Mmm. I don't often get excited by games with how much work I do not leaving time for them, but I'm kind of excited about Manor Lords. I've always loved city builders but the one thing I hate (and this seems very unreasonable) is how grid-like they all are. I know it's because that's easier to code, etc, but towns and cities arranged in square grids is not a thing that happens in Europe, when a lot of these middle-aged games take place, and I always thought it made my towns look so boring.

I'm excited to make a swirling, uneven, natural-looking village that looks like it's grown up around a main road and various trade links.

P.s. I know site is buggy and not sending out alerts. I can't fix that. Sorry.


Cover Art: Solace o'Autumn

Chapter 19


Nora seemed to think he was being asked out on a date for some reason. It was all she kept talking about through the night, dragging Ren in with teasing comments on the group chat like "some hussy is stealing your femboy, Ren" and "no, you're breaking Renny's heart". It carried on until he and Ren, in a moment of clarity that reached beyond communication, blocked her almost simultaneously. They agreed to unblock her come morning, but it was what she got for trying to stir trouble.

Jaune was aware (his sister's told him it enough times) that he could be a little clueless when it came to the feelings of women, but he would 100% state that Weiss Schnee's interest laid in Pyrrha, not him. He doubted anyone would disagree with him on that. Not that he thought it was a romantic interest, and more that he didn't think romance had any part to play in this "date" she'd forced him to agree to.

He could be wrong…

But Weiss burst into his room to ask for his advice on what clothes to wear kind of suggested otherwise. His sisters did the same thing before dates of their own, including Saphron with Terra, and they sure as hell weren't going to go ask their date. Well… they also wouldn't have asked him either. He wore a hoodie and ripped jeans, so "fashion" was a little beyond him. His better clothes now were solely because Willow had bought them for him.

"I'm not asking for fashion advice!" Weiss snapped. "I'm asking you which of these two outfits you think looks casual enough." Weiss hefted two, while wearing a white sleeping gown. Had she really run barefoot all the way here? Jaune pitied the serving staff.

"Both look fine."

"All my clothes look good on me." He couldn't tell if that was arrogance about her appearance or a statement on the accurate purchase of her clothing. "But much of it is overly formal. I'm asking you – since you are a normal person – which you feel would be more suitable for a casual day out with a friend."

"Who's the friend?"

Her eyes pinched shut. "Prospective friend."

"You could have said me."

"I felt you'd appreciate the honesty."

"Ouch." But no big surprise. He didn't think Weiss disliked him, but they still hadn't talked enough to be any closer than that. "I'd go with the pale blue one, then, but I assume this is after the morning spar."

"Of course. These would only impede my movements. I've asked Klein to bring you to the training rooms, by the way."

"I get to watch?"

Weiss huffed and rolled her eyes. "You were never barred from spectating my training if you really wished to. I simply didn't imagine you'd care to, what with my mother occupying most of your time."

"With music," he stressed. "Clothed music."

"I've apologised for thinking otherwise already!"

"Fine. Fine. How has she been? I've not been asked to play for her today so I assume she's been wrapped up in the White Fang stuff?"

"You assume correctly. Whether or not we survived the night, others did not and it's a scandal.

"Surely not on your shoulders. Thet attacked you."

"You'd think that would spare us criticism, wouldn't you?" Weiss scowled. "Alas, our lax security is being brought into question. This, despite the fact that our security teams were killed. That makes the death count even higher. Ironically, the fact that father was shot is making it less than it otherwise would be. He's a victim now as well and playing the part speaking from a hospital bed to the reporters. Meanwhile, footage of my mother shielding him and pulling him to safety is doing the rounds and now everyone is convinced they're the perfect couple."

"Wow…"

"Yes. Ridiculous, I know. We're probably fortunate us performing together hasn't sparked rumours we're married as well. In fact, the attack has rather overshadowed it. I apologise for that."

"What?"

"You lost out on some publicity," she explained, offering him an apologetic smile. "The whole point of performing with me was to push your name out there, but hardly anyone has noticed due to the attack."

"Oh, that's fine. I don't really mind."

The whole point had been to help Weiss, because of his fix the Schnee family quest. One he was considering giving up on since it was going nowhere and staying here was proving to be rather dangerous. Not just because of the White Fang but because of Willow's increasing dependence on his music.

"I'll write you a written recommendation either way," she offered. "It might not convince everyone, but it will at least prove you're competent enough to perform alongside me. That should open some doors."

