So basically I'm going to acknowledge that snips are actually chapters for now on. Now all I need to do is stitch the parts together. (Erm, can someone help me find the previous 3 posts? Thx.) Halkegenia Online v2.0 - Chapter 1 - Part 4 Be the country at war, suffering famine, or wracked with pestilence, life went on. And wherever there was human life, there was business. It therefore came as no surprise to anyone, that even in these uncertain times, the markets of the Capital were still trading and doing business as they always had. Merchants and ship's captains haggled over prices while coin traded hand between Noble and Commoner alike. It would truly be a sign of the end times when a merchant stopped trying to make money. Located at the center of Tristania, which was itself positioned at the center of the Kingdom of Tristain, it was not an exaggeration to say that the shops and trading houses of the Capital were the beating heart of Tristain's economy. Merchant's came from miles around to transact trade deals that were the results of smaller concerns and trade branches throughout the country feeding one into the other like tributary streams joining into an immense river of commerce. Every product imaginable was available for sale here, bulk goods, exotic luxuries, rare reagents and raw materials. Nobles and traders arrived daily to enact business deals while commoners and the petty nobility did their shopping side by side in the cramped side streets and alley markets. It was along one of these streets, less frequented than most, that a small shop had been established and operated for many years. Barely more than an alcove squeezed between two larger businesses. It's small size belied the impossibly rare and exotic goods that found their way onto its shelves. The Proprietor was a peculiar creature almost worth visiting the shop to see alone, dark skinned and dark eyed, strangely wide nose, and white, white teeth. It had been accepted that he was a former trader with the Rub Al Khali caravans, a native of that distant land who had made his home in Tristain, possibly to escape some great shame or indiscretion. Ingratiating himself with the denizens of the Capital and using his well established trade connections, any number of items could be purchased through him, and if not, he could almost certainly point someone in the right direction, for a price. It was as this peculiar man was examining an item from his latest shipment, a meticulously oiled and maintained apparatus delivered by a colleague with connections to the Church of Romalia, that the bell at his door chimed. Sighing to himself, he returned the dark metallic object and the two boxes of small brass cylinders to the embrace of its oiled, cloth lined box and replaced it beneath the shop counter, another curiosity to be returned to at a later time. “Welcome.” The old merchant said. “How may I be of service today . . . Miss . . .” He trailed off as he looked up. Well, it wasn't very often that his shop was frequented by a such a petite Mademoiselle. The clientele of his shop tended towards the more masculine, and more likely to take offense if watched too closely or for too long. Yes, petite, pink haired, large brown eyes. He wouldn't have placed her age at much best twelve or thirteen. Was that it? It had been a long time since his own childhood and he'd had rare opportunity to be near children since. A child really had no business in his shop. “Mayhaps you have the wrong place?” He looked a little worried. “Are you lost Mademoiselle?” “We're looking for something.” The shop proprietor frowned. The voice had rung out as clear as a bell, soft, firm, commanding, but the girl's lips had not moved at all. Now, he looked up at the hat atop her head, a hat that turned out to not be a hat at all but rather something black and feathered, clinging to the girl's hair and watching him with suspicious yellow eyes. “Something in particular.” The voice spoke again. Looking just a little further up, the shop owner came face to face with another girl sitting atop the strange feathered creature, who by all appearances save her size would have been the elder of the two girl. That was it, he thought, rubbing at his eyes, it was her size. She was miniscule, tiny, she would have fit in the palm of his hand! Was such a creature even possible? Two pairs of miniscule wings jutted from her back, flexing and folding themselves like those of an insect. Suddenly the wings spread wide, and with a delicate hop she flitted from her perch atop the pink haired girl and settled onto the table. “Specifically, we're looking for more girls like me.” The miniscule girl said, gesturing to herself. Finally, the pink haired girl added something to the conversation. “We heard from another merchant that you introduced a customer to him who was interesting in collecting