Because his pace had been unnaturally fast, Vahn arrived outside the Hostess of Fertility after around four minutes of travel. There were a number of people in the process of leaving and Vahn could see they were carrying various tools and appeared to be a group of craftsmen. Vahn made his way into the interior and Mama Mia noticed him as she yelled out, “Heya kiddo, looks like you’re a bit early!” She had a big grin on her face as she looked down at him with her arms akimbo. Vahn smiled in return and looked around to see that there was a fair amount of changes that had started to take shape within the pub. Noticing his gaze, Mama Mia explained, “Every few months, we like to do some routine renovations to keep things fresh and interesting for our customers. Crews have been in here all day, and they’re trying to have everything wrapped up by tomorrow evening.”
Vahn understood that this ‘conveniently’ timed renovation was likely brought about by Syr as an ideal cover for whatever she had planned. He had even passed a large sign on the outside of the building that showed they would be closed until Monday morning. If she had something planned that required all the girls, the only way to involve everyone was to either book the entire pub, or have the pub shut down temporarily. A number of people had complained after the place had been booked for the Vahnatus, and this was likely a means to prevent them from having any complaints.
Mama Mia poured a tall glass of ale and gestured for Vahn to come over and take a seat. Vahn nodded and sat down before saying, “Thanks, Mama Mia.” Hearing his words, Mama Mia began to laugh heartily before saying in a teasing tone, “Don’t thank me so soon, most of these renovations are going on your tab after all.” Vahn’s eyes widened a bit before he began laughing along with her. He raised his glass in friendly gesture before downing the entire contents in several large gulps. After a few minutes of casual conversation, the final crewman left the Hostess of Fertility and Mama Mia left the counter to lock up the building.
When Mama Mia turned back toward Vahn her friendly expression had suddenly turned into a very serious one before she walked over and sat across from him at the bar. She grabbed a glass for herself, but before she could grab some of her own stock, Vahn placed out a small bottle of [Dwarven Drought] for her. She, like Gareth, was a pure-blooded Dwarf so she had a powerful tolerance and a love for alcohol. Even though her expression remained serious, she couldn’t hide the fact that her aura had started to blaze slightly as she nodded her head and said, “At least you haven’t forgotten your manners…thanks, kid.” She poured a flagon of the rich brown liquor before taking a probing swig and letting out a satisfied sigh.
After enjoying the intoxicating aroma for a short while, Mama Mia set the glass to the side and her expression solidified as she said, “I’ll be honest, kid, I’m not at all in agreement with this little game you’re all playing. I know you’re a good lad, but I don’t have much confidence you’re up snuff to deal with the matters you’re throwing yourself into. Tell me, what do you know about this place?” Mama Mia’s brown eyes squinted, almost like she were trying to see through any falsehoods Vahn was intending to tell her.
Vahn set aside his own flagon without breaking eye contact with Mama Mia as he said, “I can’t say I know much, but I’ve speculated and deduced various things. First of all, though I know you probably built this place to protect the girls, I can also tell your blessing is still active. I’ve inferred a few things regarding Syr’s past and identity, so I imagine you were tasked with protecting her, for what purpose, I have no idea. All I can say on that matter is, I won’t allow Syr to be exploited by anyone against her will…” Mama Mia’s eyes turned even more serious after hearing Vahn’s words, but she didn’t interrupt him yet as he continued, “If I had to guess, though it is actually your intent to protect the girls, this place still retains ties with the Freya Familia and is likely a front to draw in powerful adventurers for Freya’s purposes. Since all of the women here have trauma related to men, there is very little chance they would be courted easily and, even if they were sought after, the men would need to be somewhat capable since all the girls here are very strong. Other than Syr herself, and the recent additions, everyone else is at least Level 4 and very difficult to approach…”
Mama Mia crossed her arms across her chest and released a heavy sigh before explaining, “It’s a lot more complex than you realize…but that might not even matter for much longer.” She then reached over and grabbed her flagon then downed half the contents before she continued, “Yer right about a few things, the fact being that I’m still loyal to Freya-sama. Though I’m at loggerheads with her, she did a lot for me in my youth and I can’t simply cut ties with her so easily. She asked me to look after Syr as she develops her own network and consolidates her own power in a unique way. Like you guessed, this place would inevitably serve as a gathering point for capable adventurers that sought after some of the troubled women here and Freya-sama would have scouted them…”
Her own words seemed to trigger something in her as Mama Mia frowned deeply before finishing off her glass before having Vahn refill it. She released a sigh as she shook her head and said, “Fortunately, or unfortunately for Freya-sama, that girl is far kinder and gentler than she expected. Though she found capable Adventurers and earned their trust, she never did anything that would bring them harm…I think she understands what Freya-sama was thinking and has been acting in an effort to truly cut ties with her in the future. Now that you’re here…well, you’re an ‘easy out’ for Syr and the other girls…it helps that you’re also handsome and able to actually resist her charm.”
