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/qst/ - Quests

You are Mouse, the Ogre. Driven by both your human upbringing and monstrous nature you embarked on a quest to purge the Taint corrupting the world you inhabit. This is your story.

You are not alone on your journey. Several companions, all of them unique in their own ways, were with you from the start:
-Phineous, the orcish duelist and appreciator of aesthetics
-Smutkin, the human bard who forsook depravity for resolve
-Sparky, the imp who found affinity with the force of light
-Tithe, the diminutive gargoyle, originally fashioned as a joke

Over course of your adventure you were joined by new friends:
-Diana and Minerva, guardian golems made as playthings of the old faith, finding new purpose in their convictions at your behest
-Chloe, the shadow of the Queen and her most devout retainer
-Elle, the royal courier you saved from rogue humans
-Harriet and Janet, scouts you rescued from clutches of the Black Dog mercenaries.

Previous thread:

Following the successful operation against the mercenary forces, you found yourself accompanying Lord Klaus Levantine, and his wife, the princess knight Claudia, on their trip to the Cathedral Fortress where Celestine, reincarnation of the goddess, presided over the human alliance's effort to wage war on the monstrous horde ruled by your queen Olga.

The trip coincided with your intention to approach the lady Celestine with questions and perhaps requests related to your quest, but that was not the reason why the princess has undertaken it. Her reasons were dictated by a threat far more immediate and easier to visualize than world's corruption, though intimately related to it - she received word that the Black Dog company decided to leverage alliance's own judiciary and its heterogenous nature to win more time for its machinations. Having learned of that, Claudia and Klaus resolved to ensure the justice is served with their direct personal participation - painfully aware of precarious position of the Alliance between Olga's monstrous horde and the mercenary army that was meant to be the decisive force, now turned out to be another enemy. Consequently, Claudia also used this journey as opportunity to bring some reinforcements with her.

Under these circumstances you and your men found yourselves at head of a small military convoy, you personally walking alongside carriage of the lordly couple, with rest of your men traveling behind. Chloe, Smutkin and Phineous were all gifted mounts from Levantine stables, a courtesy you appreciated even though you could personally not benefit from it.
Despite recent victory, atmosphere was rather tense. Black Dog's treachery has become common knowledge and nobles were not the only ones to see the direction odds have shifted. Whenever the convoy stopped, you could see Claudia make rounds to check on troop discipline and morale and to their credit, the troops seem to have taken quite some encouragement from the martial princess's presence; you could see more resolve than despair in their faces.

The trip took three days, two nights you stopped in a hamlet or a village, one night was spent in a temporary camp at the edge of a forest, with the cathedral city already visible against the horizon across the plain. You spent most of the trip ensuring your companions were all on the same page when it came to your quest, refreshing findings from your studies, discussing the potential leads and getting the newest members - the duo of scouts - to settle in with others.

That last one turned out to be slightly easier than you anticipated. Although the siblings, Harriet and Janet, still showed clear preference to hang out near Elle, the courier spared no effort in including others in their conversations, or study and exercise when the opportunity arose. By the time you reached the city gates, the scouts were no longer hesitant to address any of your monstrous companions, who in turn were also welcoming of the new comrades - even Chloe, whose mannerisms towards strangers could come across as abrasive or aloof, showed warmth, context of which you now understood a bit better.

There should be better things to bond over than suffering, you thought to yourself as the convoy came to a halt before the city gates.

You've accumulated some memories to refer to when it came to human towns and fortresses. Some of them were arguably in a state of ruin, having been conquered or pillaged by the monstrous legion; recently, though, you've seen two other fortress cities, one under custodianship of Arcturus, the other - Levantine. The city before you looked like it could swallow them both and there'd still be room to spare. The city itself was sprawled around a promotory of a ridge that rose eastwards, enveloped for the most parts by plains, except for south where there was a lake and obviously the east where the cathedral compound, blindingly white in the midday sun, jutted out of the cliff face as if sculpted out of the mountain behind it.
Tired of squinting at the impressive structure you brought your attention down to the approaching guard detail.

"Your highness! Welcome to our city! We were told to expect your arrival." The guardsman with slightly more ornate armour spoke.

"Thank you, captain." Claudia replied. She and Klaus came out of the carriage to deal with the guards. "I'm relieved our runners made it in good time. Was there anything we should know?"

The guardsman looked at you. "We were informed of your, er, entourage. It has been suggested that they could be, er, accomodated outside the city limits."

"Suggested? By whom?" Claudia frowned. "In any case, that's out of the question. I vouch for mr Mouse and his companions."

"As do I." Klaus pipes in.

"I'm simply relaying the words from chancellor's office, your highness." Captain put his hands up defensively. "Please understand."

"Of course I do." Claudia sighed. "Don't worry, captain, you did as you were asked." She said with only a bare hint of bitterness. "Was there anything else?"

"No, highness, accomodations per your specifications should be set up in the southern wing, accessible from the farmer market square. The barracks have been notified to receive your men."

"Very good. Thank you, captain." Claudia turns away from the guardsman, her business with him concluded, and back to her own officer. "Commander Blanc, take the men to the barracks. I'll go with the honour guard from here on."
"As you command." The officer salutes and turns to issue the order further down. And so as you pass through the gate into the city the convoy breaks up, bulk of it heading off in a different direction while your company follows the lords' carriage and four knights flanking it. Claudia opts to ride her own mount alongside Klaus and it soon becomes apparent why.

The city, being relatively remote from the frontlines, was living its own peaceful routine and your group entered into regular civilian traffic - which then broke on contact as people stopped what they were doing to look at the exotic spectacle of a princess being accompanied by an ogre and his monstrous gang.