"You don't need to—"

"I said I will write you a written recommendation." Weiss' glare had him shrinking back. It ended after a brief moment, replaced with a relaxed smile. "Anyway, I'd best prepare for the spar and then our day out. Do try not to ruin it for me."

With that said, Weiss left.

Yeah, thought Jaune. I'm pretty sure this doesn't count as a date…

/-/

The spar was a quick and done thing. So quick, in fact, that Jaune almost wondered if Pyrrha had been trying to make Weiss' life a quick and done thing as well. It was the most one-sided and vicious beatdown he'd ever seen, and he was sure he wasn't misreading the satisfied smirk on her face.

If she meant to scare Weiss off, however, she achieved quite the opposite.

He'd fully expected Weiss to take her loss with all the grace of a three-legged Beowolf, screaming and tearing about in a frenzy, but it turned out the opposite. Weiss had initially lain on the floor in shock, her aura shattered, but then a huge smile had spread over her face, and she'd hopped to her feet, commenting on how incredible Pyrrha was.

Pyrrha looked like she was sucking on a lemon as she offered some faint praise to Weiss as well, because as much as she obviously disliked her, she'd been raised to be unfalteringly polite, and Weiss wasn't giving her much excuse to be otherwise.

Jaune just clapped from the sidelines, silently acknowledging that this dominance display (because that was what it felt like) was beyond his understanding. Maybe if his Charisma got high enough, he could unlock an ability to understand the subtext behind the actions of women, and then he'd become the most powerful man in existence. As opposed to a man dreading the weeks it'd take for news of the attack to reach home and for his mom to find out he'd nearly died. Yep, that was going to be fun.

Once the spar was over and both girls had changed into something more casual – the pale blue dress for Weiss and a set of cream pants and a caramel-coloured cardigan over a white blouse for Pyrrha – they were ushered by Klein to a limousine and taken into Atlas.

"It was touch-and-go to get permission to go out at all given the attack," said Weiss, serving some light soda in the back from a minifridge in the car. Because why not. "There were worries the White Fang might try again, but there's been some evidence found of them fleeing in the opposite direction."

"Are they being tracked?" asked Pyrrha. Dislike of Weiss or no, she was miffed enough about the threat to her mother to want them captured.

"Of course. The problem is that they're running into wild lands where Grimm run free – no doubt knowing that'll slow down any pursuit. While they may double back without masks to slip back into Atlas, that'll take a few days just for the travel time alone."

"I hope they're caught."

"I think you speak for us all there."

Klein dropped them off on one of Atlas's – or Mantle's, technically – more upmarket streets with instructions for Weiss to call him the moment she needed him, or if they were in any danger. Weiss brushed off his concerns with more than a little embarrassment, trying to act like a normal girl who didn't have a full protection detail dedicated to her.

"So…" Pyrrha drawled. "This was your and Jaune's day out that you've invited me on. What did you have planned?"

Weiss froze.

Busted. Or, well, called into doubt. Pyrrha must have suspected some foul play, or maybe she just wanted to needle Weiss. Either way, there had been no planned day out, and they certainly didn't have anything in common—

"We're going to a music store!" Weiss said.

Except for that. Not a bad save, honestly, and Pyrrha was forced to grunt and accept it as something they absolutely did have in common. It didn't take long to find one on their scrolls and Weiss had the easy excuse of only having ever ordered online from them before. It wasn't like she'd visit such places in person, after all. Oh, no, no, no. That's what she had servants for.

Naturally, the arrival of Weiss Schnee and Pyrrha Nikos was kind of a big deal to the proprietor of said store, who almost fainted on seeing them. Jaune's existence went ignored, but not in a rude way. More that he was starstruck by the famous duo. They even agreed to pose for a photo with the owner, taken by Jaune, and to sign their names on it so he could say they had visited his store.

"Two of the best stars of the age," he said, clutching the camera to his chest. "Now if only I could convince Guitar Cutie to come here!"

Jaune flinched and followed after Weiss and Pyrrha. "Does that happen often?"

"Yes," they said in unison.

"It's usually worse, though," added Pyrrha. "Things like that aren't so bad, especially if they leave you alone afterwards. It's worse when they want to follow you around."

"Tell me about it," Weiss groused. "I'm all for signing autographs and shaking hands, and I don't mind posing for pictures, but is it too much to ask that I be given a little peace after? It's like they want me to be rude."

