So, guess who finally got Covid? That shit fucking sucked. I've lost ten pounds due to it because I couldn't eat anything. (I went from about 200 to dipping below 190 now.)

I'm better now and can finally write instead of just existing because I was too cold to get out of bed for a week and a half.


Jaune vigorously dried his hair as he left the bathhouse. The boy's hair ruffled and stuck out in all directions; he didn't bother to tidy it as he shut the door behind him. On the other side was a sickly-looking Sun sitting on a bench pushed against the wall. His fellow blonde looked ready to fall over, breathing laboriously through his mouth due to congested sinuses.

"I think Lily gave me whatever she's got," Sun spoke in a nasal voice.

Rough...

"You want me to cure it, or are you going with Ren's advice," Jaune asked in reply.

"Nah, he's got the right idea," he denied, shaking his head. "I'll take a bath and see if that helps..." He looked off into space with an open maw, forced to breathe through his mouth and sounding like a dying whale.

"Go nuts."

Climbing up the stairs, it was dark when Jaune left the basement. A few days after he'd brought Cardin's group here, things had lumbered along relatively smoothly, for once. Nobody attacked anyone or got involved in some sort of conspiracy in the meantime. However, the group's new guests had hardly left the infirmary.

Lara would eat something but didn't talk or get out of bed when checked on. She acted like she was asleep or hid under the covers until they went away. Iris and Lily shared the bedroom dweller trait, remaining in place. Luckily, Lily moved more and more as the days progressed.

"Hahahaha," a burst of laughter came from the living room.

It sounded like a few people. One of them was Taiyang, for sure. The rest Jaune wasn't sure about. He could tell they weren't his friends, though.

Creeping towards the living room, Ren stood just outside, seemingly moulded into the shadows. He quietly watched whoever occupied the den with a light cast over their faces from the fireplace inside. When Jaune approached, Ren held up a hand, stopping him from entering and then gestured inside.

Sitting among the old couches were several people. Winter, Cinder, Willow, and Tai were the first Jaune noticed. Three men sat across from them. The King and two others who Jaune could not recognise.

One stood shrouded in darkness, wearing a hood and armour like those spies they'd encountered at Lime's place. The other was a more scholarly man. Wearing glasses, a fine hat, and an expensive doublet sitting next to the King, analysing and awaiting an opening in the conversation. He bore a resemblance to the King but was not blessed with his handsome face. He appeared to be far older than the Monarch, showing many wrinkles on his face and grey hair.

"I forgot to ask, Taiyang, how is Qrow doing these days," the King questioned, taking a sip from a goblet. "Is that dusty old bird still kicking? I thought he would find himself a girl to settle down with."

"He's on some kinda mission," Tai answered, shrugging his shoulders. "The kind that you probably don't know about. Ozpin and his secrets and all that..."

"The man does not seem to be one for 'settling down,'" the Scholar stated in an exquisite and formal tone. "Especially when he's rejected any offers for service nearly a dozen times... The kind of man who scoffs at a life of near-royalty with his skills would prefer the freedom."

"You can't buy everyone, Grey," the King expressed. "Ozpin's got him firmly in his corner."

"Oi, Isaac," the third man spoke up, gesturing with his head towards the door.

The King turned to the pair standing there, acknowledging their presence. Jaune was prepared to disappear for eavesdropping, but the man didn't seem concerned about that. In fact, he had been expecting members of their group.

"Good, some of you are here; the others will surely know what I'm going to share soon enough," King Isaac said, standing from where he sat. "Mr Arc, and Mr Lie, these are my younger brothers Grey," he gestured to the Scholar, "and Kaedin D'Cerulean," he pointed to the spy. "Grey handles much of the bureaucracy of the Kingdom, and Kaedin is my spymaster. You would have met my youngest brother that night at the Krupin warehouse."

At that moment, Kaedin pulled off his hood, exposing his face for the first time. The name wasn't enough to make Jaune realise where he'd seen him before. Jaune didn't meet him at the warehouse for the first time. He'd seen Kaedin in Bar. He was that merchant who brought him to Vale.

"Long time no see, Laddie," Kaedin greeted in his boorish accent. "Was 'fraid you'd forgotten me."

"Makes an excellent spy, does he not," Isaac posed. "Mr Arc did not suspect a thing from the humble tradesman. Certainly does a well enough job to fight like one too."

"Then what are you doing here," Ren asked in a polite yet blunt tone.

Grey pushed himself off the couch by his knees. "Ironic for a bureaucrat to be the straightforward one," he quipped. "The reason we are here is for more than a social visit... Actually, Isaac wanted to share a drink with Mr Xiao Long, so we thought it was simpler to take care of this meeting and sate my brother. Better than sending one of my men to inform you and waste his time." He fixed his shirt and put on a straight face. "We're here to share with you some findings of the raids conducted by the King's spies and knights on suspected vampire dens. Since you seem to enjoy inserting yourself into these matters, it was prudent you be informed at least."