"Ogre in the city?!"
"It's princess Claudia! And she brought prisoners?"
"Those can't be prisoners, they're unrestrained. Maybe they're emissaries?"
"Could it be? A peace negotiation?"
"Peace with monsters? What blasphemy!"
"Maybe they're defectors. Or mercenaries."
"Death to monsters! Death to monstrous queen!"
"Are those church golems?"

You could pick up quite a wide range of responses but you were thankful the Levantines stepped out to grab some of the attention for themselves. Not only did it probably save you from some unpleasant encounters, it probably also established your presence in the city as "that ogre that arrived as princess's companion".

Eventually you reach the center of the town. Presumably following gate captain's instruction your entourage doesn't head straight towards the cathedral but turns south at some point, navigating along one of the wider streets to a wide market square surrounded from three sides by rows of merchant houses and stores; its northern side was taken by a structure that looked more official than religious although it was undoubtedly part of the cathedral compound above. Guards standing watch in front of the entrance saluted as your companions dismounted and before long you were ushered inside into a lobby prepared to receive visitors of the more dignified persuasion. It was mostly empty, aside from several clerks and servants - but the few guests that were there you actually recognized...
"Claudia, Klaus!" A chipper voice cried excitedly. "And mister Mouse! Will you tell us of your adventures?" Pink haired princess approached deceptively fast and pulled each of the ones they named into a brief hug.

It was a strange sensation. It did brought you back, quite far. Well, you can't allow yourself to cry now. You were still trying to sort out your emotions you almost failed to note the other princess that came in Prim's wake.

"Klaus, Claudia, it's a pleasure to see you again. And you as well, Mouse. More so that you are all in good health. We heard troubling news." Alicia gave her more reserved greeting. She looked tense, but the spark you saw behind her violet eyes first time was still there and the smiling nod she offered when she addressed you only added to the confusion created by Prim's impulsive greeting.

"It's good to see you again, Prim, Alicia." Klaus says and Claudia confirms. "Thank you for the letters." The princess adds.

"Ahem, I apologize for the interruption, but some of the protocols need to be verified." A clerk interrupts the reunion.

"Of course, that's why we're here." Alicia nods. "I'd love to catch up, but this needs to be done for those scoundrels to be dealt with. Could we meet here after sunset?" She turns to the clerk. "It should be done by then, right?"

"I cannot make such assessment with any certainty, your highness." The clerk responds dryly. "But it seems likely, depending on your highness's clarity on the topic."

"Very well. I'll do my best." Alicia nods. "So?" She turns to Claudia. "And you as well, Mouse, of course."

"I'll be looking forward to it." Claudia replies.

"In the meantime, your highnesses, the scribes should be prepared to receive your statements." The clerk turns to Claudia and Klaus. "Separately." He adds.

Klaus opens his mouths to say something but Claudia touches his arm. "Of course. Don't worry too much, love. You know the procedures better than I do. Although, I was hoping we could see lady Celestine."

"Lady Celestine is currently presiding over a service but she of course will be delighted to see you immediately at your earliest conveniences."

"Very well, then there's no point in wasting time."

"Excellent." The clerk nods with a satisfied expression and goes on to give the princesses directions to their respective destinations before departing himself.
With that, and a round of temporary goodbyes, the princesses head out to their destinations and you are left to decide how to deal with the afternoon. Several possibilities come to mind...

"Mister Ogre?" A boy page approaches you. "I've been told to show you to your rooms."

"Lead the way." You prompt the boy.

Perhaps your previous two stays in a human stronghold established some sort of expectations in you. You were in fact quite comfortable in having a dedicated communal bunk hall. This time, however, things were different. Be it because of someone's request or deliberation, or simply because this is how things were done further inland, this time you were taken to a corridor and told:

"Guest chambers in this corridor are placed at your disposal, mister Ogre, and that of your companions. This suite is recommended for you on account of, um..." The boy consults palm of his hand "Furniturial adequacy"

You take a look in and are regaled with sight of a suite furnished lavishly. In a way it reminded you of Queen Olga's chambers, or what little you saw during your brief visit in the onset of your current adventure. In the back you catch glimpse of a bed that must have been the largest one you've ever seen. Most of your company could probably fit on it, if they were willing to squeeze a bit.

"Um, is there anything else, or can I go?" The boy asks.

You almost automatically thank the boy and send him on his way when it occurs to you you still have some time left and no idea where anything is in this town. The question was - where do you want to go today?

>You'll stay in the guest chambers and settle in. Maybe you could also talk with someone from your team (who?)
>Celestine was apparently performing some sort of religious service. It may be a horrible idea, but maybe you could at least see what it's about?
>You could head to the lobby and wait for Claudia and Klaus to be finished? They seemed intent to see Celestine as soon as possible, maybe you could tag along.
>You could ask if there's a library around. Although at this point you will probably not be let to peruse too freely, at least until you've spoken to the lady Celestine or have someone with you.
>You still have some coin with you, maybe you could see the city. (look for something particular? Buy something?)
>As a guest here it should be fine for you to explore the visitor section of the cathedral compound. Maybe the three princesses and a lord are not the only visitor?
>Perhaps you could use privacy of your suite to contact queen Olga. You don't have much to tell her though and you're not sure if it would be a good impression if detected by a local magic user.
>other idea

>optional: tasks or free time for your companions.
>You'll stay in the guest chambers and settle in. Maybe you could also talk with someone from your team (Elle)
>You'll stay in the guest chambers and settle in. Maybe you could also talk with someone from your team (who?)
Harriet and Janet, to see how they're fitting in. As for other tasks, Chloe and Tithe can do their usual watching while Smutkin and Elle can go around talking to civilians/soldiers for info.
>>You'll stay in the guest chambers and settle in. Maybe you could also talk with someone from your team (who?)
Hang out with Phineous, he should be having a heart attack over how artistic the city is.
Also Diana and Minerva, see how they are being in a cathedral, so close to the reincarnated goddess.
Also Sparky, last time he entered one he said he had a tingly feeling. Give him a little headpat too.

