so long as it's not too bumpy of a ride. Of course that's less you being concerned about your own feelings and more you wanting to make this difficult for the ranger, so that Matthias will have ample time to get away. Or at least, so you try to tell yourself.

"Can't make any promises along that front, but sure, I'll try to carry you carefully," the ranger says as he tries to pick you up. You have to resist the urge to vomit all over his back when he does, but you're not going to make this situation any harder on yourself if you can help it. You're going to get enough of a lecture from the faculty, that's for sure.

A slow walk later, more than long enough for Matthias to hunt down some tea leaves and calmly brew himself a cup before bolting out of his hiding spot if he was so inclined, your half-snake self is given over to the fist professor that Grainne can find. Turns out that's Professor Pachait, who thankfully gets too lost in a few stories he's heard about half-snake half-human monsters he's heard about to give you detention for your abject failure at spellcasting. Less thankfully Grainne is kind of upset that you "cost her her chance to get her scoop", or something along those lines, but you assure her that surely the two of you will be able to track down Matthias again. If he hasn't taken the whole debacle as a sign to skip town entirely, that is.

"I'll hold you to that. And, [PC FIRST NAME]? Make sure you're not followed, next time."

You're tell Grainne the same, but you don't feel like there's anything to be gained from that...

Pardon the delay, but I had to take a break from this and also figure out how this adventure was actually going to end, because that's something I hadn't figured out already and plans had to change. Repeatedly. On the bright side a path towards the end now exists...it's just a matter of, you know, getting there...

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A Matter of Honor, stage 5:

Matthias jumps down from the trees again, calmly walks over to the mysterious man and carefully looks him over. Grainne and you quickly follow suit. "This guy's definitely a mercenary," Matthias says as he checks the man's pockets and pulls out a bundle of papers. Nothing that you'd find on an Imperial Reserve ranger, but plenty of things you'd find on a foreign mercenary visiting the city of Mineta. So, uniform aside, it's a compelling argument. "If I had to guess I'd say he's a member of a band that my old one routed at some point, here to either recruit or 'recruit' me. That kind of stuff happens, more often than you'd think. It's why you should always head for a neutral zone to find new work. Otherwise stuff like this happens to you." Grainne slowly nods as she looks the unconscious man over with an expression that you don't often see on her - genuine fear. You can understand why, too. Grainne can sell rumors like a champion, but mercenaries...not the kind of people she's got any real experience in dealing with. And this guy doesn't sound like he'd be very friendly, if push came to shove. Well, on his terms, at least.

"S-should we maybe leave, before this guy wakes up? I don't know about you, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's got friends waiting."

Matthias shakes his head. "If he had friends waiting they'd already be here. Unless they're stupid, and anyone who's stupid wouldn't get his hands on a ranger's uniform. I say we drop this guy off somewhere where he'll be found and leave it to the actual rangers to sort him out. I had to hide from a few of them patrolling around this area already, I know where to make sure they'll find this guy." Matthias looks at both you and Grainne, silently asking for an opinion you'd guess, but since you've got nothing better to suggest you just shrug. Grainne, for her part, nervously stares at Matthias and stays oddly quiet. "Never been in a combat situation, I take it?" Matthias asks.

"Have you?" Grainne retorts, quickly explaining that she didn't intend it as such, rather as a genuine question since she's curious about what experience Matthias is speaking from. You, in the meantime, rolls your eyes a little. Calling three teenage spellcasters against one poor actor of a mercenary a "combat situation" seems like a little bit of a stretch. But if that's what Matthias wants to call it you suppose that's his...well, call to make.

"I wouldn't call this little disagreement a combat situation, really," Matthias notes, staring pointedly at you as he does so. You nod, and Matthias turns his attention back to Grainne. "Sorry, it's just how I usually ask people what I wanted to ask. Put another way, you're not used to dealing with people like this? Going from polite conversation to outright violence? Albeit, not lethally?"

Grainne blinks, and then shakes her head. "I'm a journalist. I talk to people, and more often than not I want them to talk back to me. Knocking people out doesn't work with that. Our professors tend to frown at students who decide to solve their problems more violently than not, anyway."

"Understandable," Matthias says as he tries lifting the disguised mercenary. He gets closer than you thought he would, but he can't manage to reasonably drag around the weight of the large, heavy-looking adult just by himself. "Okay, can one of you two give me a hand with this guy? You know, magical or otherwise. If I have to drag this guy around myself he's not going to have legs left by the time I get to where I want to drop him off. I'm not going to have legs left by the time I get there, in fact."

Leaving this man to his own devices just sounds dangerous. You can't honestly say that you tried to help him and you definitely don't think that he is going to think you tried to help him no matter what story you try to sell him, so...ah, but there's so much you can learn from interrogating him, right? Than again, is there? Matthias already searched his pockets and pulled out a bundle of papers listing the man's name, homeland and mercenary band. And Matthias already offered a theory as to why the man is after him, you have to assume that Matthias knows what he's talking about. Maybe this guy knows about the invitation that went missing? Eh...maybe? It's a possibility, but why would this guy have been given that invitation in the first place? Matthias doesn't seem to know him personally, surely the Chards would demand at least that much of whoever they gave the letter to...

Okay, so maybe interrogating him won't yield enough answers to be worth the risk. It seems the best course of action is to go along with Matthias' plan of letting him be discovered by the rangers. He'll probably talk about Matthias' location, of course, but by that point Matthias will likely be long gone anyway. So, how to efficiently (or, at least, effectively) transport this big guy?

-Negation. One bed of levitation magic, coming right up.
--You whip out your wand, wave it around, and within moments the man is somewhat unsteadily resting on a...mostly flat surface levitating slightly above the ground. "Alright, good start," Matthias says as he pokes at your spell, carefully testing it. "Is this thing solid? Can we pull and push it easily, or is it more like a carpet? Oh, and is this guy on it solely because of his weight? If not we'll have to be careful moving this guy."

"Have you ever used magic like that before?" Grainne asks, curiously looking over your spell. She doesn't look impressed, admittedly it's nothing major in the grand scheme of things, but it's more than she could manage herself at least.

"It actually should be more like a carpet than a stone slab, honestly," you start to explain while Matthias shakes his head at Grainne's question. "It'll still help us move this guy much more easily than we could probably manage just carrying the guy ourselves, but don't try sending him down a slope. It won't end will."

Matthias silently looks around, finds no nearby slopes with which to test your theory, and lets out a sigh. "Alright. You take point dragging this guy, since it's your spell and you know how it works, I'll help push it, and the nosy girl can act as a lookout. Sound like a plan?" You nod, and Grainne indignantly asks about why she's been given the nickname of "nosy girl". Matthias chooses to interpret that question as simply "yes". "Fantastic. Let's move, the place I mentioned isn't far..."

--You take out your wand and, several attempts at casting a levitation spell later, manage to get this guy off the ground. Mostly. You contemplate whether it'd be easier to "negate" some of this guy's weight, make him lighter to carry, but considering the grand display of mediocrity you've put on so far you don't feel too confident casting actual spells on this guy.

Matthias, and Grainne for that matter, both look over your magic with a quirked eyebrow. "You sure this is the best you can manage?" Matthias asks, looking a bit confused. It seems that he had higher expectations of a student of the Academagia itself. And you did not manage to cross that bar.

"Better some help than no help," Grainne notes, as if to try and defend you, spare your feelings a bit. You know she's only saying it because she doesn't want to get called out on the fact that she couldn't even manage this much herself, though. You know...

"Yeah, fair enough. Still...well, in any case I'm going to need some help carrying this guy, but I'm pretty sure this spell we'll actually be able to do that."

The good news is that Matthias isn't wrong. With your help (Grainne quickly volunteers herself to be the "lookout" and thus worms her way out of doing any heavy lifting, the trickster) Matthias is able to drag this guy to where he should be dropped off, and within a reasonable amount of time. You didn't even encounter any unexpected trouble on the way. The bad news is that you, sad as it is to admit, are apparently not in much better shape than Grainne is, or maybe Matthias here is just in unreasonably good shape (which would honestly make sense given his background), because while Matthias manages carrying the guy just fine you end up tiring yourself out more than you thought you would. You also end up pulling a muscle, but Matthias is able to use his wand to numb the pain enough so it doesn't bother you right this second. You'll probably regret not giving up when that happened, ultimately, but you didn't want to even acknowledge the possibility that you'd be better off letting Grainne do your heavy lifting for you, so...

-Brute Strength. Put those muscles of yours to use.
--"Matthias, grab his legs, I'll grab his arms. I think the two of us will be enough."

Matthias initially looks you over sceptically, though his expression changes a bit when he notices what few visible muscle you do have. It's not much, but it's something. "You've been strength training? I thought Academagia students avoided doing that if they could. Focus on studying magic, use their wand to compensate if necessary, that sort of stuff."

"Most are like that - and for a good reason admittedly, magic is really useful - but old-fashioned strength has it's own perks. You'd be surprised at how much Negation magic can be effectively substituted with a lesson in dogging and throwing rocks." Grainne, frowning a little, stares at you curiously, like she doesn't want to agree with what you're saying. Matthias, for his part, takes another look around the clearing and thinks, but after not finding whatever he's looking for he shrugs.