"How many people did you rescue," Ren began.

"Fifty-five," Grey answered. "Mostly younger girls with a few boys. They're being taken care of as we speak. If they have parents, we're returning them home. Orphans will be sent to familiar locations, such as their hometowns, where they will serve local lords we've vetted. However, some of the vampires shared a particular... depravity, which meant a few of their slaves suffered humiliating torment at their hands. I understand we don't need to dig into those details?"

"Yeah, we can go without it..."

The King pulled out a large purse from his side and tossed it underhanded to Jaune. "To give them compensation, we seized most of what the vampires owned," he continued the conversation. "It's enough that they each will have two thousand lien. The trauma alone makes the coin worth little, but it should give them a head start wherever they end up."

"We'll make sure it gets to the girls," Ren stated with a nod.

"I'm counting on it," King Isaac replied. He looked to the shadows in the room's opposite corner, staring at a figure unnoticed by anyone except him. "Does that sit well with you, Assassin? I've felt you glaring at the back of my head since we started..."

In that corner, Jaune had to focus his eyes to determine what the King spied. There, he saw the eye shine of a person on the upper wall. Looking closer, it was not a person, but an amorphous mass stuck flat against it. Upon being discovered, it reformed into Blake, bearing an ill look to the King and his entourage.

"Is there a problem?"

"Yeah, I'm not very fond of a king who lets his nobles profit off slaves," Blake spat, crossing her arms as she looked over the men in front of her.

The King inhaled sharply, suppressing any reaction he would otherwise have. "Ms Belladonna, I can assure you that none of my nobles deals in their products," he sincerely argued back. "I would be the second to know if they were."

He doesn't sound like he's lying...

Was that bailiff wrong?

It could have been a crackpot conspiracy that he materialised. With how much Blake hated slavery, it was something she could have latched onto. However, Jaune knew Blake was more intelligent than that. He thought she would be sceptical of it before finding some reliable information.

"And who among the nobility of Vale would you say is dealing in slave-produced goods," Grey inquired in disbelief. "There is nothing in my records that says such. So, I would like you to point to some hard evidence that the nobility is either dealing with two books or somehow keeping this away from the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Because I can assure you that it would never get past me."

Blake's eyes narrowed on Grey. Rather than address him, she moulded back into the darkness and disappeared. In her wake, the remaining group in the living room waited for the awkwardness to disperse in the meantime.

Crap, Blake... What did you do?

"Do not worry; I'll forget her tone," King Isaac said to Jaune and Ren. "I understand passions are high. It seems more and more of Vale's enemies are mounting every day. Such things would lead some of Beacon's students to assume matters they are not wholly informed of. But, if it would put minds at ease, an investigation into certain records of our nobles should suffice." The man stood and gathered his things. "So, at that, I would like to leave things here." He nodded to those joining him in the living room before turning and walking out with his entourage.

[Ren]

A day or two after their encounter with the King, Ren was still chewing on what Blake said. He trusted her judgement, however. It was likely true if she had a sufficient reason to believe such. She wouldn't cry 'wolf.'

If she wants to share it with us, then I'll listen... Picking fights with the King is not the right way to go about it, however.

Putting it out of his mind, Ren glanced down at the notes provided by Grey. While not the whole story, it summarised what the group needed to know. A compilation of records from each raided location showed the vampires were detailed in their craft. They recorded everything and burned what incriminating documents remained as a precaution for cases like this.

Luckily, some of Vale's spies managed to seize files before they met a fireplace.

"The vampires gathered en masse for elaborate parties," Ren read quietly in the manor library. "Their records show they chose specific residents of Vale as the main course for masquerade balls, allowing guests to hunt them throughout dens as a game. However, there is no indication they planned any other parties since the last, four months ago. This seemed to be related to a dip in disappearances in the city. It is possible they caught a whiff of the Church's activities while they planned their attack on Beacon." Ren looked over a picture of footprints and discarded bags. "Despite this, many vampires remained until now. The actions of several Beacon students accelerated our timetable, forcing us to begin raids without proper planning. It appears more than half of the suspected vampires were able to escape into the countryside. Though, this did bear fruit since some of the abandoned items contained documents relating to their identities... Must communicate with contacts in major settlements. Maybe we can cut the vampires off and keep them from reestablishing themselves?"

"Ren, you there," a harsh whisper was spoken to him.