Smutkin, Elle, Harriet and Janet should learn about things, being humans they draw less attention. Maybe ask around about the chancellor? He wanted us to be outside the city, and the last chancellor we dealt with was B for Bitch.
Tithe should try to have his watcher routine. Should be even easier in a cathedral.
Let Chloe do as she please, either sneaking around, watching the guest chambers or resting.
Switching to this in case we’re stuck at an odd impasse
Right. You have only just arrived into a foreign setting, it would be better to settle in and organize before pursuing specific tasks yourself.

"No, thank you. You're free to go." You dismissed the boy who took it with some relief, possibly having been assigned to the task of dealing with the ogre as a punishment. As the lad departed you decided to give your men some time to settle in as you inspected the recommended suite.

It was not your first time seeing opulence, although with singular exception of the brief glimpse of Queen's chambers, it was first time you saw it in its pristine, unspoiled state. There was assortment of confectionery on an ornate, polished table; bottles of wine were lining shelves of a glass cabinet; bedding was silken, soft and fragrant. Pulling aside curtains in the bedchamber revealed view into an atrium below, a basin with a statue fountain that bore some semblance to Diana and Minerva surrounded with terracotta planters and stone benches. A woman in clergy outfit was reading a book in one of them. When she noticed you, she let out a cry of surprise and terror and scrambled out of sight. With a sigh you pulled the curtains closed.

"Leader, is there a problem?" Diana asks, standing in the doorway.

"Some sister saw me and got spooked." You explain. "...where are you going?" You quickly ask when the golem hastily turns to leave.

"To try to intercept before a commotion is raised?"

"Don't bother. The guard she'll eventually get to will know about us."

"Very well." The golem relaxes and you realize that this place must resonate deeply with the golems.

"How do you like it here? You and Minerva?"

"We're excited."
"Invigorated." Minerva emerges from behind Diana.

"Why anxious?"

"Goddess taken form resides nearby." Minerva explain. "She is the source of our purpose."
"But nature of our mission creates a potential of friction." Diana chips in.
"What is her stance on our new purpose?"
"We followed Her virtues in renouncing the corrupt commands... or what we consider to be her virtues."
"But in doing so, have we embarked on path she would sanction, or condemn?"

"The abbess seemed to place virtue above the taint." You object to the apparent misgivings the golems were expressing. "If I understand humans' faith correctly, they are renouncing the taint, and worship the goddess as paragon of the virtue."

"We're aware of the facade."
"But is the substance aligned with it, or only covered by it?"

"Are you saying you suspect the lady Celestine may be embracing the Taint in secret?"

"The possibility had occurred to us."

Well, wouldn't that be something. If you had to save the goddess from something she desired.
It seemed farfetched, though. The purges and reformations would not need to have happened at all if the reincarnation(s?) were in on the old faith. Still, you supposed it couldn't hurt to be careful and keep your friends close, just to be sure. You'd know Celestine's stance soon enough, and you had hard time imagining the princesses you've met would be following corrupt icon in complete ignorance and so far they have given you no reason to doubt purity of their intentions.

"So what are you going to do? Are you going to meet lady Celestine? I'm sure you'll be well received here."

The golems glance at each other.

"Thank you, leader, but we have committed ourselves to your mission. We are eager to meet the goddess reborn..."
"...but as your companions."

"I see. Thank you, I value your help."

The golems nod in acknowledgment and walk out to take guarding positions. However, you don't plan to kick back and rest just yet. Instead you head out into the corridor and see how your men are settling in.

You almost bump into Tithe.

"Leader. Permission to guard your chambers?"

"Granted, of course." You say. "But I do have a task for you. I'd like you to provide overwatch for those of us who head out into the city."

"As you command."

The gargoyle turns around and heads out immediately in search of a suitable perch.

First suite you enter has been taken by Phineous, Smutkin and Sparky. You find them all in the common room of the suite, Smutkin lounging in one of the chairs, studying some sort of booklet; Phineous is leaning out of the wide window that gives him view of the market square below and a view of the merchant district rooftops. From Sparky you can spot only the head as it pops out from a pile of cushions that has been piled on the sofa. You pat it gently as you come in, prompting some delighted giggles and taking note how the imp bound his horns with a strip of cloth to avoid them cutting the cushions.

"How are you settling in?" You ask the three.

"Well, I never imagine my fate could take this sort of turn." Smutkin says, without lifting his gaze from the booklet. "To be received as a visiting dignitary in the cathedral compound." He snaps the booklet shut and looks at you. "Of course, I'm not quite done with it, yet."

"This place is strange." Sparky says. "It's kind of sparkly shiny. Very..." he searches for words. "...energizing? No, that's not right... I almost feel like I could sing some of the songs from the book the old lady gave me..." He trails off.

"But?" You press him.
"...I don't know, boss. It's kind of like... hmm. Like when Phineous winds up his crossbow."



Your conversation with the golems surfaces to front of your mind. "Do you also, smell, some of the bad stuff you felt back in the dungeon?"

The imp furrows his brow in focus and scratches his head. "Nnnnaybe?" He says. "Not like the wolf amulet. Or the bad merc smell. But sometimes I sensed something that doesn't... belong?"

"Would you be able to pinpoint it if we came close to source of this strangeness?"

"I think so."

"Alright, be vigilant, then."

"Of course, boss!"

At this point you realize Phineous hasn't budged in his position at the window.

"Phineous, you alright?"

"Huh? Of, of course, boss! Sorry, I got kind of lost in thought."