Pyrrha hummed, but also stuck her lower chin out, deciding that while she agreed 100% with Weiss, she wasn't going to accept that they had anything in common. The "Friend Ship" didn't look like it was seaworthy yet, nor like it was going to set sail any time this century.

Which is weird. Pyrrha was really easy for me to make friends with…

"Huh…" Weiss had stopped to stare at something. "Do they actually have the legal rights to use her image?"

Jaune blinked himself back to reality and looked to what she was referring to, only to groan internally. His stupid face, looking shyly at them, was framed with his golden locks done up by Nora's hand. And Nora's cast-off clothes, too. Guitar Cutie now existed as a six-foot tall poster, before which stood a mannequin wearing the same clothing and a wig and carrying the same guitar he owned. Behind it, along the walls, was more of the same guitar along with numerous books on how to learn guitar, and beginner sets.

"I guess she's inspiring people to pick up the guitar," said Pyrrha. "There are worse things to be known for."

"This is technically profiting off her name, however. It doesn't sit right with me when she's quite obviously decided to keep her identity secret for a reason."

"Yeah," said Jaune. "She should really speak to her agents about this."

Saphron and Terra would be getting a call. It wasn't that he disliked it in any way. It was actually quite nice to know he was inspiring people, even in a disguise. It made his stomach feel warm to think he'd had an effect on people on the other side of the world, and maybe improved their lives in some small way. If he died here and now, the world would have been changed in a tiny way by his actions.

But the deepfake porn was killing him…

"I don't blame her wanting to stay out of the limelight," said Weiss. "It's not all it's cracked up to be."

Pyrrha frowned and crossed her arms, again disliking that she agreed with Weiss on something. They really could be the best of friends if she'd just accept that, and he still wasn't sure why she wouldn't. It couldn't be because of him, could it? Weiss had no interest in him, not even friendship, and it wasn't like he would stop being Pyrrha's friend even if she did.

"Hey Jaune," said Pyrrha. "You have the same guitar as Guitar Cutie, don't you? Are you a fan?"

"Uhh…" Jaune cringed. Technically, he'd met Pyrrha after Guitar Cutie's first appearance so he could claim it. "I mean, I don't mind her music, but I wouldn't say I'm a fan. My parents bought this for me." Not a lie. "So maybe they just picked the one that was most popular at the moment."

"That's an awfully evasive answer." Weiss was smirking, and Jaune felt sweat bead on his forehead. Did she know? Had Weiss discovered the truth? He swallowed as she leaned in, an evil smile on her face. "Does someone have a crush on the silent guitarist?"

What…?

"What!?" cried Pyrrha, rounding on him. "He doesn't! You don't! Do you, Jaune!?"

"Wh— No. Of course not!" His bright red face was for how embarrassing the thought was, but it seemed to give off the wrong impression because Pyrrha looked horrified. Weiss, meanwhile, covered her mouth with one hand and looked aside.

"Oh my," she giggled. "It looks like I hit close to the mark. It's nothing to be ashamed of. I think even Whitley has been crushing on her."

"I'm not, though!"

"He says he isn't!" Pyrrha argued, almost as passionate about it as he was. "A—And what's to even like? We don't know anything about Guitar Cutie. She won't even speak. What if she kills puppies in her spare time?"

"H—Hey now," he defended. "I'm sure she wouldn't do that…"

"He's defending her," Weiss sang. "I guess we shouldn't insult his precious Guitar Cutie around him."

"It's not like that!"

Pyrrha just stared, horrified, but it was much too late. Weiss wouldn't stop giggling at having caught him on something, even if she actually hadn't, and his protests were only digging the hole deeper.

Damn Nora and her moneymaking ideas.

And damn his Semblance for making his girly self look so attractive.

/-/

They'd wasted time through the day browsing a few random stores and buying some bits a pieces, even stopping by a pet store much to Jaune's dismay. The cacophony of animal voices crying out at once had been deafening, but Pyrrha and Weiss were so cheerful around the animals that they didn't notice. Even Pyrrha's enmity toward Weiss took a backseat as they crooned over puppies and kittens and argued on which ones were the absolute cutest.

He learned a few things in there as well, namely that, like human children, baby animals were a little less mentally developed than their older selves, typically just shouting "Food! Hungry! Warm!" and occasionally "Play! Play! Tug!" when they were playfighting with their siblings.