samples of wild life from the Faerie World. That customer bought six pixies who were illegally poached from the estates of the Count of Tarbes.” The Merchant leaned back in his chair and quickly began to drum his fingers atop his desk. “Poached you say? That is a serious claim Mademoiselle.” Just who the blazes was this girl? Certainly not just the child she appeared to be. “I can't simply hand out a clients confidential information. My business depends on the trust between myself and my clients.” Some of the products sold in this very shop, while not illegal, would certainly raise questions if their buyers were known. Instead of answering verbally, the pink haired girl reached into her handbag and retrieved a letter, offering it to the bemused merchant. He began to read, frowned, and then paled. “As you can see, this is an official investigation.” The girl said. “Cooperate with us fully and by order of the crown you will be absolved of any wrong doing.” This wasn't good he thought, not good at all, he'd had the good sense to keep his head down all of these years. Yes, some of his business dealings had been shady, but he had gone to great lengths never to violate the law or give any reason for attention to be drawn to his little shop. What had that fool Georges gotten him into this time? What to do. What to do. “Please go on.” The Merchant played for time. “Do you have a description of this man?” The tiny girl, some sort of Fae he realized, tilted her head warily. “You get a lot of clients asking around for pixies, huh?” “Not at all.” He admitted. “But more than you'd think.” He raised a hand to still any reply. “You Fae have been the talk of the city since your arrival, plenty of clientele have inquired about anything to do with ALfheim.” He squinted thoughtfully. “In fact, I do believe a few were even asking about these creatures.” He gestured to what he could only described as a small dragon. “So yes, I have received more than a few inquiries. I don't stock live animals, too much trouble, so naturally I sent them on to an associate of mine.” “Georges.” The pink haired girl breathed. He nodded. “Forgive me,” he said carefully, “But that is really all I know, unless you've a description of the man who was involved in the purchase.” “A description?” The pixie pacing about on his table asked. She crossed her arms. “Georges-san said he was . . .” “A fat Nobleman.” The pink haired girl finished. The Merchant sighed slightly. “Mademoiselle, plenty of Noblemen are fat, I'm afraid you might need to be more specific.” The Pinkette nodded thoughtfully. “We didn't really get an exact description, not for lack of trying. It sounded like this man went out of his way not to stand out.” “Also not uncommon among my clients.” The Merchant explained. “Look around you Mademoiselle, you see herbs, teas, and spices, yes?” “I suppose.” The girl said, showing every indication that she couldn't identify half of the things on his shelves, of course, most people couldn't. He smiled. “I make my livelihood with my goods Mademoiselle, but not just these goods. Rare reagents from across the Continent and beyond, medicinal herbs, potions, and clever little artifacts from as far as Rub'al Khali.” Artifacts such as the hummingbird sized pistol that was currently tucked beneath his desk, primed and ready to fire with one locking of the flint and a pull of the trigger. “Some of these are simple luxuries, others would greatly embarrass my clients if their patronage was known.” “Then isn't it dangerous to admit as much?” The pinkette asked. “Not at all!” The merchant replied with a small bow. “It's something of an open secret. The identities of my clients on the other hand, are not.” He shrugged. “But of course, neither are their identities worth imprisonment. I am quite fond of my comfortable life here, so, moving on. What else can you say about this man?” “Right.” The girl nodded. “He arrived with two taller men in his company, both were armed at all times. I'm not sure, but they were probably commoner soldiers or bodyguards.” “Soldiers you say? Then I highly placed Noble. Again, it does little to narrow it down.” “Wait, didn't Georges-san say something else?” The Pixie looked up. “He said . . . he said the man smelled of something very strong, like perfume. Georges-san said it made him nauseous to be around him for long.” “Cologne you say?” And apparently warn badly. The Merchant perked up as a name came to mind. He smiled suddenly, revealing white, white teeth. ________________________________________________________________________________ “Terrance de'Martou.” Louise pronounced the unfamiliar name carefully as she stepped out of the confines of the shop, barely more than a kiosk squeezed into an alcove between a tailor's shop and an inn. “It's a name, but not one I'm familiar with, probably someone without any title