"He's been like that since we arrived." Smutkin says.

"Sorry, sorry. I'm just fascinated."

"By what? Architecture?"

"That too. This city is further from the war so it seems the merchants show off more here than they did further north." The orc says. "And judging by the composition, someone must be in charge of ensuring distinct styles don't clash. But that's not what got my attention. Look, boss..." he beckons you over.

As you approach the window you realize there's some sort of gathering on the square that was not there when you arrived. It seemed to consist mostly of children and was focused on what looked like a wooden stall adorned richly with carvings and canvas screens. The stall was tended to by a couple of men in what may have been exotic clothing (at least you don't recall having seen this style before) but nobody seemed to approach the stall proper. After brief confusion you realized why that was - the stall was not offering any foods or wares. It was offering a spectacle.

"What's that? Some sort of mobile... theater?" You ask, fishing momentarily for the concept.

"Yeah. It's a thing from eastern realms. I wouldn't know about it if it wasn't referenced in some stories I've read."

"So that's what it is... You're watching it from up here?" You squint. With some effort you could make the movements but there was no chance of making out any nuance, nevermind hearing narration.

"I tried." The orc sighed. "Obviously I can't go out there. The kids would scatter."

"I understand." You squeeze his shoulder. There was not much to say that wouldn't feel hollow at this point. So you turned to Smutkin instead.
"Smutkin, you on the other hand should be able to move with relative ease. Have you been here before?"

"Yes, although not in this part of the city. I may even have some acquaintances in the fleshmarket."

"Fleshmarket?" You ask. "Slavery is practiced here?"

"Not of the official kind, no. The church ensured that much. What it can't, or won't, drive out though is prostitution." He snickers and lifts the booklet he was previously reading. "This is an information booklet for honoured visitors. I find it hilarious that the brothel I was performing at - musically, mind you - is being labelled as" He opens the pamphlet and looks for the exact passage "'colourful tavern offering the very epitome of southern hospitality.'"

"Is this Taint at work?" You mused aloud. "Or naivety? Or cynicism? Or a strange sense of humour?"

"It could be more than one." Smutkin shrugs. "I don't think whoever wrote it was ignorant of the city."

"On that note, and back to the topic at hand, I'd like you to see what you can learn from current state of the city. Someone made an effort to keep us specifically out and we know there's someone acting on behalf of the Black Dog at least. We need to know who we stand against."

Bard's expression shifts from slightly amused grin into a serious visage of resolve.

"You got it, leader."

"I'll talk to Elle and the scouts as well. I'd appreciate it if you looked out for each other. I don't want anyone to get isolated. But if someone does get into trouble, the rest of us will be bringing them out."

"Of course."

With that you bid your companions a provisional goodbye and head to the next suite.
Knocking on the next suite door has Elle's voice invite you in. The three humans stand at attention as you enter.

"Do you have mission for us, leader?" The courier asks.

"As a matter of fact, I do." You tell them. "But first, how are you settling in? Any impressions?"

Elle relaxes and nods at the twins. Their posture also eases, although just slightly.

"It's a great honour to be welcome in the guest quarters as we have been. It shows lady Celestine takes their highnesses' vote in you seriously!" the courier explains.

"It does seem not everyone agrees." You remark.

"That's true. Officials don't like development they don't have a rule for, and an ogre with recommendation from two princess knights must be quite something for them to pore over. I wonder how we would have fared without lady Claudia vouching for us personally." She shakes her head. "I don't think there's point in dwelling on that. You wanted something from us?"

"That's right. As humans you can get around without causing much uproar. I've already instructed Smutkin, so you can coordinate with him, but I'd like you to go out and see if you can learn what state the city is in and if there's some news making rounds that would be relevant to our efforts. What stance this Chancellor may have and who acts on behalf of the Black Dog company, for instance."

"I understand." Elle nods and glances at the scouts. "Although I'm not sure..."

"We'll be fine." Janet says resolutely. "We won't be caught off guard again, no matter the setting."
"And we won't let our feelings cloud our judgment. Don't worry about us." Harriet nods.

"That's good to hear." You nod, trying to not let any lingering doubts of your own show. "However, this is not solo mission. I expect you all to look out for each other and you will have Tithe watching from above. Don't hesitate to get us involved should situation warrant it."

"You can count on us, sir." Janet says, looking you in the eye.

"Um, do you want us to head out immediately? Because I think we could use a bath before heading out and one's available to us." Elle asks.

"Oh? Sure, go ahead. Just make sure to let Smutkin know."

"Thank you! I'll go tell him right away."

Elle heads out. You give a nod of acknowledgment to the scouts and leave the suite as well, hoping to find where Chloe decided to set herself up.
You don't find her in the next suite, or the one after that. It's enough to elicit a sigh of exasperation, although on the other hand it is also reassuring to see her practice her stealth to such success. You just hope she doesn't get herself into trouble with it.

"Looking for someone?" The chocolate skinned half elf speaks from behind you, giving you a slight start.

"Very funny." You grumble. "But well done." You add as you turn to regard the smug girl. "Yes, I was looking for you. You may have overheard I sent the humans to scout as they're more suitable here. I just wanted to let you know you have free choice of operations."

"Very gracious of you. But if it's all the same to you, I'll be sticking around. Looking after you is after all what her majesty asked me to do and that hasn't changed."

"Very well. I appreciate that." It was probably for the best. She'd be in great position of warn you if you missed something while at the same time not be far if she overestimated her skill and got into a pickle.

"Good." She said and slipped out of your view again. You look around, wondering if you could pick her up again, but to no effect. She was getting good at this.

You turn to go back to your suite but almost collide with a sprightly walking orc.

"Phineous?" You ask.

