With the birth of Sakuya, there were now only five pregnant women left within the Manor, including Ryuu, Riveria, Juno, Epona, and Eina. It would still be several months until they were due and, as he didn’t want to extend the wait by spending on his time in the orb, Vahn only used it sparingly during the evenings. Though he continued on the construction efforts, many of the tasks had been assigned to the other girls since he still spent the majority of his day playing with his children, tending to the newborns, and dealing with the matters of the Alliance.
Now slightly more than four months old, Ina and Vana had the appearances of young children around two years old while Erika, maturing the fastest of the three, looked to be around four. She was now much taller than even Vana while her Doppelganger was a similar size and shape. As for the other guardians, Ina’s Celestial White Tiger, which she had named Kuu, was now the size of a very large dog while Vulcan, Vana’s True Flame Dragon, was nearly the size of a cow. Vana could often be found riding around on Vulcan’s back, now sporting a wooden shortsword instead of the dagger she used to carry. She no longer had a missing tooth and kept her hair cut somewhat short since it would get into her eyes if she let it grow out.
Ina, under Hephaestus’ guidance, had been making steady progress in the various crafts she performed and had even stopped clinging to him all the time, at least when she was busy taking things apart and building new things. Many of the traps and mechanisms in the west wing, after exploring them with Erika, had been disassembled by her at this point. Fortunately, she had gotten to the point where she could put them back together again, even if they sometimes became a little faulty as a result. As for Erika herself, she was now around 87cm tall and weighed close to 17kg, making her a full head taller than the other girls. Her red hair was done up in a ponytail, much like her mother’s, but, instead of being small and straight, it burst outward like a star-shaped explosion.
Currently, Vahn was standing over Erika as the latter sat in a wooden chair that was still a little too big for her, running her index finger across the page of the book she was reading. Seeing her ponytail, which strangely always flared out with five distinct points, Vahn was very tempted to play with it. However, when he had done so in the past, Erika ended up swatting his hand with a flushed expression and ignoring him for the better part of two days. Though he felt it was far too soon, she was at a phase where she was less tolerant of being teased and would even reprimand him at times when they were alone.
Erika’s finger came to a stop on a word she had never read before, asking, “Papa, what does this word mean?” The book she was reading was written in a very complex language, the fifth one that Erika had recently taken up, but Vahn could easily read it. Peering over her shoulder, he calmly explained, “That word is ‘atom’…you can think of it like the building blocks of the molecules documented in other texts. It isn’t quite accurate, but you can consider them the constituent matter produced by pure elemental energy, banded together to create the larger molecules that allow the physical and magical phenomenon we see in the world.”
After listening to her Papa’s explanation, Erika made a face of deep concentration that gave Vahn a very powerful urge to tease her. Instead of doing so, however, Vahn just released a small sigh that caught her attention. Erika, looking up into his face with her slit-like eyes slightly parted, began to blush slightly as she said, “Papa, you can pet my head…just for a little while…” As if he had received a canteen of fresh water at the end of a long journey through the desert, Vahn smiled radiantly as he began to gently stroke his daughter’s head. Erika lowered her face, hiding the slightly contended expression she had while continuing her earlier train of thought. It was actually a lot easier to focus when she felt the calming energy coming from her Papa’s hand so, as embarrassing as it was, she allowed him to pet her head for a little while…
It took a few minutes to gather her thoughts before Erika asked, “So, are atoms a form that the ‘laws’ of the world take, or are they just the result of the mana itself taking on a physical property?” Vahn, understanding his time had come to an end, removed his hand from her head and explained, “It is difficult to answer that question clearly, as my own understanding of the laws is still a little shallow. I’m certain their existence is made possible by the laws, most likely a derivative of creation laws, but I can’t be certain. I do know, however, that forming elemental energy into a physical shape isn’t the same as creating actual matter. If I made a block of ice using magic, the individual particulates would slowly return to the void. However, if we freeze water into ice, it would just melt back down into water later on. Though some might be lost, as a result of evaporation, it doesn’t actually cease to exist and just changes state into a new form…”