"Well, I don't have a better plan," Matthias reluctantly admits. "Alright, let's give it a shot. Are you sure you want to grab his arms, though? His legs would be less weight for you to carry, and I think I could carry his weight better. No offence, of course."

"I don't particularly care, honestly, so alright. Grainne, I don't suppose you want to help us carry this guy?" In a completely expected non-twist Grainne points out that carrying stuff isn't her thing, and adds that she'll be acting as a lookout instead. As she puts it, it'd be "somewhat unfortunate" if you three were spotted and had to immediately drop this guy in order to run away, after all.

"Eh...I mean, yeah. I guess it would be inconvenient if we got spotted," Matthias says, less than convincingly. "In any case, that's the plan, so let's get to it. The place we're dragging this guy to isn't far, so don't worry, this won't take long..."

--"Let me give this a shot," you say as you walk over to the man. Matthias shrugs and takes a step back, but also looks at you sceptically - he clearly doesn't believe that you can carry this guy yourself, either. And you can't, at least you assume you can't, but you want to test how much weight you two are dealing with here. After a few tries you feel like you only barely managed to get the guy's shoulders off the ground. Yikes. This might call for plan B.

"Did you really think you could carry him yourself?" Matthias asks. You shake your head. "Okay, I thought as much, but just checking. In any case, do you think the two of us could carry this guy? No offence, but you don't seem to be able to pick up weight very well."

Weight that is this heavy, widely spread and unevenly distributed, yeah, you're not going anywhere fast with this. You can lift an actual weights just fine, though. If they're not too heavy.

"Still better than I could manage," Grainne suddenly says. You don't think she intended that as a compliment, and not a second later that suspicion is confirmed. "I'd be of no help trying to carry that guy, so I'll go ahead and be on lookout, make sure no rangers sneak up on us. It'd be really awkward if we had to explain the situation, no matter how in the right we are, after all."

Matthias takes one look at the relatively skinny and frail-looking Grainne, and nods at her plan. Of course. "Yeah, good point. Alright, let's start dragging this guy around as best we can."

It takes a bit to reach the place where Matthias wants to drop this guy off, and you're definitely feeling your lack of practice not just with lifting weights but also carrying said weights around, but you manage to get through it without pulling anything. Mostly. You're pretty sure you're going to feel sore when you wake up tomorrow, but other than that...

As before, things I've got to manage with these stages. Time will tell whether I actually succeed(ed), though.

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A Matter of Honor, stage 6:

With the mysterious mercenary disguised as an Imperial ranger "dropped off", so to speak, and the three of you some distance from where he'll inevitably be discovered by a real ranger out on patrol, Matthias turns his attention to you and Grainne. "So, just to confirm - neither of you two have any idea who that guy was? No one followed you, no one asked you strange questions about me, nothing of the sort?" Both you and Grainne nod. Matthias, thankfully, believes both of you. "Well...alright, but...that's worrying. So about this...school newspaper article you mentioned, do you really care so much? Now that you know people like that guy," Matthias says pointing towards where the three of you dropped off the disguised mercenary, "are after me? And might take offence to you two trying to 'recruit' me to join the Academagia or however they'll interpret things? I mean, if you think you can talk sense into them go ahead, I won't stop you, but don't expect me to go out of my way to protect if you it doesn't work either. I'm...a mercenary. Not a knight." There's a bit of awkward silence before either you or Grainne responds. Matthias frowns and looks annoyed at both of you, but it doesn't chase what both of you are thinking out of your heads. Something crossed his mind right before he called himself a mercenary, something that made him stop and think. But he doesn't seem to be interested in explaining what.

"You didn't sound too confident there, Matthias. Going through a bit of an identity crisis, perhaps?" Grainne excitedly asks. Of course she noticed Matthias' moment, and of course she'll ask anyway. That's pretty much her raison d'être, really.

Matthias tries to stare (glare?) Grainne down, in response to her question, but Grainne stands more firm than Matthias did in the face of the disguised mercenary. In response to that Matthias stares blankly at Grainne for a moment before turning his attention to you. "Is she always like this?" He asks, clearly not caring that it's a somewhat rude thing to ask right in front of Grainne's face.

"She, eh, has her moments," you answer as politely as you can. It's just a matter of, you know, not mentioning the fact that truthfully Grainne has her good moments, not bad ones.

Matthias slowly nods and tries to stare Grainne down more time, but of course she's having none of it. Matthias lets out a sigh. He's given up. "Fine. Hopefully you'll at least have some useful contacts or something to make up for things." Grainne tries asking what Matthias is talking about, but he completely ignores her question. And Grainne in general, really. "Okay, so you two - or at least the nosy girl - wanted to know about what I'm really capable off and things like that?" You and Grainne both nod. "Right. So, any chance you two can just give me a list of questions, preferably a short one, that I can just quickly answer with 'yes' or 'no' in return for you two pulling some strings and getting me out of this cursed city? I don't fancy my chances being able to hide out here for much longer, not that I ever fancied hiding out here in the first place, mind you, so...I'd prefer a change of scenery. If you two can manage that, well...I'd be willing to answer a few simple questions. If it doesn't take too long."

Grainne thinks Matthias' offer over, but you already know what her answer will be - even if she'll be satisfied with a list of yes/no questions, which you know for sure that she won't be, you really doubt she has the connections to actually keep up her end of the bargain. Unless her plan for that is roping you into doing that for her, but, eh, no. You've got your own ideas, thank you very much.

Speaking of your own ideas, the Chards' invitation. If you're ever going to tell Matthias about it you probably should do it now, before he skips town one way or another. Trying to convince him to take it primarily for your good might be a step too far, for Antonio's tastes if not your own conscience, but...honestly, you really have to ask yourself where else Matthias could go. It seems to you like he won't stop being chased just because he skipped town once, so maybe it would be for the best? The Chards would most certainly dissuade anyone from chasing after him, of that there is no doubt, but beyond that could Matthias be happy working for the Chards? You're not sure, and you want to be. That's basically what Antonio asked you to do, after all. And for that matter it seems like an important decision for Matthias to make, one you should definitely inform him of, if he really doesn't know about it already.

How to approach this? One way or another you feel like you should tell him about it, now that you definitely still have the chance, but...

-Dispassion. Just tell him about it. It's his life and decision, not yours.
--"Before that, Matthias, one question: Have you received a letter from the Chards recently?"

Grainne raises an eyebrow at that question and rapidly assembles a list of questions to fire at you, but one look at your bored expression informs her that you won't play along with her journalism hobby. Of course Grainne doesn't give up that quickly, but when Matthias starts talking she decides to take a step back. "How 'recently' are we talking here? If they've tried to contact me since I arrived here in Mineta, well...I mean, did you see a mailbox carved into the tree I've been illegally camping out in for I don't know how many days now?"

...Huh. That's honestly a good point, who did the Chards give their invitation to? Well, call that a mystery you can contemplate later. If you three get started on that you don't know if Grainne will ever stop. "Point taken, but we can discuss those details later," you start. Grainne looks disappointed at you, but you shrug it off. "To focus on what's important right now, the letter in question is a letter of invitation. The Chards want to add you to their court, as a page. I know it's a big question to ask completely out of nowhere, but...do you have any opinion on that? One that you'd be willing to share, I mean?"

Grainne stares at you confused and bewildered, like there's so many questions flying around in her head that she can't keep control of them all. Matthias, for his part, looks...confused? Taken aback? Not like he's got even half a grasp on what you just pointed out to him, at any rate.

--"Before any of that there's one thing I should mention, now that I still have the chance: Matthias, have you received a letter of invitation from the Chards recently?"

Grainne raises an eyebrow at that statement, and quickly tries to bury you underneath a flood of questions that you're not able to talk her out of. She does stop when Matthias, on no uncertain terms, orders her to back off and let him ask his own question first, though. "First off, I've got no idea who the Chards are. Second off, did you see any mailboxes hanging from the trees over at the Durand Prayer Grove? Or exactly how 'recent' are we talking here?"

...You know, that's actually a very good point. How did the Chards expect their letter to reach Matthias, given that every other mercenary in the city was after him and didn't know where he was? Did they give it to someone of Matthias' old band? Must be, right? Someone who'd personally know him and could be sheltering him? Either way it seems like someone must have lied to the Chards. They won't be happy when they realize that.

"Snap out of it, [PC FIRST NAME]!" Grainne suddenly yells. It, indeed, snaps you out of your thoughts. "Sheesh, pay attention. What's this about the Chards and a letter, [PC FIRST NAME]? What do the Chards want with Matthias?" While Matthias mumbles something about not even knowing who "these Chards" are you explain, plainly and succinctly, that they want to invite Matthias to join their court as a page. They claimed to have send a letter of invitation to Matthias explaining that, but according to them it's being kept from him by, broadly speaking, the mercenaries who want to hire Matthias themselves. Grainne, needless to say, loves that story a little bit more with every other word you spare on it. Maybe you should just stay quiet from now on. "Oh, scandalous! I'm going to have to interview Catherine about this later..."