"Oh, boss. Did you know there's a bathhouse here we can use?"

"Well I suppose..."

"You don't mind if I partake, do you?"

"Sure, but..."

"Thanks, boss, you're the best!"

"Just don't spook anyone!" You call after him.

"You got it, boss."
>It's not quite sunset yet but the princesses may be done with the bureaucrats. Go to the lobby and see if there's anyone.
>Explore the visitor wing, see what other visitors are around.
>Explore deeper into the cathedral compound. Maybe Celestine is done by the service by now?
>Actually, Elle and Phineous had the right idea. You will look into this bath facility yourself.
>Wait in your suite for the sunset. Maybe you could talk with someone from your crew (optional, who?)
>other idea
>Actually, Elle and Phineous had the right idea. You will look into this bath facility yourself.
Clean half-ogre
>Actually, Elle and Phineous had the right idea. You will look into this bath facility yourself.
This surely won't lead to an awkward encounter
>Actually, Elle and Phineous had the right idea. You will look into this bath facility yourself.
Gotta be presentable to the Queen, and also when was the last time we cleaned ourselves ?
Concept of hygiene was, contrary to your nature, not entirely alien to you. It was one of the small things that distinguished you from your peers in ogredom that when opportunity arose you did put some token effort into keeping yourself not caked in grime and dust even when it was not required for instance for ceremonial purposes. Queen Olga did have some of the more distinguished ogre knights at least clean their armour. It was seen as a sort of punishment to not get too elated by being chosen for the prestigious role.

Returning to the topic at hand, it was most likely this quirk went back to your childhood among humans. However, genuine experience of visiting a bath house as an adult was not something you were familiar with; working bathhouses were both unreachable to you and not required. Thus you made do without. Now, though, you had both opportunity and justi- reason to allow yourself this luxury. You may have gotten away with your baseline standards in the more martial settings, but here you were about to meet three of the princesses and eventually likely the lady Celestine herself in a social settings. It was only fair you would want to make a good impression.

Thus resolved you set out and followed Phineous down the corridor. You expected your longer stride would see you catch up with him but when you turned a corner you saw he's already long gone, leaving you unsure where your destination actually lies.


Luckily, it appears Elle and the scouts have caught up with you instead.

"Were you looking for something?"

"As a matter of fact I came to conclusion that you and Phineous have the right idea."

"Oh? I didn't imagine- I mean, yes, of course!" She stops and corrects herself mid sentence and ends with faint rose on her cheeks.

"Do you know the way? I haven't actually thought to check." You ask before the conversation turns into something awkward.

"Yes! At least, I think so. I believe we should go down this corridor and there will be a sign to the right."

As you walk you note that although Elle seems relaxed, the twin scouts are somewhat tense. You have hardly much time to ruminate on that as you reach a portal labeled as "Guest bath area". Elle opens the door and you enter a hall lined with benches and walls adorned with engravings that seem to have water and purification as their shared motif. There are two doors on either side of the room, their meaning made clear by the door frames engraved into very distinctive silhouettes of either sex.

Phineous was present, apparently having momentarily forgotten about his eagerness to soak in lieu of admiring the artworks.

There was also a woman clad in robes. It was not the monastic attire you were now familiar with but neither was it kind of clothing you saw on the citizens as you traversed the city earlier, leaving you with impression it was some sort of uniform.
"Good afternoon, honoured guests." The woman spoke. Again, you could tell from her gaze she was not particularly at peace with idea of an orc and an ogre in her workplace; you hoped presence of your human companions would be source of at least partial comfort for her - a hope vindicated when Elle spoke and the woman visibly relaxed.

"Hello! Yes, we'd like to peruse the baths. It won't be a trouble, will it?"

"Of course not. You're mr. Mouse's diplomatic party, is that correct? You are of course welcome to enjoy Lady's hospitality. Would you like a dividing curtain over the basin? And assistance of the attendants?"

"Excuse me? Curtain? Attendants?" You ask for clarification.

"There's a retractable curtain that can divide the basin into two sections." The servant explains. "The attendants can assist guests with cleaning and massages..." The servant hesitates, as if deciding what to say next.

"I know what you're concerned about. You don't need to. Mr. Mouse is a decent and respectable person, you need not be worried about attendants' safety or chastity." Elle speaks up in your defence against the unspoken concern, and to visible relief on part of the servant. Though you doubted her concerns were entirely dispelled. Still, she looked expectantly at your decision.

>curtain? y/n
>attendants? y/n

there will be no smut in any case, just sayin'
Shy ogre
>attendants? yes
Just so people see we're an ogre of honour, also gotta test the extra help
Voting for attendants to help dissuade some of the fear surrounding us.
"The curtain would probably be a good idea, I believe." You decide. Phineous gives you a betrayed gaze like you snatched a favourite toy from a puppy. Although you have little doubt that you could take a bath without causing further scandal, there was no reason to leave any room to chance, or poor impressions. On that note the other offered service presented opportunities... "...and assistance of bath attendants would be appreciated."

"Very well..." The robed servant inclined her head, her look quickly darting to Elle. "Please, peruse the changing rooms, the attendants will arrive momentarily." She adds before leaving the room, presumably to summon the staff, leaving your group to file through either door you noticed earlier. You note the twin scouts trading a glance before they part, reminding you of interactions between the golems and leading to you wondering how their personalities have been formed. Such musings are discarded however as the door close behind you and you realize it is time to disrobe.

It takes a few mechanical motions you perform with little concern, only pausing momentarily to consider the pouch in which you're carrying the accursed relic. After some consideration you decide to keep it close at hand, even though doing so will likely be a hassle. You could not take chances with its security. Once you're done, you look around to see Phineous waiting at the door and Janet awkwardly covering himself in the opposite corner. Not wanting to give the poor lad any further cause for stress you casually head towards the door out; Phineous probably caught on because he opens the door and passes through before you. Soft footfalls behind you confirm that the scout follows you.