With her Papa’s explanation, Erika made a few notes inside her own personal journal, the one detailing several theories she had been forming over the last few weeks. From the example he had given, she could deduce that there was a fundamental difference between matter created naturally through the bonding of mana particles and those created through the phenomenon of magic. Unless the caster had an understanding of creation laws themselves, they couldn’t make ‘perpetual’ constructs out of their magic power, regardless of how much they tried. Even Arnya, who could summon spears and javelins out of thin air, couldn’t keep their form for more than a few minutes after they were created. While they appeared similar in structure to actual weapons, they were actually temporary constructs given form by the artifacts she wore at her wrists…
In the middle of her scribbling, the clock within the room began to chime with the passing of the hour. Withholding a sigh, Erika snapped her journal shut and said, “Thank you for helping me study again, Papa.” As usual, after giving her thanks, Erika confirmed there wasn’t anyone spying into the room before extending her arms up. Vahn smiled as he bent down and picked up Erika’s light body, giving her a firm hug that lasted for several seconds before saying, “Erika is such a brilliant girl. Helping you study, and seeing how fast you’re learning, always make me feel very proud to be your father.” Hearing her Papa’s praise, Erika felt a little giddy but tolerated it until he finally set her back down. She fixed her clothes for a few seconds before grabbing Doppel’s hand, who had been sitting at the side chewing on her own hair, dragging her away with a slightly flushed face.
Watching her exit, Vahn continued to smile for a long time thereafter before taking a seat on the nearby sofa and releasing a small sigh of his own. He really wished his daughters would stop growing up so quickly because it greatly increased the chances they would get wrapped up in various affairs in the future. Just this afternoon, he had to deal with some of the more prodigious Noble families because they had been trying to increase their personal influence through association with the Alliance. Vahn, if he were being honest, had a budding distaste for the various Noble families and their convoluted politics. Though not all of them were corrupt, even the good ones traded favors and compromised their own integrity for benefits. After all, failing to do so would be the same as giving up their power and being taken advantage of by the other families…
The reason for the meeting today was to discuss the policies regarding the School they were building, which was almost fully operational and just waiting for the first batch of students. With the only other official School belonging to the Guild, there were various issues with starting a School of their own, especially since it was seen as a power grab by the Alliance. Vahn wasn’t the first person to realize that the key to bringing about real change, while also accumulating power, was through targetting the younger generations.
Most organizations couldn’t really exploit this to the full extent, as they simply didn’t have the resources to groom a large number of children into ‘useful’ pawns, but that didn’t apply to the Alliance at all. Being made up of more than forty Familia at this point, they had a great deal of power, influence, and resources at their disposal. The children that graduated from the School were also very likely to end up as the core of the Alliance in the future, meaning the amount of power they would possess would continue to increase unless it was checked in some manner.
Unable to influence the Guild’s School much, many of the Noble families were trying to get some influence over the Alliance controlled School. They wanted to organize a special group of Advisors to monitor the activities within the School and make it more suitable for their own children. For a brief moment, there was even a movement among some of the Noble families to try and make the School itself into a specialized institution for Noble children and their vassals only. To the Nobles, this was giving face to the Alliance by allowing them the opportunity to influence their children’s education while also giving them a direct link to the Alliance itself through said children. Simultaneously, this would allow the Noble families to benefit from the resources of the Alliance without paying a single Valis out of pocket since Vahn had already advertised that the School would be free.
Unsurprisingly, long before this news actually reached Vahn, it had already been shut down by Loki and the other goddesses making up her core group. Vahn only learned about it because Loki often mentioned what their negotiations entailed, asking his opinion about things and seeing what actions he believed were correct. He knew she was trying to groom him into someone that considered the potential benefits of every situation but, as she never actually tried to force him on any issues, Vahn didn’t mind it too much. After all, many of the actions she took were already out of consideration of the choices he would have made himself. This showed that Loki’s understanding of him had already reached a very advanced level and, though she would still discuss things with him later on, she was essentially the most influential person in the entire Alliance.