Looking up, Nora was leaning into Ren's point of view with an ear-to-ear smile on her face. The expression was enough to cause the boy to lose focus and redirect it to the girl. Nora's large blue eyes were the first to catch his attention, fixating him on those orbs while he had not fully registered her words.

"Come on, lazy bones, we're gonna do the thing, right," Nora said, backing away from him and skipping midway through the library. "Let's hurry up before they decide to leave!"

"Yeah, coming," Ren said, tossing the files aside. He then pushed himself out of the chair and followed Nora.

Exiting the library, a pair of workers were hard at work plastering a wall. A few others were tearing boards from the floor, making their way from one side of the hallway to the other. Another crew was behind them, replacing the floor with new stained wood. Each of these men worked together seamlessly like bees in a hive.

For fifteen thousand lien, the group hired an entire firm of builders. All with materials ready to go for the project with the price they were paying. Dozens of men and women camped in their front yard, working day and night to fix the manor. In a day, they had already accomplished much.

The house was cleaned up. Rid of any pests or debris littering the manor. They were finishing the structural repairs and moving on to everything else. Stuff that would have taken weeks or months to complete was done in a fraction of the time.

It was worth the money...

Ren only hoped it would be done soon. He wanted to get working on planting herbs in the greenhouse. Though, he would be satisfied at the end of this week. He could wait and then enjoy the fruits of the group's labour when the repairs were done.

Then, the greenhouse would be an excellent spot to meditate. With tea and a book, he could relax and contemplate in peace. Undisturbed by the world and everything in it. That's what he desired out of this space.

With the group routinely involving themselves in conflicts between the more significant factions of Remnant, they needed to slow down and think of their following actions. There was no reason to dive in head first into something they had no business in. The exception being Jaune and Blake's burglary, and rescuing of the vampire cattle. Some things were too urgent to ignore in those cases, so he was willing to overlook them.

Ren just wanted to finish the year with his friends. At the manor, they could create the space and bonds between them that would be unbreakable. They could tackle the more prominent issues when they were ready. Small things were perfectly within their grasp in the meantime.

Nora also shared this disposition. At least part of it. She was more gung-ho, like the rest of the group, but she desired the house above all. However, she hadn't shared her plans for her room or any projects she had in mind.

I guess it will be a welcome surprise...

Though, I need to ask Weiss if she knows where to find a good tea set. I doubt I could find a Mistrali set, but I heard Valean wares were exceptional.

He managed fine with an iron kettle and spare cups, but Ren needed a proper set. It just didn't taste the same. The taste would be lost before the brew reached his lips, and Ren was willing to throw down the money to acquire these ceramic dishes by gifting an arm or leg.

"Renny, how do'ya want to play this," Nora inquired as she reached the infirmary. "Let me do the talking, or you wanna do it?"

"Go ahead," Ren replied with a nod.

With a grin, Nora didn't bother to knock as she pushed the door open. There, the sisters were in their usual position. However, Lara appeared to have vanished. Some of her things remained, so she couldn't have gone very far.

Hmmm, maybe she took a walk?

"How's our favourite patient~," Nora chirped as she skipped to the end of the bed. "Any better?! You don't look as pale." She leaned down to inspect Lily from a distance.

"I am," Lily replied weakly in a young child's voice. "I don't feel yucky anymore..."

"That stuff you gave her really worked," Iris followed, holding a cup of coffee in her hand.

"Yep, Renny knows his stuff," Nora cheerfully replied, gesticulating to match her mood. "Took care of me whenever I got sick, so we have a pretty good idea of what works! And I got sick, a lot, back when we were kids, so he's got practice..." She paused for a moment. "But! I have come to ask you about something."

"What is it?"

"Do you guys wanna stick with us," Nora posed, clasping her hands together and gesturing to the sisters. "I know you guys gotta ton of gold, but it's tough to make out here. Renny and I know how bad it can get..." Her expression dropped at the memory of those years following the loss of their village. However, she quickly recovered and put a bright face back on. "So, I want to give you a place to stay!"

"I-I can't take that for free from you," Iris exclaimed in shock. "You guys have done so much for us! I-I'll work for you if I have to, so I can pay you back!"

She doesn't want to feel like a burden?

Ren understood it. Taking so much from a group of strangers made it feel like you were getting into debt with them at a point. Luckily, Ren and Nora's adopted parents made sure not to make them feel that way. The pair was too young to feel such, but Coral and Titus never treated them like an extra mouth to feed. The most they required was pulling weeds and feeding animals as a chore.

"Then we accept," Nora agreed in her usually loud voice. "Cause my friends and I wanted to give you a job! This way, you can get some cash together if you move on. So, how does food, a room, and fifty lien a week sound?"

"W-We'll take it," Iris nervously confirmed.