It turned out that puppies knew a little more, but only to say "I love you!" to every person who came close. They'd cry their love and adoration while furiously wagging their tails so hard it'd sent them falling over. "I love you! You're lovely! I love you!"

"Cretins," came from a pen within which a feline artfully cleaned its paw with its tongue. "Debasing oneself toward the slave class. You there, yellow-haired one, bring me my victuals. Your queen demands it."

"And no one was surprised," Jaune mumbled to himself.

He'd met enough cats in Ansel to know they were arrogant little shits – and evil, too. He'd heard what he once thought was someone being murdered back home, only to find it was a vole screaming as a cat tore it to pieces, and not even to eat it. The thing had been commenting on how enjoyable its screams were.

Cats were evil.

Meanwhile, humanity didn't deserve dogs.

For most of it, Jaune kept his mouth firmly shut, a little worried he might accidentally befriend one of the animals like he had Doom back home. He didn't want the entire store going insane because the animals figured out he could understand them and wanted to get close to him, but he also didn't want the emotional pain of getting to know any of them and then having to walk away and listen to them ask why he wasn't adopting them.

His heart wasn't made of stone after all.

Eventually, they left and found a quiet restaurant to eat at – somewhere a little more private than he'd usually go for, but Pyrrha and Weiss couldn't exactly eat in an outside diner without being mobbed by people. While Weiss initially focused the conversation on Pyrrha, it eventually wound its way back to him if only because they ran out of things to talk about.

"I'm thinking about taking Winter's offer up to visit Atlas Academy."

Pyrrha froze. "Winter?"

Weiss raised an eyebrow. "Really? I didn't take you for the type to join the army."

"Army!?" Pyrrha cried.

"I'm not enlisting. It's just to look around and see the place. General Ironwood made it sound like one of the wonders of Atlas, and Winter offered as an apology for how she treated me before. It'll also be a chance to get away from Willow. No offence."

"Why would I take any? I've been saying mother's dependence on you is a bad thing since the start. Are you planning on leaving the manor, then?"

"I think so."

It was a shame to leave the quest incomplete but sticking around for it wasn't worth it. He'd tried with the concert and the White Fang had ruined it, and the longer he stayed, the worse he felt Willow would become. With her distracted by Jacques and the reporters and kept out his way, this was a good chance to slip away and out her life. It was for her own good. It was for the whole family's good.

"I think you'll find Klein willing to help you," said Weiss. "He's also been worried, though he would never accuse anyone of anything."

"Do you think Willow will take it poorly?"

"Almost certainly, but I'll step in and try to entertain her with my own music." Weiss frowned. "That might not work, but I'll try, and if she still refuses to acknowledge Whitley and I then I'll give it up as a lost cause. I'm not going to keep wasting my time reaching out to someone who ignores me like she does."

Pyrrha kept silent, knowing this wasn't a good moment for her to ask questions.

"When will you go?" asked Weiss.

"I was thinking tonight."

She nodded. "Very well. I'll contact Winter for you and let her know. You should ask Klein to help you pack. The things mother bought you are yours and you should keep them. Klein can also make payments on her behalf to cover your last few days. And don't tell me that isn't necessary," she snapped when he made to do just that. "You performed on stage and got dragged into a terrorist attack. You've more than earned your pay for that alone."

"I can't profess to know much," Pyrrha said, "But is there any risk Willow will go after Jaune…?"

Weiss frowned. "I shouldn't imagine so. She might reach out to him and beg him to come back but father and the servants wouldn't allow her to do anything illegal or hire people to find him. If she tried, Klein would intervene. I expect she'll mope and sulk and fall back on old habits, but I shall hope she's improved enough to be a better person." Weiss fixed him with an arch look. "But you shouldn't hold yourself responsible if she hasn't. Willow was bad before your arrival and if she returns to how she was after you leave, then nothing will have gotten worse in any way. Her issues are not your business."

He agreed. Now if only his Semblance would agree with that as well and not give him such an intrusive quest again in the future. It hadn't, but it did keep wanting him to join Atlas' military for some reason he couldn't figure out.

Why was that, anyway? Was it just creating quests out of thin air and the things happening directly around him, or was it trying to nudge him towards ways to earn more experience? Combat would do that, and the army would surely mean plenty of combat. It'd also mean a whole lot of other things he wasn't interested in right now.

But I'll keep my options open for after my travels. The whole point of this is to try and find a career path I could fall in love with. It'd be wrong to dismiss the military when a lot of people have fulfilling careers there.