Great, that's something that Catherine is going to appreciate for sure. Not your problem, though. What's actually important right now is Matthias' feelings on the matter, and based on his expression he seems to have realized that this is an important situation for him.

-Leadership. Try to frankly discuss what Matthias' options are, realistically.
--"Even if we can smuggle you out of this city, which I doubt we can unless I really misjudged how shady Grainne is...where are you going to go from there?"

Grainne of course looks annoyed at you being so honest about that, but she approves of the question you've put before Matthias. Who, for his part, tries to put on a brave face. But you can tell that he's got no clue either. "I'm not sure, but I'll find somewhere," Matthias answers as confidently as he can pretend to be. "Slip through the cracks, disappear until people forget about me and latch onto the next big thing instead...you know how it goes. It's happened many times before."

"It has, but I don't think people are going to forget and give up on you so easily. Especially if some people, not naming any names, keep re-filling the rumor mill." Matthias doesn't respond to that. But you can tell he realizes, even admits your point. At least, as far as he knows. Grainne, for her part, is obviously unhappy at your comments so far, but is willing to tolerate it given the direction she's anticipating this discussion to go. Probably not what she's expecting, ultimately, but either way you don't think she'll object. "Not to put you on the spot, Matthias, but since it seems to me like you can't run away from this...what do you want to do?"

Matthias raises an eyebrow at that question. "What do I want to do?"

"Yeah. Like, if you could use your wand to create whatever situation you wanted out of this mess, what would it be?" Matthias notes that he's never cared much about hypotheticals that he isn't sure he can make happen, but you insist that it's an important question to consider regardless, and manage to convince him to give it some thought.

"Eh, well...I don't know. That's a hell of a thing to ask. I'd definitely get rid of all these people that are after me, I'm more than done with being hounded like this, but beyond that..." Matthias slowly falls silent as he seriously considers your question. Grainne uses the opportunity to quietly nudge you in the side and give you an expression of you having done a good job, but you don't pay too much attention to it. It's good that she approves and all, but her opinion isn't what's most important here. "I don't know," Matthias eventually admits. "Honestly it just feels like a useless question. I don't even know how I'd get rid of all of these people hounding me, so what's the use in thinking about where to go from there? I'd rather think of a way to solve the first problem rather than worrying about the second one, but I assume you don't know of any actual solutions, do you?"

"I do know of one way," you confidently state. Grainne looks surprised at you, whereas Matthias looks disbelieving and asks you to explain. "Whichever group you end up joining will end up protecting you, since otherwise there'd be no point in taking you in in the first place. If you join up with someone powerful enough, they can keep everyone else off your backs."

"Huh...I'll admit I wasn't expecting an actual answer. Who would you suggest I'd join up with, though? I already told you that I don't care to join another band of mercenaries, and frankly I wouldn't trust any of them to keep me safe from everyone else anyway. You've seen what kind of methods these guys are willing to stoop to."

Part of you feels like you've talked yourself into a corner here, like you've "coincidentally" got no option left but to try and "inform" Matthias that accepting the invitation of the Chards is his only hope and answer. But...that's just the situation he's in, isn't it? If he has another alternative, a realistic one, you can't think of it. Maybe Grainne could? You doubt it, but anything to try and keep your conscience clear. "Grainne can add any suggestions if she's got any, but as for me, the only group I can think of would be the Chards."

Grainne raises an eyebrow at your suggestion, and doesn't make any of her own. As expected. Matthias, for his part, looks you over a bit suspiciously. "That doesn't sound like a mercenary band. Even so, you wouldn't happen to have any connections to it, would you?" You shake your head. Goodness no, of course you don't have any connections to the Chards, of all people. You'd be more than set for life in this city if you did. Thankfully, Matthias nods. He believes you. "And you're sure that this group is genuinely interested in me signing up with them? What do they even want with me, anyway?"

"Oh, I'm sure they're serious. They tried to send you a letter of invitation to you recently, not something they'd do lightly, but according to them the mercenaries in town are trying to keep it from you because they're afraid of you accepting their position - you'd be completely untouchable by them if you did. As for what they want with you, they want to invite you to join their court, as a page."

You were a little afraid of how Matthias was going to react to you springing that news on him, but whatever you were afraid of, him looking genuinely perplexed is not one of...it? Them? Whichever. "Wait, hang on a second. How recently are we talking with this letter of invitation thing? Because I didn't see a mailbox attached to any of the branches of the tree I've been illegally camping out in these past I don't know how many days. Maybe you did, or maybe these Chards did, but..."

...You know, that is a good point. Something you might have to ask Catherine about later. Or something you'll have to wait for Grainne to ask Catherine, she's taken out a roll of parchment and started to scribble down some notes. "No, I also didn't notice any mailboxes. Not that I looked, but...you know. In any case, what do you think about that idea? About joining up with the Chards, I mean?"

Grainne, parchment and quill in hand, looks excitedly at Matthias. He, however, falls silent...

--"Even if we can smuggle you out of this city, which we can't...unless I really misjudged Grainne, I suppose...point is, even if we can somehow manage that, where are you going to go from there?"

Grainne frowns at your honesty (or maybe lack of faith in her, as sure as you are that that faith would be misplaced), but she approves of the question you've put before Matthias. For his part he tries to put on a brave face, but you can tell that he's got no clue either. "I don't know, but I'll find somewhere," Matthias answers as confidently as he can pretend to be. "Slip through the cracks, disappear until people forget about me and latch onto the next big thing instead...you know how it goes. It's happened many times before."

"It has, but I doubt people are going to forget you so easily. Especially if someone, not naming any names, keeps re-filling the rumor mill." Matthias doesn't respond to that, but you can tell he knows you've got a point. Grainne, meanwhile, frowns deeply at you, but is (barely) willing to continue watching this conversation unfold without her input. She's got her quill and parchment at the ready and a face worth of questions she wants to ask, though. "Not to put you on the spot, Matthias, but I don't think you can run away from this. So...where do you want to go?"

Matthias shrugs. "I just said I don't know. And if you're so sure that I'm going to get kidnapped no matter where I go why don't you tell me what options I have, anyway?"

This is not the direction you wanted this conversation to go, but you suppose that Matthias has every reason to be upset at the situation. Hopefully you can actually give him another option. "Well, as a matter a fact, I do know of one option you could consider. If you wanted." Matthias stares at you curiously and asks, once again, if you're sure you're didn't track him down to try and recruit him. You do your best to try and convince him, again, but you're not sure if he'll ever believe you at this rate. Still, whether he believes you or not you should inform him of the situation with the Chard's invitation regardless. Even if he gets upset, he deserves to know.

"So what's this 'option' you, what, coincidentally overheard? Seriously, how do you even know about it if you didn't track me down because of it?" Matthias asks. This is going to be a long day, you feel like...

"I heard about it in the Mercenary Guild House, and I was there because I was already looking for you," you say. Maybe not the best argument to put forth, but at this point you feel like just telling Matthias the truth is the fastest way to get through this conversation. You don't think it'd be a good idea to try and lie to him, anyway. "Long story less long, the Chards send a letter of invitation to you recently, inviting you to become a page at their court. They claim that letter is being kept from you, by the mercenaries who've come here to recruit you. I didn't track you down to recruit you, but I thought I should inform you of that. Now that I still have the chance, I mean."

You're not sure how you were expecting Matthias to react to that news. Perplexed confusion, however, you're pretty sure is not one of them. "Are you really telling the truth there?" Matthias asks. You confidently nod, you know you didn't tell him any lies. Matthias seems to believe you, but that just makes him more confused. "So...what's this deal with this letter or something? Like, where did these guys send their invitation to? The mailbox outside the tree that I've been illegally camping out in for I don't know how many days now?"

...You know, that's actually a good point. Who did the Chards give their invitation to? Surely they must have given it to someone who could reasonably claim to be able to get it to Matthias, but...who?

"Can I make a suggestion at this point?" Grainne suddenly says. You don't really care to stop her, so you shrug, and Matthias nods. "Why don't we just go to the Chards' estate and ask them about it? Or track down Catherine and ask her, since she'd probably know? We can speculate and debate until the sun goes down, and I'd rather not given what just happened with the disguised ranger and all, but the only answers we're going to get are from the horse's mouth, don't you think?"

You hate to admit it, but you can't think of a better suggestion. Matthias also doesn't seem to object, but that said he does look a little...lost, all of a sudden.

-Intrigue. Ask Matthias if he knows who kept the invitation from him, if anyone.
--"I highly doubt that either of us have those kind of connection, Matthias. Though I suppose Grainne might surprise me in that regard...?" you say, staring curiously at Grainne as you start to trail off. You really don't expect her to have those kind of connections, but than you can't be entirely sure that she doesn't either, you suppose.

"Good girls don't tell," Grainne answers. You'd bet Pims it's a coy answer and she doesn't have any connections at all, but honestly you don't care to really think about it because it's ultimately a moot point. You don't intend for Matthias to skip town just yet, whether Grainne can arrange for that or not. Matthias, for his part, lets out a sigh. He clearly doesn't believe Grainne either, nor was he expecting a different answer.