to speak of.” “That's not good enough.” Botan said unhappily. “We need to know where to find this de'Martou so that we can find my sisters.” The Vespid Knight stroked behind the ears of her mount, a slightly scruffy black feathered dragon that Kirche had decided to nickname 'Schwartz' without consulting anyone but herself. Irritatingly enough, the name had stuck. Louise reached up to her shoulder and patted Botan's head in turn. She didn't like it, this whole ordeal left her feeling useless. And if there was one thing that Louise Francoise Le Blanc de la Valliere despised more than anything, it was feeling useless. She had to remind herself of the success they had already experienced. Their past two weeks had not been spent in vain. They had been right to focus their search in the Capital. Tristania was home to any number of curios dealers, merchants specializing in conversational items for the nobility. Usually these were artifacts of some kind, unusual works of art, sculptures, preserved samples of rare insects or flowers, or live animals kept caged specially for show. Searching these shops had not led them to the lost Pixies, but it had given them their next lead. Through questioning of the legitimate businesses they had eventually found their way into the company of Tristain's lucrative back market dealerships, shops that didn't so much stock inventory as people with the talent to <<acquire>> whatever object was desired. Eventually this had lead to an auctioning house well known for its purchase and sale of exotic animals, and from there the link had been made to several buyers. What they had learned so far was that fifteen pixies had been taken by the treacherous majordomo Fernand and his hired thugs and brought to the Capital to be sold. So far, they had found seven who were alive and well in the company of various Noble families and curio collectors, including most notably a pair who had become the impromptu playmates of the youngest daughter of the Count de Brienne. Louise grimaced as she remembered the bratty little girl. Sophie Luttece de Brienne had been uniquely petulant in a way that only children under the age of twelve could be. Frankly, it was miracle that the Pixies had survived the week in her care, but they had seemed happy when they were finally discovered and overjoyed to see a <<Vespid Knight>> had come to find them at last. It had been agreed, albeit reluctantly on the part of Sophie, that her new little friends belonged home in their Garden and the Brienne Patriarch had equally grudgingly turned them over to Louise's custody having apparently payed quite a great deal for the unique little creatures. The two Little Sisters were now safe back at the Palace under the careful watch of an attending servant along with four of their fellow siblings while they waited to be returned to Tarbes Garden. Strangely, one of the Pixies, a Little Sister named Suikazura had been reluctant to leave the care of her human guardian, a wealthy merchant named Baptiste who had purchased her out of pity after seeing her caged in the market. The girl, Suikazura, had proven shockingly resistant to Botan's attempts to prod her into returning home, a far cry from the other Little Ones who had obeyed meekly. After her third overture had failed, the Knight had grown anxious before asking to depart to send a message back to Tarbes. The whole matter had remained closed to Louise with Botan only muttering that it was essential that a Shaman come to the city as quickly as possible. Other than this single abnormality however, all seven appeared happy and well cared for, the two from the Brienne household even wearing beautiful new dresses that their young guardian had insisted they keep. Louise sighed, okay, the way that the girl had teared up when saying goodbye, she supposed she couldn't have been that bad. Maybe Hinagiku would agree to let them visit . . . She allowed her thoughts to wonder and her pace gradually slowed. Of course, it would have been nice if there had been a happy ending for everyone, but there wasn't. Louise and Botan had learned early on that at least two of the Pixies had succumbed to wounds they had suffered in the destruction of their garden. Louise glanced over her shoulder. Botan's only comfort had been to learn that they had died soon after arriving in the Capital, surrounded by all of their sisters. Still, the distraught Knight hadn't spoken to Louise for the rest of that day. Louise thought she understood how Botan felt, she was supposed to be different now, able to protect the people she cared about, but in many ways she was still powerless. The bodies, one preserved in a specimen jar and the other buried in a matchbox by a sympathetic warehouse worker, had also been recovered to be returned to Tarbes Garden. That still left six pixies unaccounted for. Six that