"Alice. Are you aware of what sort of idea others will get if you greet me before Arioch Barong does?"
Compared to Alice's smile, Francis' expression was a lot dourer, it was almost as if there were strings in place to prevent his expression from lightening up. Leonardo and Marion allowed their dark blue hair to grow somewhat freely, but Francis kept his rather short, it didn't even reach his ears. Golden eyes were hidden by a thin pair of round glasses, the first signs of wrinkles just starting to appear at the corners of his eyes.
His skin was surprisingly tanned and somewhat rough, his shoulders wide and his body rugged, a tall and pressuring frame. His hands were also rather rough, calluses adorning his palms. The sword that hung at his waist… he was more than just familiar with how to use it. In the Vritara family, only the captain of their knights was stronger than him when it came to using a blade.
"I'm just greeting someone who also has the Vritara name, what sort of funny idea could others possibly get from that?"
When she was younger, Alice would definitely have shrunk down in front of Francis' imposing stature, she couldn't even face Leonardo head on. But the current her could face his stern expression with a smile. The eyes that looked down on her didn't change as they slid away from her, but she knew them well enough to detect the annoyance he tried to hide deep within them.
"Lawrence. I am disappointed. I was hoping that someone experienced like you would take care of things better. I am very disappointed."
He didn't deign to speak more with Alice and instead addressed the leader of the entourage that followed her. The people of the Barong estate were naturally also present, Francis was a high-profile person so they needed to greet him properly. Only Arioch wasn't there yet, and that was the only reason Francis had yet to keep walking.
"Forgive me, Young Master Francis."
Lawrence could only bend his waist and lower his head respectfully. And it wasn't just him, the rest of the entourage could do nothing but lower their heads when he spoke of his disappointment. Trisha was suddenly in a very awkward situation, unsure if she should lower her head or not.
She was technically a knight-in-training of the Vritara family so when one of the Young Masters spoke like that it should be proper for her to lower her head. But Teresa didn't lower her head. Granted, Teresa was in a different position so her situation was somewhat different. But still, the act of not lowering her head in front of one of the young masters… it drew a line.
Something touched her thigh as she stood there, her eyes drawn towards her grandfather, Lawrence. His one eye was looking straight at her, the two wordlessly communicating. Trisha was a knight-in—training of the Vritara family, her goal was to become a proper knight. In that ambition, and the teachings of Lawrence, she would have to find her answer.
In the end, Trisha could not bring herself to lower her head. They had done nothing they should be ashamed of, nothing that Francis could be disappointed about, so they should not lower themselves like this. She felt Francis' gaze slide over her for a moment before it returned to Lawrence, but she remained strong.
"We will speak of what has happened when we return to the estate. But it appears that everyone is in need of some additional training to understand what it means to uphold the Vritara name in public."
Francis kept his back straight as he spoke, his expression seemingly carved from stone as his gaze slid beyond everyone present and landed on the gates of the estate. He didn't spare them any other words, didn't give them even a second glance, it was as if they didn't even exist to him anymore.
"Francis De Vritara."
After a short while, Arioch's voice came from the mansion's entrance, a pair of servants opening the door for him. A neat white suit decorated with golden braids, a light blue tie, and a dark blue and red cape that was draped over his right shoulder. Arioch came out in full force to show his position, his usually wild white hair was swept back, the translucent blue stripes running through it braided with some crystals that reflected the light. He wore an inscrutable smile and looked straight at Francis, two pairs of golden eyes meeting.
"Arioch Arie Barong. I apologise for visiting on such short notice."
Francis did his best to show no emotion, but Alice could see the corner of his eyes twitch for a moment. He came here in a very normal suit, a handkerchief with the Vritara insignia tucked into his shirt pocket. Well-dressed but casual, proper attire for two 'friendly' families to wear when they met, even during circumstances like this. With Arioch coming out so well-dressed, it signified to others that he viewed this situation very seriously, and would approach it as the future head of the Barong, not someone who had friendly relations with the Vritara family.
Francis' hand landed on Alice's shoulder and forcibly turned her around. He then moved his hand onto her head and forced it down so that she was bowing to Arioch, lowering his own head slightly in the process.
"I have come on behalf of the Vritara family to apologise for the shameful actions of Alice's two servants. They, and she by extension, have done nothing but bring shame to our family, and we are deeply saddened that you and your family had to suffer for it."
The corners of Alice's mouth twisted up slightly as Francis apologised. Yes, this was how she expected him to act, just push the blame away while dictating her actions in public. Nice and humiliating for her. Arioch could see the curve of Alice's lips so he figured that she was cooking up something again. Well, with her personality it wouldn't be something good for the Vritara family so it should be fine to leave it.
"It's okay, Francis De Vritara, the four people Alice De Vritara brought along have done nothing shameful, I'm actually quite interested in them. The others however… such a shame that they couldn't be trained better by the Vritara family."