"That said," you quickly add before Grainne can suggest something stupid, "Matthias, before you leave town, there's one important question I need to ask before you leave." Matthias nods, but a second before you ask him about the missing letter you realize that Matthias has been illegally camping out in the reserve for the past you don't know how long. Who did the Chards give their letter to, exactly? This mystery might go deeper than you initially imagined, though it's most likely that they were simply lied to. Heads will roll when they figure that out, though. "S-sorry about that, just...trying to think this whole situation though, and it's more difficult than I thought. Matthias, how long have you been camping out in the Reserve, illegally? As soon as you arrived in Mineta?" Matthias, seeming a little disinterested in the question, nods and plainly states that that's indeed correct. "Than...that's interesting to hear. You know about the Chards, right?"

Matthias actually shakes his head. "Never heard of them before, no. Why, should I know them?"

Unbelievable. The Chards really did get swindled with that invitation letter. Oh, they won't be happy when they figure that out. "You actually should have, yes. They claim to have recently send you a letter of invitation, inviting you to attend their Court as a page." Matthias and Grainne both look surprised at that, the latter more so than the former. "They, broadly speaking, are accusing the mercenaries that have come to recruit you of somehow keeping that letter from you, for fear of you accepting their deal and becoming basically untouchable as far as them recruiting you in concerned. But if you don't have any sort of address or contact that they could have used to get in contact with you, I'm not sure who they could have given that letter to in the first place. I don't suppose you know?"

"Eh...not really? I mean I'm sure you wouldn't have to look very hard to find people that are willing to lie about knowing me, but I definitely didn't see a mailbox attached to the tree I was sleeping in. More importantly, what was that about me being 'untouchable' if I accepted this...invitation, was it?"

You ponder whether Antonio would consider this as trying to push Matthias into a position that's beneficial to you, since you're a little concerned about that, but you quickly shake off that feeling. You're answering a simple question honestly, there can't be anything wrong with that. "Yes, that's why the mercenaries have a genuine motive to keep that invitation from you, even if they're innocent. They can't get a word in against the Chards if you choose to accept their invitation and work for them, and they, the mercenaries I mean, they know that."

Matthias falls silent at that. It seems to you that the mystery of the missing invitation isn't something that he really cares about at all, but the idea of being "untouchable" is another story. Which is fair enough, he was almost kidnapped once today already. Grainne, for her part, waits for a few seconds before deciding to start dropping questions on you, but when Matthias suddenly speaks up again she decides to hold her questions for later. For once.

--"I don't have the kind of connections to smuggle you out of this city, and unless I really misjudged her, neither does Grainne," you start. Grainne of course looks at you annoyedly for what she considers to be speaking out of line, simply telling the truth like that and all, but you don't pay attention to that. Matthias, for his part, lets out a sigh and lightly shakes his head. He clearly wasn't expecting a different answer. "That said, Matthias, there's one very important question that I really have to ask you now that I've still got the chance: Has someone been keeping your correspondence from you?" Matthias, in response to that question, blankly stares at you with a raised eyebrow like he's got no idea what you're talking about. Off to a wondrous start, this conversation. "Has someone not been delivering you your letters," you clarify.

"I know what correspondence is, professor. I'm confused because what letters?" Matthias asks, a bit perplexed. "In case you didn't notice I've been illegally camping out inside a tree for the past I don't know how many days. If you saw a mailbox nailed to one of the branches than by all means, point it out. I'll happily open it and go through whatever news reports and advertisements I missed. Otherwise I've got no idea what you're talking about."

...You probably should have realized that, in hindsight. Well, any conversation you can deny ever having taken-wait, Grainne is standing right there. Eh...you'll just cross that bridge later. You've got more important things to do right now. "I'm talking about..." you start, but you trail off as soon as you realize something incredibly off - if Matthias has no address or other way to get in contact with him via letter, which certainly seems to be the case with him illegally camping out in the Reserve, than who did the Chards send their invitation to? They did send Matthias an invitation that they claim was kept from him, didn't they? That's what you were told in the Mercenary Guild House? You're pretty sure that's correct.

"Hello? [PC FIRST NAME]?" Grainne asks, snapping you out of your thoughts. "Focus, please. What were you talking about?"

"Sorry, I didn't mean to zone out there, I just got lost in thought for a moment. Matthias, do you know the Chards? The noble family, here in Mineta?" Matthias shakes his head, saying he's never heard of them. You thought as much, but at least that's confirmation. Grainne, for her part, looks confused. She apparently didn't know about the letter and you've caught her attention, for better or worse. "I see. Well, long story less long, they claim to have send you a letter of invitation recently. And are, broadly speaking, accusing the mercenaries who've gathered here to try and recruit you of keeping that letter from you, claiming that it's to keep you from accepting their invitation. But if you don't have any way to be contacted via mail, than...do you know who they could have given that letter to? Who could have claimed to be able to get it to you, and who evidently failed to do so?"

Matthias has to take a minute to think about what you just said. And of course Grainne, in the meantime, bombards you with questions that you're stubbornly refusing to answer until Matthias asks them since they're his questions to ask first (Grainne naturally disagrees). But when Matthias calls for attention, he gets it. Grainne immediately stops talking and even takes a step back, not that Matthias moves from his spot. "Alright, so first off, back up a minute here - you said that these Chards claim to have send me a letter of 'invitation'? What do they intend to invite me to, a cup a tea?" You shake your head and explain that the Chards wish to invite him to join their court as a page.

"That's why I want to know who they could have given your letter to. Someone must have claimed to be able to get it to you, someone that the Chards would have a reason to believe was telling them the truth. But who?" While Matthias ponders that question Grainne suggests that the mysterious mercenary dressed as a ranger could be the one you're looking for, but you shake your head at that theory. For one he didn't have the Chard's letter on him, and Matthias did check his pockets for stuff that could identify the man. For another he certainly wouldn't have dressed himself up as a ranger to try and deliver that letter. If he was on official business of the Chards he could have gotten into the Imperial Reserve by asking and presenting the letter he was to deliver, no need for a disguise, and surely he'd know that Matthias would try to hide from someone who looked like a ranger given that he's been illegally staying in the Reserve. Grainne, looking a bit pouty that her theory was a bust, shrugs.

"I genuinely don't know who could have honestly made such a claim," Matthias explains. "My best guess is that these Chards were lied to, probably by someone of my former band. Not all of them were saints, in fact I can name at least three of them who'd pull such a stunt." A second later Matthias, someone awkwardly, adds, "Eh, actually, never mind about that last part. They didn't make it to Mineta." Grainne suggests that the three of you go to the Chards' estate and simply ask them who they gave Matthias' invitation to, get the answer straight from the horse's mouth. You agree that that'd be the quickest way to get an answer, and you're sure that Matthias would get one, but you also point out there's a far more important matter that the "three" of you must consider first.

This whole adventure is frankly turning out to be kind of a mess, but I think it'll work out. Hopefully.

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A Matter of Honor, stage 7:

"So..." Matthias hesitantly starts, looking genuinely lost for the first time since you've met him. "These Chards. Who are they, exactly?" Grainne, perplexed at Matthias' ignorance, asks him if he's really never heard of the Chards before. Matthias nods and, looking somewhat irritated at Grainne, explains that "Minetan Whatever", as he puts it, is one of those subjects that never came up for him. So, no, he's never heard of them. While Grainne continues to stare uselessly at Matthias you give him a quick rundown about the Chards - they're basically, if not literally, the most influential family in the entire city, with two seats on the city's Golden Council and more influence, wealth and connections than most people can count. They're not the only "important" family in Mineta, not by a long shot, but if they themselves are not the very top of the political ladder than they're certainly within reach of it. Matthias looks confused, even a bit disbelieving at your explanation. "And these people are looking to...recruit? I guess? Recruit a no-name foreign mercenary like myself?" You nod. "why? I've got a wand, I know the few spells I can cast with it is a big deal for some people, but this is literally the city that houses the Academagia. Why me? Do they not know a tower of shaky rumors when they see one? Do they have a beef with mercenaries or something?"

"Nothing like that, at least as far as I'm aware," you explain. "Honestly, I don't know what their reason is. But I doubt that they'd invite you purely out of ignorance or spite, people like that don't tend to last very long as political entities. Could be that your former band did them a favor at some point in the past, maybe they used divination to determine that you'll be somehow valuable or important in some way, I don't know. I'm not sure if they'd be willing to tell you either, but nevertheless I have to agree with Grainne's suggestion here - the best way to get answers is to ask them." Grainne, glad that you've noticed what was written all over her face as she was glazing pointedly in the direction of Mineta, gives you a happy thumbs-up. It'd make you feel better if that wasn't something you'd have realized even if you were wearing a blindfold, to be perfectly honest.

