Thinking over what we had just learned, I decided to cut to the chase. I asked the bird-girl on the bed the most pressing question.
“How safe is it for my mortal friends to travel into Berado tribal lands as regular adventurers? Will they be stopped?”
Sidis didn’t reply. She was looking at me, but her mind seemed to be on something other than my question. Worried that I might actually have taught myself Grandmother’s technique for seducing ‘playmates’, I stopped touching her for the time being. Hopefully, it would turn down the volume on this magic.
“Can you answer?” I prompted her, trying to not concentrate as much positive vibes on her while I said it.
She blinked and made a slight noise, then answered, “They’ll definitely search your wagon. And you’ll have to have a really strong reason for traveling. They’re questioning everybody.”
She seemed to have forgotten her strong objections to the idea, from just a short while ago.
Allia scowled. “We thought it might be the case, but we really can’t just charge in, can we? We need to create a cover story.”
“You really are heading to the Berado home valley?” she asked, seeming to wake up a bit more.
She had finally responded directly to a question from Allia.
Allia tipped her head. “And if we were?”
She looked like she was about to object, but thought better and actually considered the problem.
“Then you’re in the wrong place. You shouldn’t go straight into the Tabad from here. You need to head down to Lisrau Mining Town, so you can take the Great Trading Route. It passes through the Berado valley. I was passing through here to bypass it.”
I wondered, “What would happen if we did head straight into the Tabad from here?”
Our plan had been to travel from this place, in the extreme southwest of Arelia, down along the Great Wall, then turn eastward to come at the Berado tribal lands from the side opposite Orestania.
“You would have to pass through my tribe’s lands. The Berado won’t let you enter or exit our territory,” she stated.
I was relieved that the effect of my magic appeared to be wearing off. Sidis was acting quite normal, now. Hm, she was actually still largely looking at me, though.
“What if we disguised the beast-kins in our group?” Ryuu wondered.
Sidis looked at him with confusion painted on her face. So did a few of the others.
In response, he continued, “Well, she’s a bird-kin, right? And the Berado that attacked her were bird-kin. If our group had no beast-kin in it, would bird-kin tribes even care?”
I understood his thinking quickly, even though I knew it was faulty. He had seen a highly segregated society in Orestania. There isn’t a lot of bigotry, but it is a fact that species tend to cluster into their own neighborhoods in the cities and, in the countryside, their own villages. In some cases, areas as large as baronies are populated by particular species. Arken’s home barony is like that.
But beast-kin are special in that respect, because they have an interlocking relationship with humans. In any mixed-marriage, the offspring are not half-breeds, they are simply the species of the father. That’s how Allia gave birth to her cat-kin daughter, Ceria.
Which is probably why Allia understood and began explaining it to him before I could.
“The tribes should be majority human, not beast-kin. It’s not common in Orestania, but beast-kin and humans intermarry quite often in the Tabad. Every tribe has a large number of beast-kin members. And a lot of those beast-kin will be bird-kin, because bird-folk prefer to live in the mountains.”
The interrogation transitioned into a session of comparing notes between what Sidis had told us and what the intelligence folks had given Allia. We agreed that the team would spend the next day gathering intel.
“So what do we do with this one?” Allia asked me, hooking her thumb at Sidis.
I glanced at the girl and saw her eyes still gazing at me.
Shaking my head, I said, “I don’t think we should hold onto her. We can’t be found with her in our company, right? And I doubt she can tell us anything about the packages we need to pick up.”
‘The packages that we’re picking up’ was how we were referring to Amelia, and, if possible, Chiara.
Allia scowled. “Then what do you suggest?”
The answer to that was quite simple. “I’ll eat a quick dinner, then carry her to the place where she wanted to go.”
Her eyebrows shot upward. “Tonight?”
I smiled. “The sooner, the better. Night is no obstacle for me, and she’s worried Berado tribesman might be in this town and could identify her. It would be better to avoid any chance of someone seeing her with us.”
“Shall I heal her now?” Melione wondered, but I shook my head.
“I want you to put her wing in a sling,” I told her. “She can’t escape on me with a broken wing-bone. I’ll heal her after I take her home.”
“But the Berado…” Sidis started, but I held my finger up and she stopped.
“Even if they could see me, they can’t catch me,” I told her. “Fairies fly much faster than bird-kin.”
I didn’t want to show myself in the dining hall downstairs, since the innkeeper hadn’t seen me arrive, but they had kindly carried my traveling pack upstairs from the wagon when they arrived and I had field supplies in it.
Ceria put her face close to my ear while I was digging through it. With a mischievous smirk, she whispered to me, “Whatever you were doing to that girl, do it to me next time, okay?”
Surprised, I asked, “What are you talking about?”
Her smirk grew into a grin. “My nose doesn’t lie. She was completely wet, you know?”
The cat-kin sense of smell is a lot stronger than a human’s, but I had no idea she could smell that. She giggled as she watched my cheeks grow warm.