Even so, when it came to making the actual decisions, Loki would always arrange a meeting where Vahn would address the matter personally. She did this to show the powers-that-be that, though she may be handling many of the negotiations while being the public face of the Alliance, Vahn was, undoubtedly, the heart of the Alliance and its penultimate decision maker. This had inflated his reputation a great deal in high society, including both mortal and godly circles of power and influence. Without doing much himself, Loki had made him out to be an entity that carefully planned and controlled things from behind the scenes while also being willing to take personal and decisive action when necessary.
Remembering how some of the Nobles he had met were very deferential towards him, Vahn couldn’t help but shake his head with a wry smile on his face. Seating himself upright, he checked the clock one last time before deciding it was about time for him to head over. One of the things Loki had ‘drilled’ into him was, unless it was someone that was favored by the Alliance, he should always show up after the other party had arrived. This was to show that he had made time for them while also making it known that their presence was somewhat inconvenient. It was a common negotiation strategy that allowed him to control the pace of the conversation since, if they actually tried to foot around the issue, he already had a pretense to bring the discussion to an early close on the grounds of them having ‘wasted’ his time.
By the time he reached the foyer, Fenrir, Emiru, and Maemi were all there waiting for him, the latter two wearing their ‘battle maid’ attire while Fenrir looked somewhat feral and cold. Her presence was enough to unnerve most people, especially after the rumors circulating about the power she had demonstrated during the last Expedition. With numerous powerful and reputable Adventurers talking about how ‘terrifying’ her power was, it left a deep impression on the minds of the community. There were even some people that had wanted to have her bound and imprisoned, claiming her to be an unhinged monster that endangered the City by being allowed to roam about freely.
Vahn reached his hands out, stroking Emiru’s and Maemi’s heads as he said, “Thank you for accompanying me again, girls.” The twins simply smiled in response while rubbing their heads against his palms, clearly enjoying the comfortable energy that seemed to constantly radiate from his hands. When he inevitably pulled his hands away, they had somewhat regretful looks on their faces but kept their bearing as he walked over to Fenrir and stroked her large fluffy ears for a few a short while. This was his way of psyching himself up while also making his ‘guests’ wait just a little while longer for his arrival. When he got his fill of Fenrir’s fluffy ears, Vahn had a casual smile on his face as he said, “Let’s get this over with.” Nodding, Emiru and Maemi began leading the way while Fenrir fell into step at his side.
Though they had been made to wait for nearly a half hour, the representatives of the Noble families had risen to their feet and bowed politely when Vahn finally entered the room. After having been forced to wait several times previously, the actual ‘Master’s’ of the various households stopped showing up personally. Now, they sent their charges into Vahn’s midst, ‘smartly’ deciding upon sending their daughters since it was a well-known fact that most men weren’t welcome onto the premises. After the fiasco with Alosrin and the foolish god that tried to arrange a marriage with one of Vahn’s daughters, even the foolish Nobles knew better than to send their male progenies and successors. They feared that their sons, still young and drunk on their power, might offend Vahn and earn the ire of the entire Alliance as a result.
Giving a curt nod to the three young women that had bowed towards him, Vahn walked around to the opposite sofa and sat next to Loki, gesturing to the three women to also sit down. It was considered rude, especially after having made them wait, to seat yourself before asking the guests to sit first. This was even more so for women as, in high society, men were expected to act very gentlemanly, even though Vahn noted that many of them were entirely the opposite in nature. However, though their auras fluctuated slightly, none of the girls uttered a complaint and just smiled as they took their seats. For the two girls that had never met Vahn before, it was very fortunate that their companion had warned them about her previous experiences with the young powerhouse.