Matthias definitely looks conflicted. Afraid, even. A bit of color drains from his face as he quietly sits down and ponders this decision. Matthias' Familiar even weighs in, whispering into his master's ear. Grainne and you manage to fill the awkward silence with some (relatively) light-hearted small talk, but you can tell that Grainne is distracted. She's interested in getting her scoop for Rikildis, and she will not lose sight of that goal easily. "Alright," Matthias suddenly says, looking at both of you with a half determined, half confused expression. "You two know where these Chards are, right? Their house, their estate, whatever it's called?" You and Grainne both nod. "Good. So, nosy girl, I take it you've studied the sort of magic that you could use to disguise me? I don't know what to make about their invitation, but either way I'd like to talk to them. I feel like they owe me some answers. Of course I'd also like to, you know, get to their estate without having to disturb the peace. I've broken enough laws already."

"If what you want to be disguised as is within reason, I can manage that, yes," Grainne confidently says. Matthias nods and orders her to start casting, in a manner that you'd expect from a former mercenary, but of course Grainne doesn't yield that easily. "Hold your horses, boy, first things first: My interview! I mentioned that my friend is counting on me, didn't I?"

"I don't think now is the time to be playing a game of twenty questions, Grainne. Or the place, for that matter. We already had to deal with one mercenary kidnapper disguised as a ranger, could we save the interview until after we're out of here?"

Grainne frowns and reluctantly admits that perhaps, just maybe, possibly, you might actually make a good point there. Not with those exact words, but she might as well have used them. Matthias, to his credit, seems to remain more patient with Grainne's antics than you do. If anything you'll bet that that's his real superpower, or whatever Grainne's hot mess of rumors call it. "Alright, alright. But don't think I'll forget about it! Friend counting on me, remember?" You and Matthias both nod, pretty much just to appease Grainne. "So, any ideas for a disguise? I don't think I could make you look like a girl, and that's the best idea I had in terms of not making you look like...well, you. So do either of you have any ideas?"

You shake your head. Matthias, however, points at Grainne's uniform and calmly explains that that's the best disguise. "It's not just the fact that an Academagia student wandering around the Reserve with his friends, wand and Familiar doesn't look as out of place, it's the fact that me being with two Academagia students is something that people looking for me probably wouldn't expect. Unless they thought that the Academagia was out to recruit me, but than I assume that they're expecting a professor to escort me, not a pair of students. I certainly would. Also, be sure to Glamour my clothes in such a way that I appear to have a different build, in addition to a different hair color and length. Oh, and don't bother disguising my face unless you're actually really good with that wand of yours. People are, as a general rule, very good at reading human faces, and as such a Glamoured mask tends to be seen through more easily. I shouldn't look too suspicious if you can manage everything else, even with my own face."

"You sound like you've done this before," Grainne conspiratorially notes as she starts weaving her spells. Frankly, you agree with her. Of course Matthias tries to pass it off as basic knowledge that anyone who's opened a Glamour textbook should know, but speaking as someone who knows a few things about Glamour textbooks, you could say with confidence that that isn't true. You won't, but you could. Grainne likewise doesn't believe Matthias, but is willing to save her questions for later. Again. At this rate she's going to have a literal pile of them at the end of this. "Alright, all done," Grainne says as she finishes her last spell. It's difficult to call this a good disguise, seeing as how Matthias still has his regular face, but at least he does look sufficiently different beyond that. "So, onwards towards the Chards' estate?" Matthias nods, and the three of you start heading towards the Chard's estate, which is located outside of town. Unfortunately that means you'll need to go through most of said town to get there...well, the Upper City at any rate, but hopefully the Glamours cast on Matthias will keep his identity hidden. Otherwise this is going to become a very obnoxious trip very quickly.

Turns out that the three of you don't even manage to get out of the Reserve before trouble rears it's ugly head. Matthias' earlier assumption about the guy dressed up like a ranger not having any friends turns out to have been incorrect, as sort of hiding among a small cluster of trees up ahead there's a trio of out of place-looking adults waiting impatiently for someone. Their clothes bear the same symbol on them that was on the papers of the disguised man, so these three are definitely his buddies. "So they planned to come after me all at once after their 'ranger' friend confirmed my location without me noticing he wasn't a ranger. Wasn't expecting that," Matthias comments.

You know, especially after calling Grainne out on her excessive curiosity you wanted to keep your own questions until later, but this is the crate that breaks your cart's wheels. "Matthias, what do people say about you, that these guys think they need an ambush with four adults to take down one teenager? I've heard of people who gave Legate Orsi and like half a dozen of the Academagia's faculty less credit than this!"

"Oh, if you want to-" Grainne starts, but Matthias quickly cuts her off.

"Forget about it. The only thing you need to know is that these guys don't know any better, so they decided to prepare for the worst. Actually intelligent, but not intelligent enough. How do you two want to deal with them?"

"We're in the middle of a gigantic forest. We can just walk around them," Grainne points out. Matthias, however, shakes his head and says something about never turning your back to your enemy, especially one that prepared an ambush you can use against them. To you it seems like just walking around those guys and letting them figure out on their own that their ambush failed is the easiest, fastest solution to this problem. But you suppose that if you were the one these guys tried to kidnap you'd be more inclined to turn their tables on them, as well. "Can't you just let the rangers pick up their unconscious friend, figure out who they all are and let them be arrested by the guards?" Grainne asks Matthias, while you're still a bit lost in thought wondering about what all is said about him. "I get wanting to take revenge on the people who tried to kidnap you, I really do, but do you have to go out of your way to pick a fight with them? They might not know it yet, but they've already lost. You know they did. You can just leave them be."

Matthias blankly stares at Grainne, doesn't say anything, and slowly turns his head back towards the mercenaries. The expression on his face isn't one of annoyance at Grainne's suggestion and desire to pick a fight with these guys, though. It's an expression of doubt, and feeling conflicted. "So...what do we do?" you ask, hoping to get a straight answer from someone. "Pick a fight, leave, what?"

"If you've got a plan, let's hear it," Matthias says as he continues to stare at the mercenaries from a distance, looking unsure of himself. "Otherwise...I'll figure something out."

You doubt that he will, honestly. You turn to look at Grainne, but before you can even ask for her opinion she shrugs and tells you pretty much the same thing. Apparently this ended up being your decision to make, Gods knows why, so...what should you do in this situation?

-Confidence. Just leave these guys be, they're not worth bothering with.
--"Let's just leave these guys be and go. We know they're there and what to expect, they won't be able to ambush us. There's no reason why we have to stick out necks out to teach these guys a lesson. Once their friend gets picked up be the rangers the city's authorities will happily do that job for us."

Matthias stares at you for a moment, silently turns to Grainne, and asks what her plan is. "The same," she answers. "No need to pick a fight here. Let's just go."

Matthias lets out a sigh, and turns to glare at the mercenaries one last time. But, after that, he shrugs and turns around. "Fine. Let's go."

--"I don't think these guys are a threat, given that we know their tricks. Let's go, no reason for us to be wasting our time here."

Matthias turns towards you and looks you over with a curious stare. "You don't sound too confident there," he points out. Curse him for noticing, but he's not wrong. You couldn't say for sure whether you're afraid of these guys pulling another fairly clever stunt or just impatient and wanting to get moving already, but either way the end result is that you don't come across as confident. Which, in a way, is strange when you think about it - you want to leave these guys be regardless, whatever your reason is, yet when you try and convince Matthias to go along with that...

"I agree with [PC FIRST NAME]," Grainne suddenly says, with all the self-assurance she usually has. "These guys are waiting for a friend who will never come back to them, at least not without a real ranger escort. Let's just leave them be and go. The longer we stay here the greater the chance they notice us, and we've got more important things to do than mess with them."

Matthias looks between you and Grainne, turns to stare at the mercenaries one more time, and lets out a sigh. "Fine," he says with some kind of defeated tone. "I've got my own life to worry about, these guys can wait here for their impending arrest." With that said Matthias turns around and start walking, as do you and Grainne. Grainne also makes sure to quietly get your attention, and giving you a meaningful look she mumbles something along the lines of "you owe me one".

You don't think Grainne is going to remember that, you're honestly not even sure if she's serious (she did herself a favor just as much as you, so you're not inclined to say you "owe her one", personally), but either way it does give you something to mull over on the way to the Chards' estate...

-Arithmetic. Signal the rangers that people are here, and leave before they arrive.
--"Do you think the rangers have found these guys' friend by now?" you ask as you fail to find your wand where you usually leave it. Turns out it's already in your hand. Good enough.

"Should be, or if not they should be close," Matthias answers. "And now that I think about that, whatever we're going to do we should probably do it quickly. once they find the one guy the rangers will undoubtedly go looking for any others, and I'd rather not have to try and explain my situation to them if I can avoid it."

Okay, that actually puts a bit of a damper on your plans. But...yeah, if you manage to pull it off, it can work. "I was thinking we give the rangers a hint, something that'll lead them to this place without alerting the mercenaries." Grainne and Matthias both quickly point out that's a rather risky plan, but you tell them both to let you finish. "I know, but hear me out: I can set the spell on a delay. Give us a minute to get out of here, make some distance, and by the time we're long gone the spell activates and goes off. Even if these guys lose patience and leave before that point it'll at least point the rangers in the right direction. The rangers are expert trackers, after all, and these guys did set up a sort of camp here."

"Spells can do that?" Matthias asks, looking a bit perplexed.