could be alive or dead. The trail had run cold at Georges, a merchant dealing in exotic animals. He had apparently been introduced to his mysterious client through the merchant named Aamir, but as Louise had just learned, frustratingly, Aamir could only provide a name and not occupation or address. But a name might still be enough. The Royal Archives would include tax records after all, if he was a Nobleman, he would be tracked down in short order. Louise looked up as she stepped into the shadows of a nearby church tower. The sun was beginning to set, it was late enough in the day, her feet were aching, her back was sore, and her shoulder was getting stiff where Schwartz had decided to use her as a roost. “Botan . . . The shops are going to be closing soon, and we can't do much more today.” Louise said. “It's probably best if we go back to the Palace now. Tabitha, Kirche, and Silica will probably be waiting. We can see if they learned anything else.” Henrietta had offered Louise the full hospitality of the Royal Palace and its staff while she conducted her mission here in the Capital, saying that it was the least she could do after the first half of her assignment had nearly ended so badly. Louise certainly appreciated her Princess's hospitality. Thanks to Henrietta she'd been able to gain access to the Royal Archives not only for her own investigation but to continue with her studies and efforts to master her malformed magic. With the help of Kirche and Tabitha she was even beginning to make progress with basic cantrips. She'd been able to cast a mage light for a whole thirty seconds before it had fizzled and -popped- in her face. It came as a relief in a way, if nothing else she wasn't a complete failure, and maybe she didn't need to be an exceptionally powerful mage to be of use. After all, there were many important tasks that didn't require a wit of magic to perform, and she had seen far too many Nobles who simply squandered their god given potential in the past two weeks. It was strange, but she'd never noticed it before, maybe because she was too young, but now . . . Botan nodded slowly. “You're right, we can't do much more today. Besides, we need to find out who this 'Terrance' person is . . . I worry for them is all.” Louise nodded slowly, Botan thought of her sisters as her responsibility, for her, this mission had a much more personal stake. “I'm sure they'll be alright. Nobody was mistreating any of the other Pixies, even the ones that died, their keepers tried their best to help them.” “Un.” Botan looked up. “But . . . if what the other Little Ones have said is right, then none of them were Shamans and Knights. If they're still lost it could become a problem really soon.” Louise tilted her head. “Why would it be a problem, the others were alright without an Elder Sister weren't they?” The Knight nodded again and then stopped and began to shake her head. “Little Sisters can be very gullible, they're naturally very trusting and obedient.” Botan's expression soured. “Hinagiku told me that it came in handy to keep us in line, since she could make up something scary to keep us from doing anything too dangerous.” She shook her head. “I can't believe I was that stupid!” “Well, children aren't always very smart.” Louise agreed gently. “I remember that mother used to put on her armor when she wanted to frighten me so that I would listen.” Of course, her mother had never actually done anything to her while dressed in her armor. She'd gotten the cane a few times for misbehaving, and the time she'd hidden until the servants had been in a panic looking for her. But those had all been administered while mother wore nothing but her day to day attire. “That's not what I'm worried about either.” Botan began to ring her hands, face reddening as if thinking of something embarrassing. “My point is that those Little Sisters need an Elder Sister to protect them. And if they can't find one, they might make one themselves.” Louise's eyes widened. “You mean a Blossoming.” She shook her head. “But the others were fine when we met them . . . unless . . . Suikazura?” Botan looked away awkwardly. “She didn't smell right, and she wasn't listening to me. Normally a Little Sister will do almost anything an Elder Sister says, we're . . . very compelling to them. I think she must be a few days along. That's why we need a Shaman soon. Baptiste-san seems to care a lot for her, but he won't know what to do.” Louise suddenly understood. “But then, what about the other Little Sisters?” “I think we found most of them fast enough.” The Knight explained. “If any of them were starting to Blossom, then they must have stopped when they met me. Or maybe their human caretakers made good surrogates. But this could still be bad, if they're being forced to Blossom before they're ready it could be a lot like . . . well . . . like