As expected, the next room is cavernous, humid and defined by the basin covering most of its floor area. What takes you by slight surprise is how hot and foggy it is. This was your first time entering a working hot bath. Testing the water leaves you recoil with concern.

"Don't worry, boss. It's supposed to be hot. Damn." Phineous tests the water as well, then without hesitation slips inside. "Aaaah. Damn, this is amazing. Exactly like in the stories."

Looking back you notice Janet also took the chance to submerge himself and so with a shrug follow their example.

Doing so you come across a slight difficulty. The pool is made primarily for humans, meaning that even Phineous can't benefit fully from its geometry for comfortable seating; for you it means you need to find a deeper point of the pool which luckily turns out to be sloped. Eventually all three of you find a spot comfortable enough for your satisfaction. And at that point you have to concede Phineous's point. Coming here really was a brilliant idea.
As you relax your attention is drawn to the curtain that was hanging short distance from you; you could hear splashing sounds from the other side and subdued sounds of conversation, though not enough to make out meaning of the words. You could, however, tell there were three female voices.

You didn't have much time to ponder that further as the door opened once again and three robed women entered your side of the pool - at least as far as you could tell in the foggy air. One of them each headed towards one of you, carrying a basket with cloth and vials.

It didn't escape your notice that the one approaching you faltered when she realized you were watching her. It was your hope that by seeing you in these harmless circumstances word would get out that people interacting with you don't need to be afraid, though seeing these reactions gave you second thoughts if you were right to submit these people to this experience. Well, what's done is done.

For all her apprehension, when after some hesitation the woman did get to practicing her craft and she did so with nimble, well measured motions of a practiced professional.

"Aah, good lady, your fingers feel like rays of sunlight." Phineous commented.

"T-thank you, sir." The woman washing his back responded.

In fairness, though, you could to some extent relate to orc's sentiments, despite your thick skin mitigating the sensation you could practically feel the dirt you didn't realize was there crack and slide off and taking some of your fatigue with it.

In a while the attendant withdrew and offered the basket to you.

"Hm?" You queried.

"Um... do you... wish me to continue... from the front?"

Realization struck and prompted some blood rush to your face. "Oh, no, no, thank you, I've got this."

Ignoring the burning sensation in your ears you spend some time cleaning yourself with aid of the fragrant solutions the attendants have brought. By the end the water has distinctively different hue to what it had when you arrived and you are coming to terms with this novel experience coming to a close as the attendants hand each of you towels (yours is much too small to be of much use).

Rather than leaving you to get dressed, however, the attendants direct you to side of the room where several person-sized tables stood.

"Oh boy, boss, you're gonna love this." Phineous says as he eagerly places himself on one of the tables. Janet takes another, considerably more relaxed by now, to your relief. The guy was probably unsure what to expect but hopefully his lingering fears and concerns were voided by now.

As for you, your bulk and mass once again get in the way of established procedures. In the end you opt to just lie on the floor, which in turn makes things a bit awkward for the attendant but as she too has been put at ease by your apparent docility she eventually found a position from which she could, with some effort, begin working decades of tension out of your flesh and sinew.
After some exceedingly comfortable and relaxing minutes, when it became apparent that the masseuse was at the end of her strength and only kept going because of her professional pride, you thanked her for her service and, making honest effort to shield your decency from their innocent gazes with the provided towels, headed back to the changing room. You were unsure how much time went into this undeniably pleasant experience but you did have places to be tonight.

In the changing room a surprise awaited you. Your outfit was neatly organized on a bench. It looked different and it took you some frowning examination to figure out why. It has been cleaned and, to the extent permitted by constraints of time and improvisation ability of whoever has undertaken this task, that is to say it was in significantly better shape than you remember it. Slipping into it felt comfortable and not at all like it was invalidating the bath you've just taken. It could be said without exaggeration that you felt like an entirely new ogre.

"Whoa, boss, that's a new - hey! My stuff got cleaned too?!" Phineous comments.

"It appears the staff here take their duties seriously." You nodded, giving a once over to your refreshened outfit fitting snugly around your refreshed self.

Unbeknownst to you, a traumatized maid few rooms over felt brief bout of warmth and softness on her soul, momentarily forgetting ache in her hands and putting away the bottle of liquor she afforded to herself after this insane shift.

Meanwhile, your attention is turned to different corner of the changing room where Janet was shuffling into his similarly serviced scout uniform.

"Enjoyed yourself?" You ask him.

"Um, yes, leader. It was great." He pauses. "Thank you."

You realize you may have missed an opportunity to talk with the newcomer by asking for the service, but your muscles would not allow you to feel much regret over it.

Still, you recall it took a while for Phineous and Smutkin to open up after they ended in your care. With these two, though, you may not have luxury of time.

"Janet," you tell him now at least. "I value your commitment, and that of your sister. The choice you have made to share our mission." The boy meets your gaze. You approach him and crouch down a bit so he doesn't have to look up and place a hand on his shoulder. He doesn't flinch. "We will see it through together." You let go. "I do not doubt your resolve." You tell him. "But I hope we'll also be able to earn each others' trust so we can work together without hesitation."

"I won't let you down, sir." The scout said.

"I know." You smiled, hopeful it would come across as a gentle smile rather than a monstrous grin. "Alright. Let's rejoin with the girls." You get up and the three of you return back to the bath's lobby. Perhaps it was wishful thinking but you feel like the boy's movements were less tense now, in a way that could not just be attributed to the professional massage.
It turns out the girls are not quite yet done. You're not sure how much time has passed but you'd be surprised if the sun were still up. You'd better hurry if you wanted to join the princesses' reunion.