Naturally, Arioch also wouldn't miss this chance to drag down the Vritara family. They had kept a choke hold on the north for so many years through the taxes on imported food that Arioch was more than a little sick of them. Things were getting better now thanks to the crops introduced by the Crown Princess, but they still had to import a fair bit of food, especially wheat and fruits. As such, the grudge was naturally still there.
Alice could feel the fingers holding her head exert a bit more force after Arioch stood up for her, insulting the Vritara family in the process. If it was anyone else, or in a different situation, then Francis would definitely have snapped back. But right now, right here, he could do nothing but move on.
"… We of the Vritara family would like to extend our deepest apologies, both to the Barong family and to the families that have lost part of themselves as a result of Alice's horrible oversight. We will naturally shoulder the cost of living for the affected families so that they can live without issue, and we will offer this to the Barong family to show our sincerity and desire to overcome this incident without harming our longstanding friendly relations."
He raised his head as he spoke and waved over one of the servants that had followed him here. The servant was carrying an exquisite wooden box covered in black lacquer that was adorned with golden leaves and silver thread. Lying within the box were three scrolls resting atop a bed of red silk. Arioch grabbed the larger scroll without much fanfare, not forgetting to give Francis another snide remark before he unfurled it.
"Yes, it certainly is only right that the Vritara family takes care of the bereaved families, they lost quite a lot thanks to you."
What a joke it was. The four that died were spies for the Vritara family, three of them working for Francis. If he wasn't going to provide for their families afterwards then who would bother working as a spy for him?
As he read the scroll, the corners of Arioch's mouth slid up slightly. He wasn't gauging the sincerity of Francis through it, he was gauging the anger of the Duke of Vritara through it. And looking at what they were handing over, it was clear where said anger was directed.
"Oh my, you're being quite generous with this. If I recall correctly, don't the Eastwood goldmine and the Southland farm field both belong to you? It seems that you care a great deal about Alice De Vritara, handing over some of your own properties to smooth over 'her horrible oversight'."
A goldmine and a stretch of farmland, along with slightly reduced taxes on imports for the next five years. Very generous for something this 'minor' it seemed like the Imperial family had put some pressure on the Vritara family as well. But well, Francis was really the only one that lost anything from this
"The Barong family will certainly accept this, Francis De Vritara. I will send down some of our own men to take over the properties, I hope you'll help them complete a smooth takeover. Now, since you've already come all this way, would you like to join us for a meal?"
Arioch rolled up the scroll as he spoke, putting it back into the box before handing it over to one of his own servants. He smiled at Francis in a calm and friendly matter as he extended his invitation, fully aware of what the answer would be.
"Thank you for the invitation, but I'm afraid that I am too busy. We didn't expect Alice's men to act like this so our preparations with these reparations aren't quite finished, I must still return and prepare new accommodations for the men who worked on these properties."
Still pushing aside the blame, even as he refused the invitation. If this was how he was acting in public then Arioch could only guess what he was like in private. No wonder Alice seemed so willing to make deals that went against the Vritara family.
"I see, what a shame. I wish you luck with that, it would be a shame if all those men lost their livelihood because of something so unfortunate while our own men profited from it."
Arioch still wore his friendly and calm smile, and Alice could see that it was starting to wear on Francis. Arioch was basically just one step away from telling Francis to quickly vacate his new properties so that he could put his own men there.
"Thank you, I will make sure to extend your well wishes to them."
The strain was starting to show on Francis' face, at least to Alice. The slight twitching at the corner of his mouth, the wrinkling at the edges of his eyes. He took his eyes away from Arioch as if he couldn't stand to look at him longer, addressing Alice's entourage.
"All of you, follow me, we are returning to the estate."
The servants he brought with him were already retreating to the carriages they came in, they came here using the portals so none of them had dressed for the cold northern weather. Most of Alice's entourage naturally listened to the order quickly, only Teresa, Trisha, and Lawrence remaining behind her, the last two looking more than a bit conflicted.
"That includes the three of you too. And that orphan we picked up a few years ago, he also needs to return so bring him out."
Francis' voice took on a slightly sharper tone, his eyes narrowing somewhat as he spat out the order again, not forgetting to include Gabriel, who wasn't currently present. Still, the three didn't move, Teresa standing comfortably while Trisha and Lawrence exchanged a few glances.
"Tristana Delgrade, Lawrence Delgrade, servant Teresa. I am saying this as the Second Young Master of the Vritara family. Return."
Finally, Francis left them no room to argue, giving them a direct order using his position as a direct descendant with the right to inherit the Duke's seat. Teresa simply remained behind Alice, acting as if she hadn't even heard him, but it was harder for Lawrence and Trisha.
"Forgive me for speaking up, Young Master Francis, but if we all leave then Young Lady Alice will be left here alone."