"Sure they can. I've read about it in books before," Grainne mentions. "Sounded like pretty advanced stuff, though. Think you can pull it off, [PC FIRST NAME]?"

"I can but try. Both of you get moving and make some distance while I set this up, that way if I fail and get captured it'll only be me that gets captured. It'll take a minute for me to piece these spells together properly."

"And how will we meet back up if you don't fail? I'm not going to wait for you," Grainne "politely", for her, points out. Matthias, likewise, seems unamused with your proposed idea.

"If you guys want to stay, fine, but I'm not promising that this is going to end well. Grainne's not wrong, this is pretty advanced stuff. Hopefully none of those guys have a wand or the brains to use it, though."

Matthias, with all the sarcasm you expect, makes a comment about how this plan can only end well, but you don't pay him any mind. He and Grainne do end up walking away a bit, just enough to get out of sight if this plan of yours goes haywire, but you're feeling pretty confident. It's not that complicated when you think about it, honestly. You piece together a basic light spell that's more blinding than bright, a very basic spell that a decent first year could pull off easily, and carefully "package" it within a Negation that you set to expire after around a minute. It sounds complicated, and to be fair getting spells to interact with each other is usually a complicated affair, but getting spells to do their in thing in sequence, completely separately from each other, is much simpler.

A few minutes of admittedly stressful casting later, and you throw your (invisible) spell at the group of mercenaries. Their camp suddenly erupts into loud barks as a dog seems to have noticed something amiss, but the mercenaries don't appear to have wands on them with which to detect your spell, and there's no smell to it that the dog to detect, so the mercenaries quickly write it off as a false alarm. You take that time to run up to where Grainne and Matthias are waiting.

"Are they coming?" Matthias asks, but you shake your head and explain how they noticed your handiwork. How they failed to notice it, more specifically. "Let's hope you're right, and let's get moving. The faster we leave this place the better."

You obviously don't disagree, and neither does Grainne, so the three of you quickly leave. About a minute later you notice a weird flash of light coming from the direction of the mercenaries, but of course you don't stay around to admire it. That's definitely going to attract the attention of the rangers, and probably sooner rather than later.

--"Arithmetic is useless!" they said. "You should study something less boring!" their friends said. Well who's laughing now, eh? The Academagia student that actually studied...okay, that once skimmed a book on using Arithmetic knowledge and Phemes to add a delayed activation trigger to a spell. Which, eh...kinda hard to remember the details but you'll figure it out! It's just a matter of numbers, right? That's what it always is, surely you'll be able to manage to pull this off!

"[PC FIRST NAME], if you're going to scheme something could you maybe, possibly find it within yourself to actually include us in that conversation?" Grainne asks, snapping you back to reality. No matter, you'll make this spell work even better! Somehow.

"Sorry, just trying to recall some textbook information. Anyway, about what to do with these guys: I say we make sure the rangers know where to find these guys. Cast a bit of magic to show their location while run off before either side figures out what happened. Sound like a plan?"

Grainne looks confused, as does Matthias. Though Matthias seems content to stay quiet and listen while Grainne bombards you with questions, though. "Not really. First off, how are you going to alert the rangers about these guys without alerting them about us? Second, how are you going to pull that off without these guys noticing that they've been had and making a run for it before the rangers even figure out what happened?"

You briefly go over your plan, and of course Grainne does nothing but drop more questions on you about every last exact detail. Matthias, meanwhile, seems confused and mentions he didn't even know that delaying the release of a spell like you're suggesting was even possible. And the way you figure it, the fastest way to answer both of their questions is to show results. So you tell both Grainne and Matthias to wait some distance away, just in case, while you work your magic. Grainne, who's more than willing to let you throw yourself to the wolves to make her life easier, shrugs and doesn't even wish you good luck as she starts walking. Matthias likewise silently shrugs and follows Grainne.

Finally, no more distractions. That's all you need to make this work. Sure, it sounds really complex, and actually combining spells usually is, but you're not combining spells here. You're putting a spell inside another, so that they'll just do their own thing in sequence. Tricky, yes, but nowhere near as complex as what Grainne seems to think. Just whip up a giant light spell and cover it in a Negation that will disappear after some amount of time. That's all you need, ultimately, no problem. So time to start casting.

It, admittedly, takes you a few attempts to get the spells to cooperate, and working your Palette like this is something you've never done before, but you make it work. After a few tries, sure, but you make it work. When you're finally ready you release your spell and throw it right in the middle of the mercenary camp, spooking a dog in the process. You'll take that as your cue to leave, so you run up to where Grainne and Matthias are waiting.

Matthias sees you coming, looks towards the mercenary camp and sees that you're not being chased after, and looks at you curiously. "Did everything work? You seemed to have a little trouble there."

"Everything went perfectly fine," you answer as confidently as you can. Grainne opens her mouth to say something in response, but out of nowhere an immensely bright flash of light shoots out from behind you, nearly blinding the three of you. That must be your spell going off early, which...wasn't intended, but hey, it was a successful proof of concept. That's all you can really ask for sometimes.

Sadly now is a really bad time to be one of those times!

Amid a few curses, courtesy of Grainne, and less than flattering observations of your casting prowess and general humility courtesy of Matthias the three of you do manage to run away before the mercenaries can get their act together and give chase. Turns out even tracking dogs can't do much when they've been struck blind by a small sun suddenly exploding right in front of their face. Who knew?

-Incantation. Serve the mercenaries a cold dish of good old revenge.
--"We could leave and let these guys be, but honestly I'd feel better if we dealt with them now and not have to watch our backs later. I know it's about a month too early for snow to start falling, but what do you two say to giving these guys an early look at a Minetan winter?"

"The winters here aren't that bad," Grainne points out, either missing the point or only pretending to. You'd assume it's the latter and that Grainne is trying to derail your suggestion, but if so you're not sure what her plan is.

"Either way these guys could do with spending a few hours as an ice sculpture," Matthias says with a rather dark expression on him. "I take it you can cast the necessary spells? Because if so I can send Bass to scout them out, as he usually does. Make sure nothing is going to, say, alert these guys that danger is coming." You ask who Bass is, and Matthias clarifies that he's talking about a Familiar. Grainne again seemingly tried to derail the entire plan by pointing out that a snake really doesn't sound like an indication that there's no danger around, to her at least, but Matthias insist that the mercenaries wouldn't think twice about seeing a snake in the Imperial Reserve. With that Grainne gives up, and she says that she'll be waiting a bit further ahead "in case things go horribly wrong". You're not worried, though. And neither is Matthias.

The two (well, three) of you quickly agree on a plan to ambush the would-be ambushers, and set it in motion. Matthias' Familiar scouts ahead and gets the attention of the camp, lures an otherwise scared dog into cautiously following it, and when the three mercenaries come after it to haul it back to their base camp you use your wand to freeze all four of them in place. And freeze them in place rather more literally than figuratively.

"You're sure those guys - and their dog for that matter - aren't going to, you know, die? Frozen like that until they're rescued by the rangers?" Grainne asks you as you and Matthias run up to her, both with a look of smug satisfaction on your respective faces.

"If it were regular ice they were frozen in I would be worried. That, however," you confidently answer as you point to the mercenaries (and their dog), "is magical ice that's made to keep it's shape and temperature despite the sunlight beating down on it. It won't freeze the mercenaries, honestly I'm more worried about them getting a heatstroke. That ice - ironically enough - might function as a sort of greenhouse, actually."

"So...you're saying that they're going to suffocate?" Grainne asks, clearly disapproving of your decision to pick a fight. You don't pay it any mind, though.

"They might get that impression, which...I guess is a little more terrifying than I was intending, but they should be fine in that respect as well. Simply put that ice isn't entirely 'solid', exactly. It'll still let wind through, in a way."

Grainne rolls her eyes, though before she can continue to question (or scold) you Matthias steps in and suggests that she leaves her complaints for later. When the three of you have gotten to the Chards' estate, hopefully. That's enough to make Grainne drop whatever point she's trying to make. "Fine. I suppose I'll just be content with knowing who's responsible if I hear about a trio of mercenaries dying in the Reserve for no immediately obvious reason."

You are absolutely sure that those mercenaries aren't going to suffocate, or burn or freeze to death in their cold cages. You wouldn't have suggested this plan in the first place if you weren't sure you could make sure of that. Regardless, that's a matter that'll resolve itself in time, one way or another. And for now you three have more important business to attend to...

--Despite Grainne's obvious wish to leave these guys alone and start moving towards wherever she can have her precious interview you're of the opinion that these guys need to be taught a more direct lesson than just being found out and picked up. Who knows, what if these guys realize their friend's failure and leave? You're not sure if the rangers could stick a charge of attempted kidnapping on them, if they don't get caught here red-handed.

Or, you know, blue-handed. Same difference, ultimately.

You suggest your plan to Matthias and Grainne, and while the latter obviously isn't in favor of it the former frowns at the idea that these guys might be able to get away with what they tried to pull. You freely admit that you're not a scholar on Minetan law and what's it called, criminal prosecution procedures? You're not sure if these guys can get away with it, is the point, but to you it sounds like if they're not caught in the Reserve by the rangers they could easily lie their way out of ever having been here, allegedly. They're part of the same band as the first guy, clearly, but what does that prove, ultimately?