While Melione fashioned a splint and a sling for Sidis, to strap her wing to her body, Uncle Arken began asking the girl more about the ‘magic stones’ she was carrying.
“Are you truly intending to make magic stones from these? The material quality is sufficient only for making low-power magic tools, but they’re not large enough to be useful for that.”
“That’s right,” she nodded, “These are the leftovers after the useful pieces were sifted out. They would normally go to a smelter, and each piece would produce less than a grain of actual mithril. But that makes them inexpensive enough for us to buy.”
“To what end?” he asked, looking at the stone in his hand again. “It’s hard to imagine any use for such a small, low-quality magic stone. The amount of mana they could retain is miniscule.”
She looked down. “That’s…”
After she fell silent, I guessed, “You don’t want to say?”
I glanced at Arken. He was acting as if he were suspicious of the girl, but I knew it was only because he couldn’t see all the details. Arken can get a bit obsessive over understanding every facet of something before he is satisfied. Mother says he has a ‘bad habit of suspecting everything’.
I told him, “The fact that she was carrying them is proof enough she’s not lying, Uncle Arken. We don’t have to understand why they have value to her. We can see that they have enough value for her to take such a risk.”
He probably accepted that, but he didn’t get a chance to say anything further, because Dilorè suddenly joined in. “They’re making spirit stones.”
The girl’s head jerked, and she looked over in surprise. “How…”
“It’s the only practical value in such a thing.” Dilorè answered, interrupting the question.
Spirit stones are magic stones which have an elemental spirit resident within them, which makes them far more valuable than plain magic stones. Ordinary magic stones must be regularly recharged, but the spirit in a spirit stone continuously recovers the mana lost as it is drawn out. A master magic tool crafter can even train the spirit to give a simple tool like a magic lantern additional functions. The lights in Mother’s estate and the Palace are powered by spirit stones which also turn the light on and off in response to a switch.
Spirit stones occur naturally, but one can also artificially marry elemental spirits to empty mithril ore and create them.
Arken frowned. “A spirit stone made from this material would be very weak. Even if it started with enough mana to be useful, once it was drawn off, the spirit would abandon the stone rather than make the effort to recharge it.”
“That’s okay,” the girl stated. “We can get the used stones back and reuse them.”
“How could your tribe have enough mages to make such an effort worthwhile?” Arken wondered. “If mages are so plentiful in your tribe, it would be more efficient to simply have them practice their magic directly.”
“The Amaga tribe has a mana spring,” Dilorè stated in a flat tone. “It’s well-known to fairies. You must be using these stones to distribute the mana from there to where it’s needed. You marry the spirit to the stone inside the spring’s flow and let it gather and bind the mana itself. Then you send the stone out to be used as a magic stone.”
The girl looked at her, a little amazed.
“My Lady Fairy, you understand well,” she nodded. “These stones used to be our main source of income. Now, we’re simply desperate to find enough stones to keep our warriors supplied.”
Arken looked a little amazed as well, as did I. I had never heard of disposable spirit stones either. Although they were more like cheap disposable magic stones, since the spirit would simply drift away after the mana was used up, so it wouldn’t be worth training. Still, it would be handy. And recyclable!
“Is this why the Berado are trying to conquer your tribe?” I wondered.
She nodded “They want the mines in the neighboring territories as well, but for the Amaga, the spring is our greatest wealth.”
When it was time to go, I had Melione give her another dose of [Soothe]. We had no ‘talking stones’ like the one Sidis carried, but I had several sheets of ‘returning bird’ letters in my wallet, courtesy of Arken. They could send messages at about fifty miles per hour.
It took time to convince Dilorè she couldn’t come with us. I had to take her aside and bluntly tell her that I could see through her stealth without any effort. She had to admit, her Fairy Sight couldn’t penetrate my [Vampire Cloak] at all. We couldn’t risk one of the fairies on the Berado side having eyes as good as mine while I was flying with a burden, so she couldn’t come along.
Leaving the inn was considerably easier than entering. I hovered outside the open window and let Dilorè hand the girl out. I could tell Sidis was stressed– as I held her in a princess-carry in my arms, it felt like every muscle in her body was tight– so as I ascended into the night, I went ahead and lightly used [Command] on her.
“Do not be anxious. You are safe.”
Not a typical usage for that skill, but it worked. Her eyes softened and she grew a slight smile as she nodded and relaxed.
“My Lady Fairy,” she asked quietly as I turned to fly in the direction that she had flown before, “can the Berado truly not see us?”
“They may only see what I allow them to see,” I told her. “Your enemies can do nothing to stop me. Just relax and trust me.”
She nodded again, and rested her head against my shoulder.
As we flew, I spotted the pair of Berado bird-kin walking below, carrying their leader. He was likely still out cold, and they were trudging forward, still trying to put enough distance between themselves and that field so that he would wake up. The spell would be wearing off soon, so I didn’t concern myself further with them.
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.