"Cool," Nora expressed, reaching into her satchel and pulling out two hunting knives. "Take these; I had Jaune make them for you just in case you need some protection. Also, if you want to, we can show you a few neat tricks. Renny and I do woodwork, leatherwork, cooking and alchemy. Sun's got his brewing. Jaune makes weapons and armour."

"All you need to do is ask," Ren added. "We would be willing to teach you and have some help if you're interested."

If either girl appeared to be talented, an assistant would be welcome. While Ren could handle most of his crafts by himself, another smith would be invaluable. Especially someone to take the minor repairs on broken armour or tools. So, teaching their guests something would yield a two-fold return for their efforts.

"OOooo, I wanna make medicine like you," Lily spoke in a hoarse voice, followed by a coughing fit.

"I guess it's settled then," Ren replied with a smile. "We'll get a room set up for you two. I think the builders finished one an hour or two ago."

Ren and Nora then slipped out of the room as Iris helped Lily recover from her bad cough. Shutting the door, Ren turned around to find a giddy-looking Nora a few feet away from him.

"I'm so happy they're sticking around," Nora whispered, barely bottling up her excitement at the outcome. "We did a good thing, right?"

"Of course..."

It was the only action that reduced suffering in the world. So, to Ren, it was logical that they needed to pursue this end. He wasn't simply motivated by that desire to do good. It was to everyone's benefit that those girls didn't wander off on their own.

"Okay, cool," Nora said, now reassured. "Let's go find them a room... Should we give them some stuff to decorate? I can weave branches and vines into something nice."

Nora led the way into the completed section of the house. The dusty floorboards and cracked plaster turned into dark stained wood and white-washed walls. Every few feet, a magical light rested in a sconce, lighting the halls with a gentle orange glow. However, the walls were bare of any decorations. It was an Alstadt home with no soul to be found.

"Hmmm," Ren hummed as they walked. "Leave their room for now... Your weaving would be better in the greenhouse and the feasting hall."

Ren envisioned the doorway to the hall to be lined with woven vines, fake decorative leaves, and flowers. The greenhouse would possess arbours along the cobblestone paths bearing those same pieces. Chairs and baskets made from delicately woven and polished wood would contain herbs and be used at a table in the warm greenhouse.

It was something closer to the Nordling style Ren shared a fondness for.

It was ideally suited for Nora's work. The rest of the house could be decorated in the same fashion if everyone desired it. That way, there wasn't too much of a single person's influence around the manor without their consent. Otherwise, Sun could add Vacuoun art. Weiss could use Atlesian artefacts reminiscent of the Nordling design. Then, the rest could go with their respective decorations from Mistral or Vale.

"Ooohhhh, I get it," Nora replied as she picked up Ren's suggestion. "Yeah-Yeah-Yeah, we should totally do that. Wanna help me after we're done?"

"We can take the afternoon to gather the materials..."

Turning a corner, Ren and Nora walked past the room that Cinder had claimed. Though bare like the rest of the house, she had set up a modest lab with freshly procured furniture. Magical devices and chalked symbols were arranged in such ways that Ren could not readily identify. Inside, Cinder and Yang appeared to be speaking.

"Cinder, I need you to do me a favour," Yang spoke quietly. "Can you get me here?" She pointed to a spot on a map. "If you put me there, I can get some stuff for the enchanting table. It's just an in-and-out job. Less than three hours."

Hmmm? Where would she be getting those materials? The only place I know of was that lab Jaune and Weiss found...

Ren pondered that as he continued onwards, refusing to listen further to their conversation. Though he wanted to help Yang with that goal, judging by her tone, the girl had it handled. Perhaps she already enlisted Blake's assistance in the matter?

However, it didn't matter. Ren had a task in front of him. If it was urgent, they could find him.

[Weiss]

Perfect...

Weiss arranged her room just the way she had wanted it. The queen bed with hanging curtains was pushed against the wall far from the door. A desk was centred in the space, containing some of her notes and research. Finally, the walls were lined with shelves and armoires to house everything else she owned. Now cleaned and free of filth, it was livable and didn't feel as cold as her room back in Atlas. She much preferred the wood and plastered country-esque design over the stone-cased trappings of her home.

The finishing touches were a bed for Dreizehn, nestled right next to Weiss' own. It was crafted from a shoddy hand and spare two-by-fours before being filled with scrap cloth and whatever she could find. Despite its rough appearance, Weiss was quite happy with her handiwork.

"Here, Dreizehn, come try your bed," Weiss said to the pup, tapping the padding to get his attention.

The dog didn't have any such inclination to move. Weiss stood up and gazed upon her pet to find him splayed out on his back with his tongue out. The white linens of Weiss' bed were the only place he desired to be right now.

"You can't take the entire bed," Weiss said to the dog.