"Yeah, let's make sure these guys get what's coming for them," Matthias says, completely ignoring Grainne's protests. "Bass can scout ahead, make sure to give you an opportunity. You cast the magic since I imagine you're better at it than I am, Academagia student and all. Sound like a plan?" Most of it, though you're not clear on who "Bass" is. "Oh, right. Bass is my Familiar," Matthias clarifies. "Don't worry about him, he's done this sort of thing many times before. He'll lure the targets just fine, you just make sure to work some proper magic on them."

You nod, and while Grainne decides to make some distance in case the plan goes wrong you and Matthias carefully approach the mercenaries and proceed with the plan. Matthias' Familiar first spooks, than lures a dog the mercenaries have with them away from their camp until they go after him (her?) to retrieve the wayward dog. Only to walk, unknowingly, into your trap. You piece together a few Phemes, combine them into a spell, and release it at the mercenaries.

The good news is that your spell goes flawlessly, and all the mercenaries (including their dog) are rapidly encased in a somewhat haphazard wave of ice. The bad news is that they are encased in a somewhat haphazard wave of ice. This is definitely something you should have considered earlier, you'll admit that, but the problem you're only now seeing is that these guys might not live for very long if you just leave them like this...

"Good spell...though you don't look like it succeeded. Is there a problem?" Matthias asks when he sees you staring dubiously at your work, and thinking that it'd be best to inform him you point out what's concerning you. Matthias takes one look at the mercenaries and shrugs his shoulders. "If they didn't see who cast the spell than frankly I don't think I care. I might have, before they tried to kidnap me, but..."

"If we take you to the Chards' estate than it'll be obvious which Academagia student did this, though. Grainne didn't attend Incantation last year, she couldn't cast a spell like this even if she wanted to. And she wouldn't let me forget about it, either."

Matthias briefly considers your conundrum...and shrugs. "Well, that's a problem you'll need to think of a way to deal with, I don't know how advanced magic works."

Right. "Advanced" magic. That's a word for the spell you just used, sure.

Matthias runs off towards Grainne, who'll probably ask and be told about what the issue is and dear Gods you don't even want to think about that issue that you're going to end up with somewhere down the line, right now you need to figure out how to solve this problem. Cancelling your spell will just result in these guys, not unreasonably, running after you or Matthias. Whichever they'll end up caring about more.

After some nervous thinking and quick decision making you decide to get rid of the top part of your ice spell, enough to make sure that these guys can breathe and scream for help if worst comes to worst, but leave the rest of the ice intact. That way they can't run after you, but also will not die. They might be thoroughly chilled out, literally if not figuratively, by the time the rangers find them, but a little frostbite never killed anyone. And even if it did...well, these guys are kidnappers. You can't pretend as if these guys wouldn't toss you bound and gagged on an airship if they had the chance.

You run back to Grainne and Matthias, who've actually stuck around to wait for you (probably on Grainne's insistence, come to think of it, in case whatever she ended up witnessing would be useful blackmail material). Strangely enough Grainne actually looks happy, perhaps amused, despite the fact that the plan that ended up delaying her oh-so precious interview went all kinds of south. Gee, you wonder why...

-Empathy. What's up with Matthias?
--"Grainne, can you scout out those guys, make sure they don't have trained animals or Gods know what else hiding out in the trees or what have you?" Grainne gives you a disapproving stare and asks why that should be her job, to which you point out that Matthias still looks like himself too much, she was the lookout before, and she's the one who claims to be able to lie her way out of any situation.

"Oh...fine," Grainne says, shaking her head a bit. "Just don't expect me to walk up to those people and say 'hi' if I can help it, they're known kidnappers after all. Speaking of which, you owe me for this one." You don't pay any attention to Grainne's (likely hollow) threat and and wait for her to get out of earshot. Once she's gone, you turn your attention to Matthias.

"Having doubts about taking them on?" you quietly ask. Matthias doesn't answer, but he does turn to face you. You've got his attention. "I know you're not afraid of them, or of the rangers showing up and frowning at you for picking a fight, so...why hesitate? I'm not saying we shouldn't avoid them if we can, but...you seemed pretty eager to turn the tables on the guy from earlier."

"That girl...she sounded like my mother, for a moment there," Matthias answers. You, to put it politely, raise an eyebrow at that. "Well, okay, maybe not that much like her. But what she said is exactly what my mother would have said to me. 'Pick the battles you have to, not the ones you want to'. It's something she often said to me."

That phrase must be running circles in Matthias' head, if that's what he got from what Grainne said to him. Antonio mentioned that Matthias' parents were both mercenaries, right? You're pretty sure you're remembering that correctly. So would that advice be fitting or ironic? You don't feel like now is the right time to ask Matthias about it, especially because the sound of a dog barking suddenly comes from the direction of the mercenaries, and a few second later you can see Grainne running back. "Okay, credit where credit is due, as much as I hate to admit it: [PC FIRST NAME], you were right. I take it you two heard the dog?" You and Matthias both nod. "Yeah, so the wind turned in it's direction for like a quarter second and that damn mut sniffed me out immediately from I don't know how many paces. I didn't get a good look at it - not that I'm too familiar with dogs anyhow - but I'll bet that thing's a proper hunting dog. Oh, and just for the record: No. I don't know how to mask someone's scent using Glamour, that's not something I need to do very often. Honestly, I suspect that dog is how they tracked down Matthias in the first place, so if anything I'll bet that as soon as it catches one whiff of him that he'll be found out, different look or no."

Matthias shakes his head, frustrated at the news. "So in short, we're not going to be able to sneak up on those guys easily if at all, but if we don't take them out right now there's a chance they'll send the dog to track me down again?"

"Not quite," Grainne corrects. "I might not know anything about dog breeds and which are good trackers, but I do know that going through a densely packed city is basically the best way to get a dog off your scent. I was planning on avoiding populated areas, since, you know, trying to hide and all, but if we pass through the Admiratio there's not a chance that any regular dog will be able to track us down. A Familiar dog who knows Astrology, maybe, but that would be an entirely different problem altogether. As for hiding you, I think we should be able to hide among the crowd. If there's any place in Mineta where you'll find a lot of Academagia students without standing out too much, it's the Admiratio."

"Do I want to know where you learned about that? The dog thing, I mean?" you curiously ask Grainne. She shakes her head.

"I don't have much experience with dogs myself, but if you're sure we can just leave these guys be, I'll trust you. And if you're wrong I'll throw you to the dog. Literally."

Yeah, you figured that was coming. Still, knowing about the dog will make this easier. Still, the question remains: To walk away, or to act?

--You do your best to coax some answers out of Matthias, but he doesn't say anything other than that you should focus on the problem in front of you. Which you wouldn't say is wrong, in this instance, but it doesn't tell you anything.

Maybe after you take care of these guys he'll be more willing to talk, but you're feeling doubtful that you'll ever get the chance...

In some respects it's actually harder to type out these failure texts that don't stall the adventure at all. Of course trying to stall the adventure in a reasonable manner would be even more difficult, so...

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A Matter of Honor, stage 8:

The three of you leave the Imperial Reserve and start to make your way to the Chards' estate, getting most of the way there until you encounter one Catherine Chard, seemingly on her way to the estate herself. She initially seems disinterested in the three of you, in you and Grainne specifically that is, but the "Academagia student" she's obviously never seen before is worth a second look. As it turns out, that's all she needs to identify Matthias. You can already feel how painful this conversation will be, and it's only just getting started. Joy. "Wait! Grainne, [PC FIRST NAME], hang on you two. Is...is this who I think it is?" Catherine asks after walking right up to you, so as to ask her question as quietly as she can in this crowded space. You'll admit, you didn't expect her to be that cunning.

"Depends, girl. Who are you and who are you looking for?" Matthias asks, what must be rudely compared to what Catherine is used to. Thankfully she's able to maintain a stiff upper lip in the face of Matthias' lack of refined manners.

"Never mind about that question, than. I'm sure every Academagia student can put a name to my face even if I've never talked to them before. Matthias Neumann, I assume? My name is Catherine Chard, and my family-"

"I've heard, girl," Matthias cuts in as he makes a dismissive gesture. Catherine naturally looks put off, but she doesn't interrupt Matthias in turn. "Talk while we walk, please? I've had to endure two kidnapping attempts just getting this far, I'd prefer to not have to start something out on the streets. I assume your family wouldn't want me to either, frankly." Catherine blinks, stares at both Grainne and you with a confused face, and both of you nod in affirmation that, yes, what Matthias just said is indeed correct. Her expression...doesn't really change after that, actually. She still looks put off, but hopefully it's no longer solely directed at Matthias.