And so you did. Bidding Phineous and Janet goodbye you strode swiftly through the corridor towards the lobby. With luck, and the route not having been that difficult to memorize, you successfully navigated the compound. Before long you found yourself back in the hall through which you first entered. It looked slightly different now...

It was dark outside but the lobby did not want for illumination, from chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and smaller ones mounted on the walls, all providing comfortable amount of light for the tables below around which several groups of people were seated, engrossed in their own conversation.

At least, they were until one of the women let out a subdued shriek. Seriously? Well, you suppose if this part was devoted to accepting guests, not everyone would be kept up to date on affairs like having a free ogre roaming around. For now, however, the result was the same. Every eye in the hall momentarily focused on you.

"Well met." You say with a slight bow in an attempt to show some courtesy.

"Mouse! Over here!" It's the cheery voice of princess Prim that is quickest to invite you over while simultaneously establishing you as someone (or something) that's supposed to be here and the convergence of glares is shattered as the groups refocus back inwards in agitated exchanges and you are free to approach the table where the people you've come to know are seated.

Well, most of them. There's the three princesses and Klaus, of course, but aside from that there's a gentleman in outfit that probably passes for fashionable.

"Mr. Mouse, I'm glad you joined us." Alicia greeted you as you arrived. "Councilor Rowan, this is as you no doubt realized the ogre that has been instrumental in thwarting the coup. Mouse, this is Councilor Clement Rowan, a friend to my family and member of the alliance advisory council." The golden haired princess introduced you to the stranger who acknowledged you with a bow.

"I'm delighted to make your acquaintance, honoured sir." The man says. "As her highness said, I'm her highness's retainer bureaucrat."

You reciprocate the pleasantries and try to get a read on the man, well aware how last man you met introduced as Arcturus' family friend turned out to be. Would this man too succumb to the Taint? Has he already?

"The good councilor has been explaining us the current state of affairs related to the Black Dog company." Klaus said. "It turns out personal testimony of three Princess Knights about direct hostile military action that has already taken place is just about enough to expedite assembly of an arbitration tribunal but apparently not quite enough for the alliance command to act against company assets or personnel."

You could tell Klaus was not happy.
"I understand your frustration, lord Levantine." Councilor said with a sigh. "But you need to understand our position. The message you bring is a shock to the command, to the point where Black Dog's apparent willingness to redress the situation with arbitration comes as a relief."

"Relief?" Klaus asks. "Councilor, all it does is give the enemy an opportunity to act to our detriment while still integrated in alliance forces. Pretending otherwise has no bearing on the actual fact of their treachery."

The councilor sighs again. "I'm going to be frank, lord Levantine. Black Dog effectively IS the alliance forces. House forces, as formidable as they no doubt appear from perspective of individual castle, and with exception of Levantine forces specifically, men with little fighting experience or training and with already flagging morale. Officer cadres are corrupt with nepotism, logistics are fragmented and unaccustomed of cooperating between formations. The church made deal with Volt's outfit for a reason and that reason is to wage war in which house troops are for the most part a padding."

"Excuse me?" Alicia fumes. "I've signed at least four score of condolence letters during last month alone, repelling raids into the Arcturus domain. Those men and women laid down their lives for safety of their families. They deserve better than to be dismissed as 'padding'"

"I beg your pardon, highness. I did not mean disrespect to individual soldiers who no doubt are capable of displaying great valour. But the fact of the matter is that even without the coup attempt the house forces are hard pressed to maintain defensive line against probing raids. There is no possibility of mounting an offensive - and that's where the mercenary army comes in. A formidable force with manpower, equipment and expertise to assault, siege and invade in exchange for monetary compensation."

"Alicia, the councilor speaks harshly, but his understanding of severity of our situation is correct." Claudia speaks softly. "However, Klaus's point stands, councilor. We cannot look for comfort in the upcoming arbitration. Whether command would recognize it or not, the mercenaries are an enemy force and need to be approached as such. I did not bring my men from the northern front frivolously, nor did I opt to not silence you when you spoke of sensitive Alliance affairs in front of what's technically an enemy agent without good cause."

The councilor pales a bit, throwing a glance in your direction. "I- I- that is..."

"Don't mention it. As I said, mr Mouse has already made his priorities clear enough for us to trust him." Claudia calms the man down. "We have a different issue to tackle and that's ensuring that whatever time we have that the mercenaries think to use in regards to the arbitration does not work in their favour - or at least not as fully as they expect it to. I have a few ideas worth pursuing. But I'd like to hear your plans, too."
"Well, truth be told, your highness, I don't have much to offer in that regard. I'm not a military man. I was hoping I could help ensure that the goddess's justice is swift and thorough in resolving mercenaries' farcical claims. I've taken some steps that should ensure that once the arbitration is resolved the mercenary agents are seized and their belongings examined for clues and intelligence."

"That actually sounds helpful. But only assuming the mercenaries are going to allow the arbitration to run its course rather than preparing a perfidy of their own." Klaus remarks.

"Do you have a better idea, Lord Levantine?"

"Black Dog associates need to be neutralized or at least monitored right away without heed for the arbitration. This is a military and security matter that can be condemned or vindicated by civilian authorities after the danger has passed."

"With respect, my lord, your non-specific insinuations could be construed as an act of treason or a call to coup by themselves." The councilor says tiredly.

"Can you arrange for us to meet loyal alliance commanders without attracting attention of the mercenaries?" Claudia asks before Klaus can argue.

"There are some social events I could leverage to that end, although I cannot make assurances regarding allegiance of those attending. The problem is, many senior officers that are actually competent look at the mercenaries with respect or perhaps admiration."