And it wouldn't cost him much to go see it with his own eyes.

"I suppose this will be goodbye, then," said Weiss. She didn't sound that torn up about it. "While I wasn't the greatest host to you, especially at first, I didn't find your presence to be nearly as bothersome as I originally imagined. It also wasn't a bad experience performing with you on stage. I felt alive in that moment in a way I haven't for a long time."

Oops. Jaune laughed and scratched the back of his head awkwardly. "Y—Yeah. I guess it must have been the atmosphere."

Luckily, Weiss didn't seem interested in looking into it. "Probably. Either way, it has been… pleasant. You mentioned you'd be visiting Vale once the next intake comes in. I intend to apply to Beacon there. I wouldn't be upset if you came and visited, if only so I can make sure you haven't gotten yourself killed on your travels."

That… That was nice of her, he supposed. Nice for Weiss, anyway. It wasn't quite the exchange of details he had with Pyrrha or the group chat with Nora and Ren, but he supposed they were friendly acquaintances more than they were friends.

"Thanks, Weiss. I'll see about doing that. And good luck with your mother. I hope she'll find your music every bit as exciting as my own but if she doesn't… well, maybe you're better off without her. Both you and Whitley."

"Indeed." Weiss let out a quiet sigh. "It won't matter anyway when I leave for Beacon. Where are you intending to apply, Pyrrha?"

Pyrrha scowled. "Beacon."

"Truly? Perhaps we should aim to be on a team."

"… perhaps …"

Jaune awkwardly laughed.

/-/

Weiss had proven as good as her word and Klein had already had some staff put his suitcases together when he got home. He even had a new one courtesy of Klein and paid for by the SDC. The butler thanked him for his time but also admitted that he'd been hoping Jaune would leave for some time now.

"You are a good young man and the staff speak well of you, but I've ever cared for Winter, Weiss and Whitley, and I don't think your presence around Willow has done them much good."

"I agree. And I'm sorry."

"It's not your place to apologise, young man. You weren't aware and did your best to help them." Klein patted his back. "The fault lays firmly with Willow. I'm simply pleased you're intelligent enough to realise how wrong things here were and make this decision yourself. While I personally know you never once encouraged her toward an immoral relationship, there were… concerns among the staff."

Jaune groaned, but Klein interrupted him.

"Not concerns on your character, Jaune. Concerns on Willow's. That she would let her obsession take her on a path she should not step, and that you would be an impressionable young man inexperienced enough to fall for her. A victim to her unhealthy fixation on what you make her feel."

He had no answer to that. He didn't think Willow had ever intended it, but could she grow into it? Maybe. He had long since suspected she'd try and keep him in Atlas despite his wish to travel, paying him exorbitant fees to stay and play for her.

And who could say what might happen in that time. It wouldn't be illegal if she waited for him to reach eighteen, and then tried to initiate something. It felt wrong to even think about, but if his Bardic Music really had become an addiction to her then he'd heard of drug addicts doing worse things to get their fix.

He decided, then and there, that his Motivational Song should become a rarely used thing, or that he should take the lumps along with the good and not rely on it to win at concerts. If a place didn't want to hire him, he'd take his loss and move on rather than fall back on a skill that could get people hooked on his music.

It was just a shame it was too late with Guitar Cutie and all the videos he had made with Terra and Saphron.

.

Though performing live, you have gained +1 Charisma!

.

Far, far too late.

He was escorted outside and to Winter, stood flanked by two soldiers. The woman saluted him, and then smiled faintly when he tried to return it and failed somewhere along the way. He'd tried, though, and the soldiers with her seemed to find that endearing.

"Good evening, Arc. I'm glad you took up mine and General Ironwood's invitation. Do not worry, Weiss has told me everything that needs to be said about your sudden departure from the manor. No one will comment on it."

"Thank you. To Atlas, then?"

Winter nodded and gestured toward an airship that had landed in the gardens. "To Atlas. General Ironwood is looking forward to meeting with you and would like to offer you both praise and advice in equal measure for your fighting off a terrorist."

"I wouldn't say I fought her off…"

"Good. You were lucky, and while no one will say you weren't brave, you should have at least some self-defence training before trying something like that again." Winter let the matter go. "But I'm not here to berate you. Let's away before my mother notices and wonders why a military ship has landed here."

With those parting words, Jaune bid farewell to the Schnee manor and his addicted patron.


Next Chapter: 21st April

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