Dreizehn replied with only a grunt and wiggled himself further into the bed. Though he usually slept on the ground, Weiss realised how big the pup was growing. By now, he seemed to be around fifty to sixty pounds. If he were a fluffier member of his breed, he would appear bigger. However, Dreizehn was taking up most of the bed. There was little room elsewhere for Weiss to sleep.

"Fine, we'll deal with this later..." Weiss sighed. "You're too cute to be mad at."

Weiss turned away from her dog and glanced around the room. The twenty-foot-by-twenty-foot space was essentially complete. With the repairs and such, it was now lit up by light coming through the skylight and four windows. Each passage was opened, allowing a gentle breeze to sail through and cool the space.

I wonder if this was for a family back when the Torchwicks owned the house? It's too large for a single person...

Leaving her bedroom open, Weiss left and descended the nearby stairs to the house's second level. On a small landing, two rooms were present. The laboratory they planned to build, and Jaune's room inhabited this space.

Summoning the courage to glance into her companion's room, Weiss noted how small it was compared to hers. Ten-feet-by-ten-foot. Almost the size of her old closet back home. It was barely enough to fit a bed, let alone store enough things, so it was very cluttered.

Pieces of armour, weapons, and materials were scattered around the room. His golden armour was the only thing neatly tucked away on an armour stand. A small table against the wall had clothes or random debris thrown on top of it. Stacks of books were piled along the wall near where Jaune's bed should have been.

Weiss then realised he didn't even have a bed anymore. Jaune was currently asleep in a hammock. This hammock was fashioned from a large section of canvas that he managed to stitch together and loop a rope through it to secure the ends. These ropes were then tied around exposed beams in the walls.

He's living like a barbarian too...

Weiss had to back out before she lost her mind. The many students back in the communal dorms created quite the mess too, but then, she had to put up with it. Here, the workshop had crept up and into the house. Jaune shared no regard for where he would keep his work and living quarters separate.

By this measure, he didn't have a bedroom.

Is this how the lower classes live? Or is it just blacksmiths?

Weiss took a deep breath and left the second floor. She wanted to put this out of her mind for now. The girl hadn't known exactly what she was getting herself into when she agreed to turn the cottage into a workshop, and now Weiss was paying for it.

At least he's not spending the entire night forging... I would have to kill him if I was kept up by that racket.

Descending the final set of stairs, Weiss landed in their workshop. Devoid of most furniture around the modified fireplace where the forge sat, there was only a kitchen on this floor outside the main room. That secondary space housed a small table with some chairs.

Nestled against the wall were four armour stands with the sets Cardin and his group purchased. They had made some decent progress on them in the last week. Most were nearly complete, suited for each of the knights' strengths by the amount of plate they carried.

Though they weren't the works of art that Ruby's armour was, the pieces were rather lovely. Weiss spent a lot of time adding paints and sewing them, so she was biased. However, they'd done a fantastic job with it. Even if they were refined versions of the boys' original armour mixed with the style of Jaune's own.

That's when Weiss noticed there was another person down here. She nearly mistook the girl for Pyrrha when first laying eyes upon her. The woman was leaning over, inspecting Tubal Cain's Hammer and a few of the magical artefacts. When she noticed Weiss, the woman turned to her and offered a polite curtsy to the Princess.

This woman was nearly identical to the King's knight: Eleonore, minus the horrific burns on half her body. Instead of the older woman's burning red eyes, she wore a pair of blue ones. Though clearly related, the girl was much younger, around Weiss' own age. Her hair was also done up in a long ponytail with a braid along the side of her head. As for her clothing, the woman wore a simple yet pricey green and brown dress. Merely a skirt ending above the ankles and a long-sleeved shirt with puffy shoulders secured by a brown leather corset.

"H-Hello, Ms Schnee," the woman began nervously. "Forgive me for allowing myself in; there wasn't a door."

Weiss glanced at the open passage leading to the outdoors. The doorway Elm had broken hadn't been repaired yet. In fact, it still hung off the frame in two pieces.

"That's okay," Weiss replied, waving her hand to the side and disregarding the trespass. "But, who are you? I don't think we've met... Though, I have an idea of you might be."

"Freesia," the girl answered in greater confidence. "Daughter of Eleonore Von Roth and Isaac D'Cerulean."

That would make her the King's daughter... Then she's a princess.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Lady Freesia," Weiss replied formally, offering a curtsy back to the girl. "This is the first time I've ever spoken with another child of royalty. Especially one of Vale."

A hundred things ran through Weiss' head as she spoke. Inside, the girl panicked at the notion of meeting another person her age and rank. Why did she decide to meet with her? What did she want from Weiss? Was this some sort of trick?