The position of the three was different. Teresa was a direct subordinate of Alice, but Lawrence and Trisha had signed contracts with the Vritara family itself. As Lawrence had a higher position than Alice, if he gave a direct order there wasn't actually any way for them to disobey. They could try to give excuses, but if he didn't accept then it would be for nought. And in this instance, it seemed as if Francis wouldn't accept.
"She is not the Young Lady so you shall not refer to her as such, the Vritara family will only acknowledge those who have been blessed by the bloodline. And Lawrence, that was an order as your superior."
With that, Lawrence and Trisha could only cast an apologetic gaze towards Alice before stepping away and making their way towards the carriages. Trisha looked back several times while biting down on her lips, but there was one who had yet to move.
"You too, servant Teresa."
Teresa remained unmoved despite Francis' repeated orders. She had already made her choice many years ago. The ones who saved her brothers from starvation, who still took care of them, it wasn't the Vritara family. No, it was Gabriel and Alice. And now too, it was Alice who stood up for her.
"You don't have the right to order my servants around."
Alice stood in front of Francis. This wasn't a family emergency so Francis didn't have the right to order around someone who had signed a contract with Alice. And even if he tried to drag in the actual rules of the Vritara family then she would be ready for it, she had planned ahead when she prepared Teresa and Gabriel's contracts. Luckily, Francis didn't seem like he was going to force her to use that card today.
"Very well then. If you wish to keep your two orphans by your side then I will not stop you. I guess that even something like you deserves a smidgen of pity."
He had yet to lower his voice, and Arioch had yet to return to the mansion so both the people from the Barong and Vritara family could hear him. Their difference in position was made as clear as day, Alice could only keep parts of her entourage out of pity. Francis placed a hand on her shoulder and leaned in so that only she could hear his whisper, he wanted the truth of the situation to be painfully clear to her.
"Don't forget this, halfling. Everything you have is nothing but a mercy from us, we can take it from you just as easily as we have given it. So don't get cocky and just stay quiet like you always have. And don't think that this is over."
She had something to do with this situation, he could feel it. He didn't know exactly what she did to make his men kill the other spies they had here, but she had to be involved in it. And he would punish her for it, publicly and privately, this was just the first step.
"I bid you farewell, Arioch Arie Barong. And Alice, Servant Teresa, I look forward to when you return to the estate, we should get together for a nice meal."
Once he pulled away from Alice's ear, Francis gave Arioch a proper farewell, flashing Alice and Teresa a smile before he turned around and left. Alice followed his back until he entered his carriage and they drove off, he really seemed as if he couldn't stand to be there for a second longer.
She then turned her head slightly, her gaze landing on one of the windows that adorned the mansion. She bade Arioch farewell, the young master of the Barong family snickering as he tapped his fingers on the lacquer box.
Once she returned to the mansion, she naturally headed for her room, splitting up with Teresa along the way. Once inside, she saw him. He was sitting by the window, bandages still wrapped around him.
"You were watching."
Alice had a very good room, from here you could see the entire front of the Barong estate. Anyone who sat by this window would be able to see the entire exchange between Francis and Alice.
Gabriel didn't respond, his gaze still pointed outside the window. Alice walked up behind him and wrapped her arms around his neck, resting her chin on his head as she looked out the window. Whenever he felt a lot of emotions he would always be quiet. When he was beaten and felt pain, when he was angry because of how she was being treated, when he was happy that she was doing well. He would always be quiet and out of sight, like a wolf licking its wounds or looking for a chance to bite the one that wronged its master.
"It can't be helped. I may have two unknown spirits and a future noble title, but I don't have any power or position so I can't stop him from taking everyone away by using the Vritara name."
The things Alice had made the Vritara family treat her better, but that didn't mean that she had a position in the family. She *couldn't* use magic so there was clearly something wrong with the Vritara blood in her veins, the commoner blood had mixed with it too much. It was a good excuse to give the public, a reason to not give her anything, to not make anyone take her side. After all, a lucky but mostly powerless Viscount versus an established Duke, it wasn't hard to pick a side.
"But it's fine, I still have you and Teresa, Trisha also stood up for me for a moment there. We just have to make sure to stay a bit more silent in the future, that way he won't have an excuse to make the duke dissolve the contracts. Our plans will probably get pushed back a bit as a result, but it shouldn't be more than two or three years at the worst."
She was comforting him. Soft words to ease his guilt. After all, he was the reason she was still hiding her magic. But she knew her knight, the man she named Gabriel, the man who taught her what she knew and who she taught what she knew. Those comforting words, they would be a knife to the chest.
"I'm sorry, Alice."
He apologised. Quietly. Sincerely. He still kept looking out the window, violet eyes locked on the spot where she and Francis stood earlier. She knew him, but she couldn't read his thoughts so she couldn't help but wonder exactly what was going through his head at the moment.
