Like all fairies, the woman floating toward us, perched on mist, was a paramount beauty. Her flaxen hair was unusually long, and seemed perfectly dry despite having just emerged from a pool. She held no weapon and wore only her raiment, a gown of cloud-like silk that blended with her cloud-like vehicle. But she was circulating a massive quantity of mana, enough that I had the feeling she could respond to anything the grandmother-granddaughter pair of knights could throw at her.
On her way, she paused and inspected the damaged pillar. She looked at the manager and said, “Talitha, summon the builder to have a look at this. And evacuate this wing until they say it is safe.”
“Yes, My Lady.”
She looked directly over at me, where I had been surreptitiously opening the cabinet where my belongings were locked. I had snuck over there while everyone was looking at her.
“Please drop your cloak, little vampire. You are in no danger in my house. I guarantee the safety of all my paying guests.”
I finished pulling my panties on before I complied, then used the towel that I had wrapped my hair with to squeeze the rest of the water from it.
“You’ll shelter this monster?” Mára demanded as the cloud descended to the ground. “Your employees are in danger of being preyed upon!”
The woman rose to her feet, facing Mára, as the cloud landed between the two of us. It converted back into Water mana and dispersed.
She sighed and looked at the manager. Gesturing toward Mára, she asked, “Talitha, is this good knight our guest here?”
“No, madam. But she insisted that the last guest to arrive was a dangerous monster, and made me lead her here.”
With a shake of her head, the owner noted, “I suppose the last vampire to visit us was before your time. Vampires are most rare in Relador, after all. Talitha, our House of Gold Leaves shall willingly entertain the civilized monsters who occasionally find their way to our valley. In my experience, most are well-mannered, law-abiding and just.”
The manager’s eyes grew uncertain. Her boss then smiled at me and added, “I overheard your words of concern about the mortals who work here. It’s the same concern I have heard from previous vampire guests. But I would be unable to fill the staff with only the fair-touched, as the unscrupulous who abandon them are thankfully few in number. Several of my girls are of sound mind and untouched and merely choose our profession of their own free will. If you rent a private room, Talitha can insure that only such staffers of free will are provided, and that they understand what service they are expected to provide.”
Her smile vanished as she looked back at Mára. “This child was behaving herself quite properly, but I cannot say the same for the two of you. Please leave and refrain from setting foot on my property ever again. I shall forward the bill for the damage to my home to the Old Grove clan.”
I noticed that she knew not only Mára and Feraen’s names but also their clan, even though they hadn’t introduced themselves. I guess they were famous.
“As if I would leave here without getting satisfaction!” Feraen shot back as she approached. Unlike the owner, she was still sopping wet from her dunk. She pointed at me. “That monster’s words have gone too far!”
She still had her sword out. I had just finished shimmying back into my dress. I decided to keep my mouth shut and just extract my hair from beneath it and then quietly retrieve my sword belt.
“You will leave, or I will spank you again, little girl,” the owner answered with ice in her voice. I’m quite certain every fairy in the room could sense the amount of water mana she was channeling.
Other fairies were approaching now. All were wearing dark expressions. It occurred to me that they probably all objected to having the peace of their little oasis disturbed. It didn’t look to me like I was the focus of their attention though. Their glares were focused on the one who had just been throwing flame around their bathing area.
After looking around at the eyes on her, Feraen turned and pointed at me. “You! The peak of Mount Ciddan, tonight, at Midnight! I shall teach you not to show a fairy disrespect!”
I had been preparing to put the belt on. I couldn’t help it. I stopped, grew a smirk and tipped my head. “Are you saying you want me to beat you up again?”
This would be three times, right?
“Impertinent! Do not fail to appear, monster!”
She actually flipped her cape as she turned and stormed back up the path leading into my spot. It was a really cool move. I made a mental note to practice it if I ever took to wearing a cape. Then I sent my inner middle-schooler to time-out.
Feraen stopped on the path and turned around when she realized her mother didn’t seem as ready to leave. Seeing that Mára wasn’t moving, the owner began summoning a large ball of Water mana above her outstretched palm.
Mára raised her chin and declared, “Hide Ëononle lianelfen ora Mára ro! (I am Old Grove’s noble daughter and knight, Mára!) Who are you to treat me so rudely?!”
The owner smiled back, bowed and stated, “I am Mitozin, a mere commoner, an ordinary naiad with no clan or noble standing. But, little girl, in this humble house, I am the queen, and you have behaved boorishly within my castle. My precious guests have been needlessly bothered by your intrusion.”
Several fairies around the room– I could now count at least four full fairies, the remaining half-dozen being lesser fairies– started hooting and jeering.
“Yeah, go away, old hag!”
“Go back to your nasty old grove!”
“What kind of knight are you?”
“Stop picking on a little kid!”
I wanted to retort to that last one, but I appreciated the support.
Then, as Mára was glaring at the one off to her left who had yelled the last cat-call, a water bullet came in from her right. It wasn’t at a dangerous velocity. Frankly, it was so slow, it was basically like throwing a water ballon at her. A big one.
