Chapter 22: Lake Festival

Things settled down rather quickly once the Kingdom got involved, and the case was relatively hushed up, although the priests were banned from preaching in the markets. James suspected it was just one small part of wide-ranging concessions the Church had granted the Queen. Howard had convinced Diana despite James’s denials that the best way for Diana to repay James for solving the mess was working to protect his shop like Howard himself did.

Nevertheless, Diana got used to her grandfather’s job rather quickly. After all, it was not exactly demanding. Most clients were locals coming to him for replacement power cores at a reduced cost compared to the item generators or general shops or just stopping by to talk about the weather or this and that. Even all the obscure races coming and going through James’s shop failed to surprise the young [Knight].

Every land had them, and they almost solely composed the entire population of certain nations. In this land, species other than her own comprised about thirty percent of the population. Most lived day to day lives like regular humans, only occasionally employing their unique talents for their jobs or personal lives. Like in most places, there was some animosity between the various groups, but decades or even centuries of cohabitation had led to relative acceptance.

While she figured it was for the better, James worked a simple life applying his trade even if she wasn’t exactly quite sure what it was other than apparently involving some [Craftsman] type Skills. She had never snooped around that workshop of his, and he always only worked in there, concealing his creations from the rest of the household. Over the near two weeks that she had lived there, he had not touched any of the things lying around on the first floor.

The day of the Lake Festival, they ate a lighter than normal lunch since James had claimed they’d be so bloated they’d barely be able to return home. It was then that Diana finally asked, “I’ve been here about two weeks now, and I haven’t ever seen you work on anything around here. Why’s that?”

James leaned back and sipped his coffee, chuckling at the thought. “Wow, I haven’t even thought about any of the clutter lying around the place for months. I used to keep everything that seemed to be my work downstairs. People kept breaking in and trying to steal anything of value even if it was usually nothing more than some loose Seedz or a bit of food. One day, I came up with the idea of leaving useless c**p lying around that people would think was valuable because it would supposedly be my current advanced works. Ha! In reality, I went to the junkyard and paid the man there five hundred Seedz for some loose metal contraptions. I washed them, scattered them around, and have never had anyone try to break into my real workshop since.”

Although a fair bit confused about how that actually worked, Diana did recognize a certain logic to his decision. It also made her truly realize that he was a very busy man. However, half his days he played with his pet wyvern Jeffry or went out drinking instead of doing anything that could be called work. Now, that she thought about it, Jeffry was a remarkably intelligent wyvern. She frowned: the giant scaled beast had been acting strangely lately, even refusing to play around with its prey like usual.

She sighed. A pet that mirrored its master. Typical lazy men. “So, what is the plan for today? Grandfather said he would watch the place today.”

James glanced at Kira and smiled. “It’s the Lake Festival. I nearly forgot today that it was about time until I talked to the Father at the church about hosting a festival. With all that’s been going on, it seems like I planned it so long ago. Kira and I were going to go; she likes hanging around the fish stalls.”

Kira chuckled and grabbed his arm, pulling him close to her. “Master does not like fish, so the festival is one of the few times I get to eat some.” Kira purred as she rubbed her cheek against his arm.

James pretended to frown but couldn’t rein in his smile. “She likes fish more than being with me when she is in heat.”

Kira’s ears went flat on her head.“Master, nothing is better than being with you. Fish just come very very close.” She cheekily grinned up at him.

James laughed, ruffling her ears, and noticed Diana blushing some. “Anyway, I was thinking… Do you want to go? I really appreciate all the stuff you’ve been doing around here for me.”

Diana almost jolted in shock. “Oh, sure. Should I wear this or?” She fidgeted, fingering an imaginary scratch on her armor.

James inspected her in her armor. “Wear what you’re comfortable in. Also, that reminds me, I got something for you before you return home. I’ll give it to you when you come back.” Diana couldn’t help but wear a demure smile when she learned that James had thought of her.