Once they had taken their seats, Vahn turned his attention to the purple-haired woman with lavender colored eyes, named Allisandra Vale McKenneth. She was the second daughter of the McKenneth family, one of the Noble families that had funded the creation of Orario nearly a thousand years prior. Unlike her elder sister, who had already been married off to solidify their family’s bonds with another Noble house, she was still single and had, very obviously, been trying to earn his favor. As for the other two girls, one having medium length brown hair with hazel-brown eyes, the other having very long pink hair with gem-like baby-blues, Vahn had never met them before. However, with the information provided by Loki, he knew they were Elizabeth Von Astolfo and Agnes Est Valeria respectively. Both were the third daughters of their respective houses and, though not nearly as powerful as the McKenneth family, their households were very influential.
Seeing each girl had a slight pink to their auras, accompanied by a sickly orange, strands of green, and a few undertones of purple, Vahn internally shook his head while externally asking, “To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit, Ms. McKenneth? I see you are accompanied by the third daughters of the Astolfo and Valeria families this time around…how peculiar.” Elizabeth and Anges, having never met Vahn previously, couldn’t help but tremble slightly as their auras became somewhat chaotic, Allisandra, however, just continued to smile politely as she said, “Please, Vahn, call me Allisandra. This is our third meeting and I would like us to become friends…” Vahn continued to hold eye contact with her, casually rebuffing her by saying, “Ah, but you see, Ms. McKenneth, while friends certainly benefit from each other, it isn’t through seeking benefits that people become friends…”
This time, subtle as it was, Allisandra’s aura began to waver as the practiced smile on her face became somewhat tense. Even so, she managed to keep her bearing by disguising her discomfort with a light giggle before saying, “Though I come at the behest of my family, it isn’t as though I do not genuinely wish to become friends with you. However, as you’ve refused all my invitations to tea, my only opportunity to meet you is under such circumstances. Please, I ask that you find it in your heart to forgive me…” Allisandra put on a pitiable look, appearing as though she truly regretted not being able to foster a friendship between them. However, being able to see her aura, Vahn was entirely unconvinced by her act and just kept a casual expression on his face.
Realizing her appeal wasn’t working, Allisandra sighed ‘sadly’ before saying, “I can see that our presence today had inconvenienced you…I understand you are quite busy these days, especially with the introduction of so many children within the household. Very well, so as not to take up too much of your time, I shall explain our reason for intruding on your time.” Vahn gave a curt nod, making the two girls flanking Allisandra feel moderately offended since he never gave them an opportunity to introduce themselves. Unfortunately, intruding into the conversation between him and Allisandra would be a grievous affront so, without being able to seek any benefits of their own, the two just sat silently as the discussion progressed.
Allisandra, taking a breath to calm herself, smiled in an elegant manner before explaining, “It is our understanding that the School you want to open will be operational very soon. In order to foster positive relations between the Alliance and the various Noble families, we would like to offer our cooperation. If it pleases the Alliance, we are willing to sponsor various facilities within the School, provide reputed scholar to teach classes, and offer tax exemptions to make the financial burden of operating such an institution more manageable.” Vahn remained stone-faced while Allisandra was speaking, waiting until she was completely finished before asking, “How generous…however, I can’t help but wonder what benefits the Noble families seek by making such an offer?”
Believing he was interested in the proposal, Allisandra’s smile turned more natural as she explained, “As I mentioned, we simply wish to foster a positive relationship with the Alliance. We understand that, with the capabilities and resources possessed by your faction, any students graduating from your School would be very capable individuals. We ask only that the Alliance does not try to monopolize such talent and, if the Alliance is having trouble staffing and managing the School, we willingly offer our assistance in that regard. There are numerous capable officials among the Noble houses that would be able to manage the finances and logistics of the School, ensuring that it becomes a profitable venture in the future~.”