Gabriel was… Angry. Yes, he felt that anger was the best word he could use to describe his emotions. Alice had been humiliated in front of everyone, and Francis would ensure that everyone in the empire got to hear how her servants had been taken away without her being able to do a thing. They would whisper about it between themselves, the nobles would snicker that it was only right for a 'powerless' noble to end up like that before they became arrogant.
"The Crown Princess and the Woodime family have already revealed three of the fused magic elements to the world but you've kept hiding yours because of me."
He was angry when he thought about it. Unreasonably angry even. Why? Why did his blood boil when he thought about those ignorant tits laughing at her 'powerlessness'? If they just waited a few more years while working quietly then she would be able to shut them all up. It was just a few more years, it would be nothing in hindsight.
So why? Why was he so angry when he thought about them laughing for those few years? At first they would laugh in private, but when she came of age and had to enter high society officially there would inevitably be more times like today. People would use subtle remarks to make fun of her, to laugh at her in front of everyone. It would just be a few years, maybe only one or two. But… But why w as he so angry when he thought about it?
"It's fine. I know you just want the perfect reveal, to crush everything at once to properly establish and showcase my power. I also know that you're worried that the attacks that will come our way after we reveal something will be too much for us to handle."
She kept comforting him. He was reminded of those times when she first picked him up. That pitiful villainess of his, he wanted to help her so that she wouldn't be as pitiful this time around. He taught her how to hide, how to grow strong, how to reveal your powers at a suitable time. He taught her how to endure humiliation, how to hide from the strong.
She cried a lot back then so he had to comfort her more than a few times. When he told her that he would keep working for her, when he said that it was fine to do what you wanted, that it was fine to wish for things. She cried, and he had to comfort her. Nowadays he felt like she was comforting him more than he did her.
Was this what she felt like back in those days? Was this what she felt like when she first cried as she heard about the second and third ten…
The second and third tenet. 2. If you have something you treasure, never let anyone take it from you. 3. If you have something you want, acquire it no matter what. They were among the first things he taught Alice, and she had followed them faithfully ever since. Even now, when Francis tried to take Teresa from her, she did what she had to keep her by her side.
He taught her them, she followed them. But… But what about him? What did he treasure… What did he want… And what was he doing for them?
The realisation halted all other thoughts, all his reminiscing. Ah, that was why he was angry. He treasured Alice, and he wanted her to live happily without being humiliated by ignorant fools. But with that said… Was he properly following the two tenets?
"Alice… Are we weak?"
The words fell from his mouth almost somewhat absentmindedly. His gaze rose slightly. He was still facing the window, but now he could see Alice reflected in the glass. Her chin was resting on his head as she comforted him. Her violet locks fell over his head and mixed with his white, and crimson eyes were looking at his reflection. Was he doing whatever he could to protect that which he treasured, was he doing what he could to acquire the thing he wanted?
"No. We are strong, Gabriel. You've just been hiding for so long that you sometimes forget that."
The red lips he saw in the reflection spread apart. Smiling. The Alice he remembered from the loo… Show didn't smile much, almost never really. But when he scoured his memories of their time together, he felt that she was smiling more often than not.
"In those sparring matches, you were able to beat all those people even though you weren't using magic or proper armour. You also didn't use Nergal. And I have Quetz and Fen, and I've never stopped training, be it with magic or weapons. Teresa had a slower start, but she's gotten very comfortable with her magic and her skills. Trisha also isn't too weak if you want to count her. We aren't weak, Gabriel. We are strong."
Soft words, gentle words. He kept scouring his memories, a slight headache building at the back of his mind. The expressions she showed, the way she spoke, the things she did, the way she smiled. The more he looked, the more it clashed with the show, the more it broke what he had been working for. The pitiful villainess who would never see her love fulfilled and plunge the empire into flames, the sad creature he wanted to save… It was already dead.
The sad little villainess, Alice De Vritara, she was already gone. No, she never even existed in this world. Yes, all that was here was Alice, master of Gabriel, the woman he would not let any ignorant idiot laugh at.
"I thin… I want us to start using some of our magic. The Imperial family will be all the more keen to keep you around if you can use magic, and the Vritara family will also be forced to acknowledge you as a proper member. What do you think?"
Why did they need to wait until the perfect time? Three of the fused elements were already revealed so why shouldn't Alice use them? The foolish nobles wouldn't be able to laugh at her if she did, one by one they would beg her to let them become followers. He'd have to use one or two of his affinities so that others wouldn't be able to laugh at her for having an inept knight, but that was just the price he had to pay for adhering to his tenets.
"I've just been waiting for you to ask."
The lips in the reflection spread further apart, the slight curve of the window causing the bright red to smudge out and blend into Gabriel's own reflection.