Diana changed into her summer dress quickly, almost trembling in anticipation while James and Kira hitched a pair of horses to a wagon. The animals seemed a bit unsettled by the cat beast-kin, but a bit of soothing let them continue relatively easily. Right before, they left, Diana handed Kira the dress she’d bought at the Skilled Seamstress, which rather closely matched the blue one she’d wanted to buy at The Threaded Mistress. While the Hersha had seemed rather surprised, it’d all been worth it when Kira had jumped up and hugged Diana, yelling, “Thank you!” 

Diana had worn a smile from that moment during the entire hour-long ride to the lake where dozens of booths had been set up. Already, many enjoyed day games. By the time they finished unloading the wagons where the other wagons and horses had docked and greeting some of the milling citizens, Kira was already gone, scampering toward the direction her nose twitched.

James unhitched the animals while Diana waited. As soon as he finished, James joined her. When he reached her, he whispered, “Watch.” With a smirk, James shook a small pouch that had been tied to his waist.

Diana quirked a brow. “Spending money for me?”

“Haha. Only if you want.” James lightly shook his head. “It’s Kira’s spending money.”

Diana smiled in amusement upon seeing Kira racing back once she noticed the ringing pouch. The Hersha only skidded to a brief halt in order to grab it before dashing off again. Her whiskers twitching as she hurriedly wiped her lips with her wrists. Diana thought she heard the cat-girl singing about, “Money! Fish!” as she disappeared into the meandering crowd that hurried to move out of the path of the cat-girl on a mission.

“You really need to feed that girl more fish.”

James shook his head. “I offered, but she said that was what made the festivals so special for her. She gets to eat what she wants and enjoy everything like a normal person.”

Diana paused to think on that for a moment, having to remind herself that Kira was a cat-girl. Her life span was limited to an, on average, fifteen years, and people normally treated her kind worse than slaves. She felt her voice catch. “Not everyone would do that you know.”

James sighed and tried to follow the pale orange streak dancing through the crowd.

They moved into the rows of booths. Nearby, Kira already had two fishes skewered on a stick, chewing another in her mouth. She meowed happily, waving at them.

“A person is a person to me. I guess as long as I am viewed as a person I extend that same courtesy.” James rubbed the back of his head to think on that a moment. “I guess that’s why I dislike visiting the fortress. Those of my cast see me as competition, and those above me see me as nothing more than a tool.”

Diana reflected on that as James stopped at a game booth with crossbows and point prize boxes. She felt a bit of regret; after all, she’d been raised up to have similar if a bit more nuanced beliefs about commoners. James glanced at the [Knight]. “Want to play?”

Diana frowned. “One of a [Knight]’s general Skills is |Basic Arms|; it wouldn’t be fair.”

The tenant moved over to the two and saw James. “Hark! It’s Tom; here with a pretty lass this time. That’s a change.” The two men lightly chuckled while Diana glanced down at her shoes.

“Thanks, Tom. Do my points still carry?”

The tenant took a moment to reflect on the question before smiling apologetically. “ Sorry, Tom. I warned you last year that they don’t carry over between years.”

James raised his shoulders. “Oh well, I guess I got to earn them again then. You still doing five shots for twenty?” The tenant nodded and James put a hundred Seedz coin on the board set up in front of the shooting range.

James hefted a crossbow and aimed it at the targets. He nailed a twenty-point box with his first shot. Whooping and throwing a fist in the air, he focused down the length of the crossbow beam to line up his next shot. In his next shot, he hit a ten, and after a total of five shots, he had seventy-five points. Since the round had finished, the tenant reset the targets. As Tom finished the last of the five targets, James paused, noticing Diana’s boredom. Handing the crossbow over to her, he gestured toward the targets.

“You sure? Wouldn’t it be kind of cheating?” Diana glanced at Tom.

“Ha. Ha. Don’t worry. Not even the [Hunter]s that come by once in a while win that easily. Tell you what, if you’re so confident, why don’t we halve your points,” Tom smugly replied.

Frowning, Diana nodded. “Fine, I’ll give it a shot.”