Sayuri-sama.” She sighed. “I'm sorry, but I'm not a Shaman, so I can't say for sure.” “That's okay.” Louise tried to reassure her. “But if they Blossom, isn't that good? They'll be able to take better care of themselves while we look for them.” Pixies got stronger when they Blossomed right? It made sense to Louise. Botan looked shocked and for a second Louise worried that she had offended her small companion. “Louise-san . . . how much have do you know about Blossoming?” Louise frowned. “Only what you've told me.” “Well, it's a very private topic in a lot of ways.” Botan hugged herself as she spoke. “Not only is it very physically strenuous, the changes to the mind are just as severe.” “Changes to the mind?” Louise felt a little worried. “Un. Ever since I came to the Palace, I've been listening a lot to everybody, about Tristain, and . . . and about the war.” Botan looked thoughtful as she placed her hands behind her head. “A month ago, I wouldn't have been able to understand most of it. I wasn't smart enough. I think that when Pixies Blossom, in a lot of ways its the same as when Beings, when humans, grow up. Except where you grow up a little at a time, and get used to it a little at a time, it happens to us all at once.” Louise nodded. “That must be hard.” “It is, believe me.” Botan said. “When I was blossoming, it was like I was throwing away parts of my old self and I was afraid I would wake up a completely different person, and . . .” “And?” Louise asked. Botan smiled weakly. “I did. I'm not the same Botan who started to Blossom in the Forest of Tarbes anymore than you are the Lousie that you were when you were little. But I'm born from her the same way that you were born from that Younger Louise. Does that make sense?” “Okay.” She thought she understood. “You're saying that we are who we are because of who we were.” “Right.” Botan agreed. “In other words a Blossoming is the sacred rebirth of a Little Sister, and at the same time, the birth of an Elder Sister. But there are so many ways that it can go wrong.” The Knight looked down angrily. “Sayuri-sama . . .” “You mean Shion.” Louise concluded. “Yes, Shion.” Botan said unhappily. “That's another thing. When I was a Little Sister, Sayuri-sama always seemed so strong, but then, after I Blossomed, I was able to see how sickly and frail she really was. I almost couldn't believe she was the Sayuri that I looked up to, but Hina says that she had been deteriorating since before she'd come to our Garden so there must have been signs. I guess that was why the other Knights always seemed so anxious, I just couldn't see it.” Louise waited as Botan looked contemplative. They were almost to the Palace now, walking down the densely populate thoroughfare that cut through the heart of the city. “I don't think . . . I don't think Sayuri-sama was a person, not a whole one anyways.” Botan shivered as she said it. “There just wasn't enough of her. The Knight I knew, I think that's all she was, just a Knight given form and nothing else. That's why she withered away, she didn't know how to live." "I hate myself for this, but . . . I'm glad that Sayuri-sama wilted away, she died, but now she can really live as the person she was supposed to be all along. She suffered so much because she wasn't ready to be a Knight, wasn't even ready to be a Little Sister.” The Vespid Knight shook her head angrily. “I have to be sure that doesn't happen to anyone else. I have to.” Louise reached up to stroke Botan's small head with her thumb. “Can you? I mean, can you stop something like that?” Botan didn't speak for a while, then, slowly, she sighed. “Maybe . . . if I have to.” Louise blinked, she hadn't heard this before. Suddenly, Botan began to speak quickly, without any prompting. It sounded like something that had been building up for a while. “Hina spent a lot of time examining Shion once we brought her back to the Garden and then spoke a lot with Florine-san who used her magic to study me and Shion since we'd both just finished Blossoming." "There's a point at the stem of a Pixie's wing that the Shamans will apply pressure to in order to ease the Blossoming.” Botan extended her wings and gestured blindly to the points where the translucent appendages met and fused with the rest of her body. “Florine-san says that those points are probably the glands responsible for regulating our Blossoming. She thinks that, judging by what happened to Sayuri-sama, if we lance those points carefully, we can stop a Blossoming even at a very late stage or even induce a Wilting like what happened to Sayuri-sama.” “But you don't sound happy with that.” Louise observed. How could she? Wasn't she suggesting some sort of disfigurement?! “I'm not!” Botan almost shouted. “It's very dangerous. We can't be sure that it will work the way we think it will. And even worse, it could make