She defended against that with a [Wind Wall] only to have another come in from the opposite direction, which she slashed with her sword. Meanwhile, a large ball of water formed above her head and dropped at the same moment a snowball was incoming. She continued her sword swing to destroy the snowball, but the water ball drenched her. The room filled with laughter as Mára glared around at them.
Then, an especially obnoxious laughter joined in.
It continued, causing everyone else to stop and look for the source. A certain inverse Cheshire cat named Serera faded into view, seated in the foliage of one of the larger palm trees in the room. She was actually holding her hand sideways across her mouth as she laughed. She really was.
“Serera!” Mára yelled at her, and the fairy royal knight finally restrained her laughter. Her smirk was huge and her tummy was still visible quaking as she lightly rose from the palm and glided down to the stone perch above my pool.
“Ho ho ho ho…” she tittered lightly, as her toes touched down. “Dearest Mára, you look sorrowful! How ever did you become so terribly drenched?”
“Don’t play with me!” the green-haired knight spat back at her. “I know that last water ball was yours!”
“Oh, my! What would a sylph like me, a proper and respectable fairy of the wind, be doing playing with water, of all things?”
“Serera!” she raised her comb and Fire mana flared again. A [Fireball] spat forth from the comb, but in response, Serera reach out and…
… caught the fireball. Never in my life had I seen someone actually catch a fireball. She was seriously holding it in her hand, somehow.
After a moment, my fairy sight caught up with what I was seeing and recognized she had actually wrapped a Wind cocoon around it, which she ‘held in her palm’ via remarkably deft mana control.
She squeezed, and the fireball guttered out. Staring down Mára, she declared, “Consider this a royal order, Lady Mára, Knight of the Old Grove. Cease your rioting immediately, or face arrest on the charge of disturbing the peace of Tëan Tír.”
After Mára continued the deadly glare for another few breaths, she shoved the comb into her hair, then slammed her sword into her scabbard. “Serera of the Gray Mountain, my husband shall have words with your clan about this!”
“That old goat can complain all he wants,” Serera answered. “But make sure that he directs it to the king and not my father. Even a clan lord can’t object to the king’s knight guarding the peace of this valley.”
Mára turned that glare toward me, then said, “See to it you show up for your duel, monster!”
“Ah, about that…” Serera noted before I could respond. “She’s been summoned to appear at Court before Midnight. You’ll have to hold your duel at the royal sword grounds, instead.”
The green-haired knight’s expression grew sour. “This is a matter of honor!”
“And the challenged has the final choice as to the grounds, not the challenger,” she replied, then turned to me. “Your Highness, Mount Ciddan’s peak is so terribly cold at night in the spring. And as a princess you have the right to choose the royal sword grounds. It would be best, given you must go to the High Forest, anyhow.”
I noticed that the manager and Laneia were both staring wide-eyed at me. I guessed their surprise was due to Serera addressing me as a princess.
I asked, “Will they allow a midnight battle there?”
“Your Aunt Tenre shall decide.” Serera answered. “She will designate the time according to her convenience, I imagine, since she will likely have to officiate, unless the crown prince chooses to. And she shall set the ground rules, since the arena is her responsibility.”
I nodded and looked beyond Mára to where Feraen was still standing. “Since it seems I do not have the liberty to meet you at your chosen place and time, I shall entertain you at the royal grounds, and send word of the time my aunt selects. Provided someone shows me where it is.”
After all, I had no idea where the ‘royal grounds’ were, except they were apparently in my grandfather’s woods.
Serera had stepped off the perch and glided the rest of the way to the ground near me. She landed, clasped her hands together and bowed in formal Dorian fashion and stated, “If I may have the honor of acting as your second, I shall guide you there myself, Your Highness.”
I looked back at the other two fairy knights present. Mother and daughter glared at the two of us, then turned away and left without a word.
“I guess they agreed?” I theorized.
The fairy captain smiled with a faint chuckle, then turned to the manager. “Miss Talitha, I distinctly recall asking you to show this child every courtesy.”
The manager paled and stammered, “My Lady, you did, but the knights insisted she was a danger to my girls!”
“Do not be hard on the good woman, My Lady,” Mitozin the owner said as she walked up to stand beside the manager and put her arm around her shoulder for reassurance. “A mortal like my dear Talitha could hardly stand against a pair of fairy knights.”
The woman dropped her head. “Thank you, madam.”
“Go make the arrangements I requested now,” she instructed, letting her go.
The manager hesitated, then turned to me and bowed. “I apologize for being so rude, Your Highness. It is my fault for not recognizing you as royalty.”
“Please raise your head,” I answered, but with a smile. “I cannot make you apologize for such a thing, when I never told you.”
She shook her head, staying down. I sighed, and nodded, “Very well. I accept.”
As she was leaving, Serera called, “I’ll take my usual private dinner, dear. Her Highness can be my guest.”
Synopsis: Somewhere in the universe, there was an altar. On it, laid a bloody eye as big as the sun itself. It burst with light and bathed the entire star system in red.
"The aura of an ancestral artifact!" Someone's voice rose in surprise.
The Great Galactic Era had begun.