All were questions the Princess needed to understand to give her a better foothold in the situation. Among nobles and royalty, you needed to be more ruthless than your companions lest you be taken advantage of. However, taking a step back to examine the situation, Weiss' confidence grew.

This girl wasn't a combatant. Despite Freesia's size advantage, Weiss knew she could overpower her. To further emphasise their differences, the Mage noticed how nervous she was. The woman was more socially awkward than Jaune and Ruby put together.

"T-Thank you," Freesia stuttered out, balling up her fists at her sides. "I-I was hoping we could get to know each other!" Her face began to turn red as she prepared for Weiss' reply.

Get to know each other?

From behind, Jaune began to descend the staircase. Taking a quick glance behind her, the boy had a confused expression painted on his face. He was clearly puzzled by the unknown woman. On the other side of the room, Freesia began to nearly panic seeing Jaune appear.

I need to do something about this...

"Freesia, this is my companion, Jaune Arc," Weiss swiftly introduced the boy. "Jaune, this is Freesia. She's King Isaac's daughter."

His eyes narrowed as he inspected the girl. "There's more of you," he spoke in a tired voice.

Weiss elbowed him in the side, followed by a look. Not hard enough to be painful, but enough to get his attention. Speaking so casually to Weiss was one thing, but Freesia was different. They needed to watch their words if she was a full princess.

"Yes, but I was going to show her around the property," Weiss replied, moving between him and the girl.

"Cool, I was gonna get some work done on this armour," Jaune said, looking at the gear.

"Then we'll take our leave," Weiss replied, gesturing to the door for Freesia to follow.

Outside, the girls were left in the front yard. Carts filled with supplies were coming and going from the property. The builders were hard at work setting up woodworking stations or mixing plaster for sections of the wall. Only a few boys their age sat around on breaks, each becoming noticeably stiffer when they spotted the two beautiful women in their presence.

"Was there anything you wanted to see," Weiss asked, looking for something interesting on the property. "If not, we could walk until we find one of my other friends..."

"Ummm," Freesia uttered, wearing a contemplative expression. "I-I didn't think this through." She took a deep breath. "I'm actually not supposed to be here."

Oh no...

Looking around, Weiss felt like she had an idea. No guards or retainers were hanging out and waiting for the Princess to finish her visit. Nobody could defend the girl if she needed protection from an assassin or random assailant unless she happened upon a good samaritan.

However, Weiss liked it. Freesia snuck out to pursue her own goal. It was something Weiss sympathised with after spending years stuck inside with dozens of people monitoring her every move.

"We can sneak you back to the palace later," Weiss said. "I wouldn't worry too much about it." She began to wander, leading Freesia around the property. "However, you mentioned wanting to get to know me."

"Yes, I've heard a little about you and your group," she admitted, fidgeting as she walked. "So, learning about another princess in Vale, I wanted to meet her..." She paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. "And maybe find someone who wasn't paid to be my friend."

Find a friend...

Young noble girls and boys were offered up by her father's underlings to act as entertainment for years. These kids rarely had the idea to get closer to her in their younger years, but as they grew older, many were guided by their parents. Their goal was to charm Weiss to curry favour for their house or ensnare her heart to move up in society.

Weiss hated it. But, in front of her, another young woman was growing up in circumstances just like hers. Best of all, she was forward about her intentions. No beating around the bushes. She only needed to ask for friendship.

Is this how easy Ruby always has it?

"Then, I think you're welcome to visit any time you like," Weiss declared with a subtle smile. "My friends are rough around the edges, but I have a few you'd enjoy as companions."

Freesia's face lit up at those words. However, before she could reply, one of the builders came running and shouting up to the princesses.

"Miss! Miss," he shouted, sliding to a stop just before her. He took a moment to catch his breath. "Miss, we found something in the bathhouse!"

Oh...?

"What did you find," Weiss asked, immediately following the man. "It's not a vampire, is it?"

There was a vampire lair under the house at one point. However, they'd cleaned the place out. Weiss was sure they had been thorough about it. There was no sign of vampires anywhere on the property anymore.

Did we miss something?

"Should I..." Freesia was about to speak up.

"One of our boys was fixing the wall," the worker interrupted. "That's when we noticed some loose mortar. When he tried to chip it out, it collapsed, and he fell into the wall. So, now there's a tunnel leading further underground, and none of us are brave enough to check it out."

A tunnel?

Given the property's age, secret tunnels were well within the realm of phenomena. Weiss' mind immediately went to an escape route or extra storage for illicit goods that were eventually bricked up. But that couldn't be left alone for something to potentially crawl out of in the meantime. Weiss needed to handle this now, just to be safe.

"Take me to it..."

...