From what Vahn could gather, reading between the lines of Allisandra’s offer, the Noble families were afraid that the Alliance would continually consolidate power while slowly siphoning it away from the pre-existing factions. This was essentially their way of trying to keep the balance of power in check, ‘compromising’ with the Alliance by making concessions in exchange for benefits later down the line. If Vahn actually accepted their help, he had no doubt the ‘scholars’ they sent would be solely focused on stealing the knowledge they were providing while simultaneously fishing for talent. After all, many of the children that would be attending the school could easily be exploited by the various Noble houses, especially if the Nobles began sending their own progeny to attend the School. Since they would have already agreed to ‘cooperation’, Vahn wouldn’t be able to directly oppose their fishing efforts and the Nobles would slowly consolidate power while trying to earn greater influence over the School itself. This was one of the problems with families that had lasted for hundreds of years; they were willing to wait for decades in order to eventually come out ahead in an exchange…
With a polite smile on his face, Vahn very casually said, “I’ll have to refuse.” Allisandra, not expecting such a refusal, misunderstood Vahn’s intentions and thought he just wanted to negotiate. However, before she was able to transition the conversation to that end, Vahn continued by saying, “My entire reason for building this School was to give the youth that had been ‘abandoned’ by polite society a chance to rise above the fate they had been born to. I’m not going to expose them to that kind of world, where monsters disguised as humans prey upon others while treating them as pawns to be used and exploited. If the Noble families wish to send their children into the School one day, they will be subjected to the same living conditions and standards as the other children as, once they arrive at the School, such status is forfeited until their graduation. As for the various benefits you are offering, they ultimately are irrelevant since the Alliance is perfectly capable of managing its affairs without the support of the Nobles. Though I will not oppose cooperation that will benefit both our factions, that doesn’t mean I will compromise my own integrity while simultaneously undermining the futures of the various children that will one day pass through the School.”
Allisandra was completely stunned by Vahn’s words, finding it very difficult to say anything since it had been stressed to her time and again to never offend him. The only thing she managed to do was lightly bite her lip as she contemplated the best course of action. Leaving this meeting without reaching a compromise would potentially threaten her status as the representative chosen to negotiate with Vahn. Since she still had her own ambitions at stake, Allisandra really didn’t want to back down without some form of agreement or promise from the Alliance. Unfortunately, having already seized the momentum of the conversation, Vahn had no intention of letting her find her footing as he stated, “Nothing that I’m doing right now is beyond the means of the Noble households. If they are truly invested in ensuring the less fortunate are able to seek opportunities for themselves, I have full confidence they would be able to create a School of their own. I actually wouldn’t mind ‘cooperating’ with the School your faction founds by fostering a healthy rivalry between the two student bodies in the future.”
With his choice of words, it was the same as saying, ‘Use your own resources if you want to cultivate talent and we’ll find out who creates the superior institution’. If the Noble factions actually built such a School and tried to compete against the Guild and the Alliance, it would be a very big loss of face if they failed to produce any real results. Unfortunately, as they generally treated everything as if it was a means to obtain benefits, any students attending such a School would likely be severely limited in their growth. After all, if they attended the same School as Nobles, anyone that was truly exceptional would have to bow down to the progenies belonging to the Noble households. Such an environment would never allow any true prodigies to rise up since the ‘pride’ of the noble-born would never allow commoners to excel over them…
Allisandra was at a loss for how to respond and, before she was able to recover, Vahn had already stood up. He then proceeded to help Loki, who had a very large grin on her face, rise from the sofa. Turning his attention to the three seated girls, Vahn asked in a questioning tone, “Was there another matter you wished to discuss? If not, I’ll have to excuse myself as I’ve already made arrangements for lunch. My maids will escort you to your carriages and see you off safely…” Sending a small nod to Emiru and Maemi, Vahn escorted Loki out of the room while Fenrir followed behind them. Along the way, she cast her scarlet eyes towards the three high-born girls, sending shivers down their spines that quelled any intentions they had of trying to impose on Vahn any longer…