it so that our Sisters can't ever blossom again! Hina and Florine-san told me that Shion's wing stems are still malformed. We don't even know if Shion will be able to grow into a normal Little Sister, much less Blossom into a Shaman or Knight.” Louise could hear the anguish in the small Knight's voice and suddenly her urgency made all too much sense. “That's horrible.” She whispered. “Would you really be able to do something like that to your Sisters?” Botan didn't answer and they continued on their way to the Palace, finally arriving at the front gates where the guards on watch admitted them with a small greetings and a bow to each of them. Henrietta had taken Botan's title of 'Vespid Knight' very seriously after meeting the girl, and she had instructed the Palace staff to accord her the courtesy and honorifics, if not the authority, of a full Chevalier of Tristain. “We'd only do it if it was absolutely necessary, and if our Sister wanted it.” Botan said finally. “But we can't be sure it would be safe. So . . .” “So?” Louise had a feeling she wouldn't like the answer. “So, if it becomes necessary, I'll ask Hina to do it to me first to prove that it's safe.” The reply, so calm and matter of fact, caused Louise to stop dead in her tracks. Botan had so casually gone from speaking of disfigurement, to possibly carrying out that same disfigurement on herself! “B-Botan! How can you say something like that?!” The Vespid Knight drifted down from Louise's shoulder, smiling sadly. “Louise-san, I am a Knight of the Garden, it is my sacred task to live and die for the sake of my Sisters.” Her smile slowly became more genuine. “Don't worry Louise-san, I'm only talking about the worst case.” Louise looked at her aghast, the worst case?! She reached out so suddenly that Schwartz took flight with an indignant “Gyaah!” Snatching Botan carefully out of the air. “D-don't say something like that! If you say that, then it sounds like you've already given up on things turning out alright! And besides, didn't you always want to be a Knight?” Botan blinked, tilting her head curiously with a bemused expression. “Louise-san, even if that happens, it won't mean I'm not a Knight. In fact, I'd be much less of a Knight if I turned my back on my Sisters. I'd rather rip my own wings off than do that.” “But . . . but doesn't it scare you?” Louise asked lamely. “Of course!” Botan said almost too happily. “It's not something I ever want to happen, but that's the same as not wanting to die, or not wanting my Sisters to get hurt.” “And you can live with that?” Squirming from Louise's grasp, the Pixie Knight stood balanced on Louse's lightly balled fists. She nodded. “Because I'm the sort of person that my past self would be proud of.” Louise had no patience for stupid people, but, how did she respond when a person wasn't being stupid?Louise knew that she'd done foolish things in the past, and that it was partly because of her temper. She'd gotten herself into a lot of trouble by not thinking things through. But Botan was willing to risk herself willingly, with her eyes open to the consequences. How was it that the stronger of the two of them was only a hand span tall? “Ah, I'm sorry Louise-san, I've upset you!” Botan said quickly. “Come on, it's getting dark.” The Knight tugged at the cuff of her blouse. “We should get inside now.” Slowly, Louise began to walk again at Botan's urging, the small Knight acting as if nothing strange had been said. It had to bother her though, didn't it? After all, she wouldn't have mentioned it if it wasn't on her mind. And now she was doing everything she could to stop Louise from thinking about it. Sighing inwardly. “Yeah, let's go.” Louise said. I bet that the chefs will have more of those baked apples you like so much. You better hope flying burns off a lot of fat, or you're going to look like an apple before too long!” “Hey!” Botan shouted. “That's not fair! Besides, Hinagiku-sama would kick my butt if I got that slow and heavy.” “Then you better start exercising more.” Louise replied. “Because Henrietta is going to meet with Lady Sakuya in Arrun tomorrow about the Pixies, and I heard her say that all of the Garden's we've contacted so far are sending Representatives. Since we'll have to wait for the Archives to find who Terrance is and where we can find him, it probably wouldn't hurt for you to go and see them.” “W-what?!” Botan stammered, her calm completely lost. Good, so she could be shaken, that was a lot more reassuring than the thought that she might be crazy. “Why wasn't I told about this?!” “I mentioned it at breakfast.” Louise said casually. “But someone wanted to hurry out and get an early start today.” “You didn't say that at all!” Botan accused. “Did to.” Louise said. “Did not!” “Did to.” “Did not! Did not!” They continued like that all the way down the walk to the Palace.