Weiss cautiously followed the worker into the bathhouse. Fortunately, the man wasn't lying about the hole. An ample enough space for Elm to walk through was bordered by sagging bricks from the crumbled wall. Deeper inside, Weiss could see the telltale signs of a cave leading further north underground. It reminded her of that huntsman shelter her friends waited out a thunderstorm in.

Surrounding the gaping maw were several workers who looked into the void with apprehension. Each was armed with picks or blunt objects to protect themselves from anything in the tunnel. However, Weiss could tell these weren't warriors. A few were big men or women, but they were terrified of going anywhere near it.

"Jorgen, we ain't seen anything crawl out," a thin elderly man stated. "Can't hear nothing either."

"That looks scary," Freesia nervously expressed as she looked over the workers' shoulders.

"How didya think we felt, lass," a middle-aged woman asked rhetorically. "None of us got any fancy magic swords. We can't do nothing if a monster wants a snack..."

Good instincts. They know their limits.

"Then stay here; I'm going to search the tunnel," Weiss ordered, drawing Myrtenaster from its sheath. In her other hand, she cast a candlelight spell, lighting up the darkness before her.

"Hold on," a sizeable wolf-faunus man exclaimed, grabbing Weiss' arm. "Ye can't go in there!" A look of fear was painted on his face.

How dare you touch me!

"Let me go," Weiss snapped at him, wrenching her arm from his grasp.

Before she could reprimand the man for grabbing her, the elderly man stepped in. "Miss, he don't mean any offence by it," he exclaimed, holding his hands up in front of him. "Lucas don't want you to get hurt! Yer not one of the beefy brutes like some of yer friends! What if something pounces on ye?"

Good point...

"I'll go with her," Freesia volunteered. "I can be an extra set of eyes."

The workers did not seem any more confident at her suggestion. One look at this thin young woman; they knew she could do less than they could. However, none outright denied her. She was stepping up when they refused to.

"Fine, lass, just watch out," the woman said. "We'll keep the entrance clear for you."

Weiss nodded to the workers, acknowledging them. "Good, if I'm not back in five minutes, send one of my companions down here," she ordered, turning and beginning her walk through the tunnel.

Descending no more than ten feet into the darkness, Weiss heard, "Send for one now. I think that Mistral lass is in the kitchen!"

Weiss ignored it, focusing on what was in front of her. She could not see more than twenty feet, marking the light spell's radius. Only a long section of the cave dug further into the earth. Her feet sank into the muck lining the floor, causing her to step gingerly lest she plunges in. Behind her, Freesia's soft breathing was all she could hear beyond their footsteps.

The Mage felt her body begin filling with adrenaline. She prepared herself to confront anything that revealed itself from within the darkness. Each step yielded another metre where an enemy could lurk freely.

Going further, Weiss held out her sword, preparing a thrust in response to anything. Another ten feet, and she could see a faint glow coming from around the corner. Whatever it was, it cast off a range of colours from light blues, greens, and purples.

"Do you see those lights," Freesia wondered, hiding behind the Mage.

"Yes..."

Reaching the bend in the path, Weiss' jaw dropped at the sight of what she beheld. Before her, a massive cavern had been under their feet this entire time. The Mage couldn't even see the end of it from here, losing the opposite side of the cavern in the mist hanging throughout. Such was the size of this grotto.

Between the points was a literal forest of mushrooms. Many were small growths like those on the surface; others were taller than a person. Each cast a bioluminescent glow, lighting the entire cavern in gentle neon lights. Yet, those were not the only species. There was a variety of ferns and grasses that shared the luminous qualities of the fungi.

As Weiss stood there, mouth agape, she noticed something flying towards her. It stopped in front of her face, hovering there for a moment. The Mage could only get an eye on its figure before it darted back into the fungal forest.

A bird?

It looked like a sparrow or another small bird she'd seen in some of her books. Only, it was entirely black or dark brown with small glowing dots on its feathers. Another came up to the girls, flying just close enough for Freesia to offer a hand for it to perch upon.

When it landed on her index finger, the girl examined the small bird as it did her. "I don't think they're afraid of humans," Freesia noted, allowing the bird to rest before it decided to continue flying around.

"They've been sealed down here for quite some time," Weiss surmised, picking a piece of grass off the floor. "I doubt they've ever seen a person."

"They remind me of the sparrows living in the palace," Freesia said. "They'll come to you if you have food."

"Descendants then," Weiss proposed, cocking her head to the side. "This cave must have been bricked up within the last three hundred years."

Behind the pair, another set of footsteps grew in volume as it approached. Weiss turned just in time to see Pyrrha enter the cavern. Wearing only a blue tunic, she wielded her usual weapons. The muck of the cave floor had crept up her legs, coating them in a brown second skin.