Taking it, she hefted it in her hands before glancing at the beam of the bow, running a finger along it to check for imperfections. Sniffing, she loaded a bolt, paused a moment, and flicked the trigger, nailing the five-hundred-point box that was barely bigger than a thimble. With the last four shots, she hit the remaining large number boxes, earning over one thousand points even with the half-point deduction. James was as speechless as the tenant. The tenant was a bit pale but sighed. After all, he had invited the loss by bragging about the difficulty of his little test. Little did he know that [Knight]s were often forced to use bows on targets three hundred meters away.

“You got that prize I ordered from last year, Tom?”

The tenant took a moment, resetting the booth before going behind the tent and bringing out a stuffed horse doll. “ I don’t know why you wanted something like this, but Tom, here is what you wanted.”

He handed it to James who examined it a moment before looking at Diana. “Here, you can have it.”

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She looked at it, puzzled, before taking it with both hands. “Why are you giving me a children’s toy?”

James rubbed the back of his head. “Well, where I am from, a guy gives the girl he is with the prizes he gets at a festival. They’re supposed to be mementos.”

Diana considered that and shifted the doll, now holding it in her arms nestled between her breasts. Smiling sweetly at him, she murmured, “Thanks, James. I’ll keep it.”

They continued through the festival, stopping a few more times. Each time, the others would greet and be greeted by James with the name Tom. It was nearing the evening when they rested by the lake and rented a few fishing poles. After setting a few baited hooks, they approached the beach and surveyed the lake with their feet making ripples in the crystal clear water.

Listening to the silence that somehow brimmed with the gentle hums of wildlife, James breathed in the nature. For all that this world was different, it was also beautiful.

Suddenly Diana sent a wave of water toward him. With a yelp, James stumbled back, landing himself entirely in the lake and completely drenching his clothes. With a vengeful scowl, he shot toward her, dragging her down with him. Both giggled as their wet bodies rubbed against each other. Their clothes molded themselves to their skin, making them feel far closer than ever before. James noticed this before Diana and paused. Picking her up in a princess carry, he held her graceful body and lay her on the shore. Settling down next to her, he gasped, “I’ll have you know I defeated the powerful [Knight] in the Great Splash Wars.”

Laughing, Diana nudged him. “I’ve been wondering. Why do you keep calling people Tom and getting called Tom back?”

James laughed as he pulled out two sandwiches from a box lunch, an evening snack.

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Handing a wrapped sandwich to her, he explained, “Well, that’s a long story. I guess I should give the short version for now: it stems from the fact that I kept messing up peoples’ names up when I first came here. That and people kept calling me Tom. It has a sort of cultural meaning in the Capital as a friendly stranger, so I started using it for others. Over time, the name’s kind of evolved to mean friend or neighbor.”

Diana unwrapped the sandwich, munching on the lettuce and ham. Swallowing, she asked, “So, why did you not call me Tom when we met?”

James took a bite, taking the moment to think. After a drink to follow it, he answered, “Well, the only female I call Tom is Old Maid Tilly, not to mention that you asked for my name. It seemed rude to not offer proper introductions.”

Diana recalled the encounter and realized that was true. She smiled and blushed lightly as they ate the rest of their food in silence. After eating, Diana leaned back to watch the clouds scattering as the royal dragon flew overhead, followed by four smaller dragons. James snorted. It looked like Marximus would have to deal with a few dragon brats while they visited their father. Hopefully, they’d be enough to keep the red dragon distracted. Diana opened her dainty mouth. “This is a strange land here. In my homeland, we hunt dragons.” James looked up at the family soaring past the fortress walls.

“In the land in which I was born, dragons were only stories. There’s none of all this: the magic, the wonders, the…” James cut off, suddenly guilty.

Diana rolled over to look at him in surprise. “Really? It must be so strange your homeland.”

Recovering from his brief panic, James relaxed on his back as well. “Well, we have our own beasts and problems. Honestly, I like it out here. I’d rather not go back given the choice, nor have them come here.”

Diana turned to look at James. Strangely, he had a cold look on his face as if a dreadful thought had occurred to him. For a moment, she pretended not to notice, but he soon relaxed once more and closed his eyes. She smiled seeing him at peace again and closed her eyes as well.

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