Catherine nods and, as asked, resumes talking after she (and the rest of you) start walking. "That...sounds like the three of you have gone through a lot already. Who tried to kidnap you? Mercenaries?" Matthias shrugs and says that's pretty much the long and short of it, he's just not sure whether those mercenaries were acting of their own accord or paid by someone else to do their dirty work. Not that he's trying to accuse Catherine of anything, he's just not sure. Catherine, for a brief moment, looks like she took the accusation personally. But after a second she regains her composure. "I-I...I'll have to ask my parents about bringing the hammer down on those brutes. No offence to your former profession, but repeated attempts at kidnapping is...where a line should be drawn. My own recent visit to the Mercenary Guild House wasn't a pleasant one, either." Grainne looks surprised at the idea that Catherine Chard went to the Mercenary Guild House, but seeing as how Matthias and Catherine are currently conversing she doesn't comment on it. You can see how physically painful it is for her, not to call Catherine out on that, but she maintains her silence. Barely.

"I'm surprised you even bothered to try going there," Matthias notes. "Didn't you hear the rumors about me? I'm assuming that's why the nosy girl was looking for me in the Reserve."

You know, that's actually a good point. Why was Grainne looking for Matthias in the Reserve, anyway? Did she come to the same conclusion you did the same way you did, or did she have another reason? And just what are these oft-mentioned "rumors" anyway? You three had a very valid reason not to continue loitering in the Reserve and play twenty questions there, but now that you're in Mineta and have Catherine Chard with you...

"I don't believe in making decisions based on 'wisdom' dispensed by a rumor mill. Even if the Academagia's hadn't been particularly...grainy, as of late," Catherine answers. You'll have to add that to your list of ways you've never heard something described before later. You're also pretty sure Catherine didn't mean that as an insult to Grainne, though she seems to have interpreted it as such. "Truth be told I haven't heard many rumors about you, at least genuine ones. Plenty of stories from the people at the Mercenary Guild House, but I doubt that they had truthful journalism in mind when I talked to them." Matthias snorts at that idea, and Catherine actually nods at his reaction. "I suppose just for posterity, and to maybe help Grainne avoid popping a blood vessel if I'm interpreting her death glare correctly, what rumors are making the rounds about you? And assuming you even care to comment on them, is there any truth to them?"

Matthias shrugs and makes a vague comment that no rumor he's ever heard about himself was all that interesting, or true, but of course that pushes Grainne over her limit and she starts budding into the conversation. Based on the sneaky grin on Matthias' face you're thinking that was an intentional reaction on his part. "Oh, I've heard plenty of interesting things about you!" Grainne yells a little more loudly than you think she should. Definitely more than she needs to, really, no matter how much she feels like she needs to get it out of her system. "First off..." Grainne ominously starts as she suddenly falls silent and fishes a roll of parchment out of her knapsack, quickly skimming it before continuing. "Sorry, it's been a bit of a long day so I had to double-check. First off, is it true that you're not, shall we say, entirely human?"

Matthias doesn't react to Grainne's question (accusation?) beyond rolling his eyes and looking bored. Catherine briefly forgets to maintain her composure and looks perplexed at the question, though she straightens herself out a second later. "Eh, I mean, in the end what really is this complex creature we call a hunam, anyway? I mean, human." Matthias says with all the seriousness of an intoxicated clown. He's being coy, and unfortunately Grainne isn't sure how to out-wit him. So her attempt to do so, needless to say, falls flat on it's face. Matthias looks amused, at least. Catherine, for her part, stays out of their conversation. As do you.

"Hey, wait a minute!" someone suddenly yells over the noise of the crowd. That noise immediately dies down, and when you look around, you notice that the four of you are surrounded by no less than eight people wearing similar-looking uniforms. Mercenaries. That's unfortunate, either they recognized Matthias or Grainne got their attention. Or both. "Kid, you're really going along with that girl?" one of the mercenaries asks, pointing at Catherine. "Do you know who she is? Can you really trust her?"

"More than I can trust the people who've tried to kidnap me twice already," Matthias mutters underneath his breath. You don't think the mercenaries could hear that, and honestly, you're not sure whether or not that's a good thing. Catherine, however, did hear it, and she naturally approves of Matthias' trust. Or, at least, his recognition that his bar for trusting people is below what Catherine can clear. Which sadly isn't saying much.

Speaking of Catherine, she seems ready and prepared to get these mercenaries to clear out. One way or another, if the fact that several guardsman are quietly gathering in the background is any indication. These mercenaries, either willingly or not, are visibly unarmed and standing in front of Catherine Chard, so it's not like they've got a real choice. And even if they have hidden weapons, if they want to pull those out and threaten Catherine Chard with them, well...that's their funeral! And they must know it is, too.

Still, even if this probably isn't going to end violently regardless, is it perhaps possible to convince these guys to clear out...well, more peacefully? Willingly? Convince them that this is Matthias' choice to make, that they should trust him, something along those lines? You doubt it's necessary to get to the Chards' estate, which is your ultimate goal, but...

-Let Catherine handle this, no need to get in her way.
--As nice an idea as it is you're not comfortable trying to give a group that contained at least four kidnappers an entirely improvised speech out in public, so...you're content to just sit back and let Catherine handle this.

Not that there's a whole lot to say on that front. Catherine simply asks the mercenaries to clear out, they answer that they won't until they hear some kind of answer from Matthias, so without any visible prompt on Catherine's end the guards walk up and tap the mercenaries on the shoulders. They quickly realize that they're doomed, so they just politely apologize for their behaviour and leave, like "good people" should. It makes you wonder whether these guys had more to say that perhaps should have been said, not every mercenary is on the same level as those that tried to kidnap Matthias earlier, you're well aware of that, but...you suppose it doesn't really matter anymore at this point. Whatever those mercenaries might have had to say, whether they'll get the chance depends on what the Chards have to say to Matthias.

-Oratory. Lecture these guys on what's right and wrong.
--Rather out of nowhere, and to the complete surprise of basically everyone within listening range, you suddenly launch into an impassioned speech about how every individual should be free from captivity. You end up quoting just about every major historical figure that's ever had anything to say on the subject, from King Durand to the New Gods, as you put forth the argument that the mercenaries have no right to even question Matthias' own decision to go with Catherine Chard of his own free will. Not to mention that it is, genuinely, his choice to go with her, of course.

One of the mercenaries, even more surprisingly and out of left field than your own antics, responds to your speech like he's a regular debater at The Forum of Naxum. The two of you, in this otherwise unimportant street somewhere in the Upper City, end up having a lengthy debate about the idea that every sentient creature has the right to be free from captivity, the restrictions inherent in the laws of every civilized group that all members of said group must follow, and finally the reality of both freedom and captivity (or, rather, restrictions) in a civilized society where restrictive laws are required, in the context of how such a society could ever hope to achieve the ideal of complete freedom without that freedom restricting the freedom of another.

Put less long-windedly, the mercenaries are accusing Catherine Chard's family of using their wealth and clout to force Matthias' hand. Considering it wasn't the Chards that tried to kidnap Matthias twice earlier today the argument falls a little flat. You have to commend them for their effort, though.

Ultimately the mercenaries are convinced that Catherine did not force Matthias' hand in any way, after which they agree to drop the matter and leave. Never in your life has it taken that many words to convince someone of that, but you're too happy that you actually managed to hold your own in that debate to care.

It'd feel like more of a victory if Grainne wasn't put to sleep by it and did more than leave both Matthias and Catherine stunned silent, but you'll take whatever victories you can at this point.

--In your head it sounds like such a great idea. Standing up for Matthias' rights and showing not just these mercenaries, but also Catherine Chard and whoever else might be watching and listening, that you're both able and willing to do such a thing. What good it'd ultimately do, who knows? But one can never go wrong trumpeting the cause that any by definition sane person would agree with. "Preaching to the choir", as that's called.

That was the idea. The reality of the situation, however, did not turn out that way. First you failed to properly get your point across, not enough actual experience with public speaking, which was embarrassing enough. Than, however, the mercenaries proved to be more adept at public speaking than you ever would have expected from the same group of people who resorted to outright kidnapping just earlier today (different kinds of mercenaries, sure, but guess who's mind let that little detail slip...) as they turned the tables on you and solidly argued that the whole situation with the Chards' invitation was genuinely unfair towards the mercenaries. Catherine naturally disagreed, but the mercenaries argued their point in a sufficiently polite and civilized way that she didn't feel offended by their arguments. Which, for Catherine Chard, is saying something.

Ultimately (and for your sake, thankfully) Matthias' opinion wasn't going to change regardless, after what he's gone through today, so you all are still bound for the Chards' estate as the mercenaries ultimately agreed that if Matthias wants to go there to hear them out he's got every right to. This still turned out to be a public display of you failing utterly that it really didn't need to be, though. And of course Grainne was there to witness the entire thing. You'll admit, you genuinely forgot she was there until you noticed her writing stuff on her roll of parchment, only to give you a meaningful wink, a coy smile and a bit of the old eerie silent treatment when you asked her what she was writing down. So unless Matthias turns out to be some manner of gossip goldmine, guess who's going to be taking his place?

This is not the note you wanted this day to end on. Or any other day, for that matter. Hopefully this is the end of it, though...

So there was something I wanted to do with this (and other) stages, but I think that plan fell through. In the process I may have instead accomplished something else I should have done, but didn't plan for because I didn't realize it was a thing I should do until I randomly bumbled into it. So...yay, I guess?

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