When she saw the majestic mushroom forest, Pyrrha shared the exact same expression Weiss had. A dumb gobsmacked face one would get seeing something beautiful. It was completely understandable.

"This is amazing," Pyrrha exclaimed in awe. "Why did the Torchwicks hide this place?"

Pyrrha moved past the girls and treaded up to an ovular lake running through the cavern's centre. She kneeled to inspect the water, eyeing a fish as it splashed on the surface. Small insects darted about alongside the birds, acting out the delicate mechanisms of this hidden ecosystem.

"They couldn't do anything with it," Weiss suggested, picking a mushroom off the floor for later. "It reminds me of that underground lake in the Silent Ruins."

"There wasn't this much life down there," Pyrrha replied. "This cave is like a jungle compared to that."

"You two must have seen a lot then," Freesia pointed out. "I've never been to a place like this..."

There's more than you know.

Having seen so much of Vale's natural beauty, it was still awe-inspiring regardless. What Weiss had laid eyes on was something her younger self couldn't have imagined.

"We can tell you about it," Pyrrha proposed, standing to her full height. "I have some food ready upstairs. It's better to talk there. Our group will have to survey this cave later, so we can just leave it for now."

...

Pyrrha poured the girls a cup of wine, setting the bottle on the table as she worked to prepare her meal. Weiss took a small sip, savouring the drink and allowing it to rest on her palette. Freesia did something similar; clearly, an expert in the art like Weiss was.

"There," Pyrrha uttered as she fished out the dish from within the oven.

Pyrrha pulled from the oven a flatbread topped with tomato sauce, melted clumps of mozzarella cheese, and an assortment of vegetables. Weiss could see some basil spread gingerly over the dish, along with olives, peppers, and onions. Then, the Mage was hit with the smell. An absolutely delicious aroma of baked bread.

"That smells amazing, Pyrrha," Weiss complimented. "I'm assuming this is a Mistrali dish?"

"Yes, I believe it came from the Imperials," Pyrrha replied, using a knife to cut the bread into pieces. "But, it's not very common. Most of what we ate was bread or porridge."

"That sounds reasonable," Freesia agreed, taking another sip of her wine as she opened up. "Much of Vale eats the same dishes. Though, I've heard Mistral has some very strange delicacies."

Bringing a tray to the table, Pyrrha set it between the girls. Each took a piece of the flatbread, biting into the dish at various angles. As Weiss sunk her teeth into the bread, she was met with a tough crust softened by the tomato sauce. The vegetables were excellently cooked to be slightly firm and masked by the cheese and sauce.

"We have a sauce we call garum," Pyrrha followed up. "It is the best thing to ever been created." She took another bite of her bread before washing it down with wine. "We make it from fermented fish and salt, so it gives anything you put it on an amazing savoury taste. I also believe the Oriental tribes enjoy it too."

Sounds interesting...

The girls quickly polished up the flatbread, leaving each satisfied with Pyrrha's cooking. Sitting back to digest, none heard the approaching cacophony of armour plates rattling against one another. By the time it reached them, Weiss had looked over to find a knight standing at the entrance to the kitchen.

"The three of you appear to be enjoying yourselves," Eleonore spoke in her usually raspy voice. The woman's expression appeared neutral, though she fixed her eyes on Freesia.

"We had a delightful conversation, Lady Eleonore," Weiss politely replied.

"I agree," Pyrrha expressed, picking up on Weiss' tone. "We noble ladies rarely enjoy these experiences in such a casual setting."

The older woman smiled and nodded her head slightly. As if by silent command, Freesia stood and came to her mother's side.

"Thank you both for hosting me," Freesia said with a nod to the girls. "I hope the three of us will have the opportunity to meet once more."

Freesia departed the kitchen first, followed by Eleonore. As the two walked out of view, the elder lightly slapped the younger woman on the back of the head.

"Dummkopf, you nearly gave your retainers a heart attack," Eleonore chided as her voice faded. Though, she was not angry with the girl. "Your father is going to hear about this as well..."

"I apologise, Mother," Freesia said in sincerity. "I acted rashly."

When the women disappeared, Pyrrha and Weiss were all that was left. The Spartan polished off her cup of wine before putting the cork back on the bottle. Since their lunch had been interrupted, each girl had little idea what they would do for the rest of the day.

"Weiss, do you want to explore that cave," Pyrrha asked as she set the dishes into the sink. "The others are busy right now, so we can get a head start."

"Sure, I would like to take some more samples," the Mage agreed, getting up to follow the Spartan. "Ren and I can process them later. There might be something we can use."


So, my intent with these next couple of chapters is to build up character relationships some more as I continue to work my way through the story. Basically, everyone hanging out and making things for weapons and doing fun stuff.