Mama Mia waved her hand dismissively as if she were banishing her own words out of the air before she continued, “Well, as I said, it probably won’t even matter now. You’re a bit of an anomaly and I’ve already received orders from Freya-sama to support you if the opportunity presented itself. Still, even though that is the case, I can’t easily accept the fact you’re so involved with so many people. Keep this up and you’ll break down sooner or later kid…that network, well, it might be a brilliant idea, can’t question that really, but it isn’t a real solution to the underlying problems. Like you said, all of the girls here have traumas related to men, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. They didn’t become as strong as they are on accident after all, most of them have heavy burdens that even they struggle to bear. Even with something like the network, they can’t easily reach out and place their trust in others because they have their own inner demons to work through. If you actually go through with things and push your luck, you’ll end up bearing their burdens in the future and I honestly don’t think you can manage it…I don’t want to see those girls break down and lose themselves when you fail.”
While Mama Mia was speaking, Vahn paid close attention to each of her words and considered them seriously. However, though they were heavy words, everything Mama Mia said just made him feel more confident in his decision going forward. He knew it would be difficult, but Vahn didn’t consider the matter ‘troublesome’ at all. The problems the girls faced wouldn’t simply go away with the passage of time, so Vahn wanted to help them overcome their trauma if he could. It might take years, but Vahn could support them emotionally during that time until he eventually helped them find a solution to overcome their burden. Just like in the case of Chloe, Vahn intended to one day visit the Empire, not to seek revenge for her, but to find absolution and pay respects to her mother. He wanted to free her from the darkness she was bound to, and he had truly started to love her a long time ago. Though he didn’t feel the same way currently about some of the other girls, emotions could be nurtured with time and there was a large support group available to them in the meantime. Vahn knew that there were few things, other than the whims of fate, that could stand in his way as long as he continued toward the future. Even if he wasn’t the key to their happiness, he could be the catalyst that leads to a solution to help them find peace with the past so they can face the future, just like Ryuu had started to do.
When Mama Mia mentioned the girls breaking from his failure, a resolute gleam passed through his eyes as his [Will of the Emperor] passively activated. He stared into her intimidating brown eyes and stated with conviction, “Fear of failure is not the path towards success. If fear of failure is what drives you, you’ll never be able to overcome the matters of the past; you’ll never be able to find your way towards a better future! The girls here may have been dealt a cruel fate that requires them to bear a heavy burden, but there is nothing that dictates they must bear that burden alone! Your fear that I’ll break down, that I’m only one person, is flawed from the outset…I’m not alone, regardless of how lonely I feel at times, there are countless people I can rely on if I place my trust in them…together…together, there is nothing we can’t overcome!” By the end of his words, Vahn was standing off his stool and had left indents in the bar with how powerfully he was gripping it.
Even though she was nearly Level 7, Mama Mia felt slightly intimidated at being stared down by Vahn. She could sense a dangerous light in the depths of his eyes that made her instincts trigger a hard to suppress fight-or-flight response. She saw the damage to the hardwood table before shaking her head and smiling, “Well, it’s good to have a bit of conviction when you’re young…but that’ll only get you so far if you’re not properly prepared. The fact you know its better to work in a group is important, but what do you actually intend to do to help the girls? Spewing platitudes doesn’t defeat your enemies, nor does it put food on the table and provide security for your family. In fact, the bigger you talk, the greater the number of enemies that will line up to prove you wrong…”
Uncharacteristically, Vahn began to laugh heartily and it made Mama Mia feel slightly unnerved since she thought he might have lost it. Vahn shook his head and stated plainly, “I know better than most how my actions lead to consequences that could bring harm to those that I love if I make mistakes…but, I’m prepared to live with that…knowing that I’m not perfect, that I’ll make mistakes that might cause harm to others…however, no matter how hard things get, I will never. stop. trying. I will work tirelessly to improve my strength, increase my authority, and pursue the ideals I believe in. There are no perfect plans, preparations, or solutions to any and all problems. The most important thing, the thing that I will never relent on, is HOPE. Hope that, as long as people believe in, and work towards, a better future…the closer it will come to fruition. It isn’t complacency and concerns that create the foundation for tomorrow, it is our combined actions, our unified resolve! You shouldn’t ask what I can do for them, but what we’re able to do together!
For a few seconds, there was absolute silence as Vahn and Mama Mia stared into each other’s eyes with serious expressions on their faces. After a while, it was Mama Mia who broke as she released a heavy sigh before standing from the bar. She had a wry smile on her face as she gave Vahn an appreciating look and said, “Looks like the previous generation is always destined to be overtaken by those that follow…I’m getting too old, seems like I’ve forgotten a few important things. Well, I’ll be honest kid, I don’t know what kind of future you’re heading for…but I think you might be able to pull it off if you truly believe what you just said. I’ve heard of, hell, I’ve even seen a few of the revolutionary things you’ve done. Just the fact that Freya-sama is supporting you, instead of trying to make you her’s, is already a miracle in and of itself…” Mama Mia shook her head before ‘casually’ picking up the bottle of [Dwarven Drought] and walking toward the door as if to exit the Hostess of Fertility. She shook the bottle in her hand with a grin on her face as she said, “Thanks for the gift, I’ll leave things to you for now…don’t f*** it up, Vahn.”
After she exited the building, Vahn heard the doors lock and he could sense a powerful formation activate throughout the entire building. He sat in silence for a while and stared at the door in confusion because he had been left in the bar alone, without any of the other girls in sight. He could sense their presence nearby, but he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to keep waiting or if he was supposed to try and go to them. It was already past the time he was told to show up, so Vahn actually felt a strange sense of guilt for having them ‘wait’ for him while he talked with Mama Mia. Fortunately, the formation must have informed them about the situation as one of the auras started moving toward his location with a hurried pace. Since her aura was slightly larger than normal, Vahn understood it was Syr heading toward him, hopefully, to explain the situation.
Less than a minute later, she stopped outside of the door leading to the pub before opening it silently as if she had forgotten Vahn had the ability to sense her. After a few silent seconds, Syr peeked through the gap and saw Vahn staring directly at her with an amused expression. She gave a relieved sigh before opening the door and saying, “I was afraid that Mama Mia might have scared you off. Looks like things went well.” Complimenting her gorgeous smile, Syr was wearing an intricately designed white blouse with frills on the hem and sleeves. It was decorated with small black ribbons and she had a very short black frilled skirt that didn’t even reach halfway down her thighs. Underneath the skirt, Vahn could see white stockings with a matching garter belt and a pair of black slip-on shoes with red ribbons. With the mild blush on her smiling face, she looked almost dangerously tantalizing compared to her usual, somewhat modest, appearance.
Syr had seen Vahn’s wandering look and the clear intrigue in his eyes as her face blushed slightly deeper and she playfully grabbed the edges of her skirt and raised the hem. She didn’t actually reveal what was underneath, but Vahn swallowed on instinct when she asked, “Curious~?” Vahn took a slightly deeper breath and said, “You look great, Syr…” as he walked over toward her with confident and casual steps. As he approached, Syr let her skirt fall down as she bashfully looked away and said, “Ano…we shouldn’t tarry here.” Vahn smiled and, instead of embracing her as he intended, stroked her beautiful light-grey hair that framed her nearly flawless face. His gentle action made her blush deepen before she grabbed his hand and said, “Follow me…and try to behave yourself…the night is young.”