"Not mine, not anymore, I can assure you that." Alicia grimaces.

"We should just see lady Celestine." Prim says, her usual smile and optimism smothered under the weight of ongoing conversation. "People will listen to her. Maybe even the mercenaries will realize what they're doing is wrong."

"The idea is... not without merit." Councilor surprises you by conceding that. Or was he merely being nice to the princess? "Lady Celestine's intervention could at very least deprive the mercenaries of public sympathies even though I estimate chances of prompting genuine conversions to be slim." The man stands up. "At any rate I must beg your forgiveness and permission to be dismissed so I can make some preparations for further proceedings."

"Granted. Good night to you, councilor." Alicia says. There's a round of wishes of good night between him and you, including yourself specifically and the man leaves.

"Well, that was that." Alicia comments once he's out of earshot. "I'm sorry for ruining the mood, but bringing him along seemed like it would be valuable."

"You made the right call, Alicia." Claudia assures. "I wouldn't expect miracles from him, but at least he has some idea and his contacts may prove actually useful." She turns to you. "Mr Mouse, as you heard, the situation is difficult, but we are not entirely helpless. We will find a way to thwart the mercenaries. In the meantime, you should be safe and free to pursue your noble quest. I'm sure lady Celestine will be eager to help, in fact we could try to see her right away if you wish."
>You will stay for a while and talk with the princesses and talk about your adventures and what happened at Alicia's castle since you left.
>You will stay for a while and talk with the princesses about your mission, maybe they have some insight
>Actually, seeing the lady Celestine as soon as possible sounds like it would be for the best
>Actually, you were wondering what other guests are around. Or is this place always so populated?
>You'd like to help the princesses in their dealing with the mercenaries... (optional: propose an idea to pursue)
>other idea
>You will stay for a while and talk with the princesses about your mission, maybe they have some insight
>How does a mercenary company gets to be bigger then the entire military of a kingdom? Do they get support for the southern lands? By what I heard of the place, it's got to be the hotbead of the taint in the alliance.
Like, it was clear from the beginning that the mercenaries were necessary for the alliance to keep up with Olga, but how the fug are they stronger than the kingdom (magic aside at least) ?
Should we ask about Rowan as well? We sent some of our companions to learn about him, but it wouldn't hurt to get other impressions.
There's also the issue of the princess that was helping the mercenaries in the ruin. I think it was Maia? We should probably ask about her, since there is a chance she'll defend them.
I thought of offering for us to get the mercenary leadership as well, but it would definitely backfire since it would be seem as monsters attacking alliance forces. Getting Celestine to publicly condem them is the best move to weaken their support, since it would force the nameless followers them to go back to backroom dealings instead of doing it in the open.
Supporting, as for >>5487628 it wouldn’t hurt to have multiple perspectives on the man
this but mention that:
>Actually, seeing the lady Celestine as soon as possible sounds like it would be for the best
"I'm grateful for the opportunity, but I'd also like to take the chance to talk to you, highnesses. I've come to value your perspectives." You say. "Right now though, I can't help but wonder about what the councillor was saying. How did it happen that the mercenary army rivals that of the kingdoms' alliance? Perhaps it's just contrast to her majesty Olga's absolute rule, but the notion seems inconceivable to me."

Claudia's smile that formed at your choice to talk to the princesses some more gives way to a downcast grimace at your question.

"Perhaps I'm not the best person to answer this, as house Levantine that has graciously accepted me as their own," Klaus pulled his wife closer as she said that. "is known to be step above what is expected from a noble house in terms of military. In truth, our faith tells us to shun violence in most circumstances." Claudia exchanges glances with Alicia and Prim whose visages have also taken on concerned frowns. "Path of a warrior is seen as a difficult one, requiring of strict discipline and restraint. Those who can't handle rigours of military service are driven out into life of an outcast. Such people then can turn to banditry or, as it turns out, mercenary service."

"As I understand, Volt, the leader of the Black Dog company, is an exceptionally skilled and charismatic leader that inspires loyalty and admiration in his men." Alicia says. "Perhaps this is what allows him to work with people that wouldn't make the cut in house militaries." The blonde princess shakes her head. "I don't want to believe what councillor says about corruption in our own ranks, but given what happened, I can't deny I too have been blind. Could it be that the soldiers need someone to look up to and I... just am not it?"

"Alicia..." Prim squeezed Alicia's shoulder.

"No. You may not have years of command experience, but you don't have to." Claudia argued. "From what Havel told me, you do have some respectable officers at very least, like the commander that stayed true even despite your minister's treachery. Didn't you succeed in rooting out the bandits in the end?"

"I have, but I dread to think what would have happened without mr. Mouse's intervention and your support." Alicia said. "I don't think I can ever properly repay you for your help." She added, fixing you with her purple gaze.

"You have already done plenty in allowing my presence here." You assure her. "My mission would be much more difficult to pursue without your support." You say to all of the gathered nobles, which is acknowledged with variety of small, soft smiles. It's reassuring to consider these people have chosen to align themselves with your quest...
Alicia's expression is first to harden. "Right, your mission, before I forget. There's something you should know." She speaks more quietly, not wanting her words to carry far from the table. "Do you remember the mine the mercenary ruffians and traitors were apparently running?" She waits for you to nod. It looked like the mercenaries were running an operation there that they had apparently abandoned when they launched their desperate attempt at a coup, a clandestine mine where new recruits have been accepted.

"I do. You said the mine has been collapsed."

"That's right. I had workers clear the cave-in, hoping we could find some clues or evidence."

"Did you find something?" Claudia asks, her interest piqued as well as yours.

"That's the thing. I still don't know what's down there because the workers who cleared the cave in, and the investigator that went there first, all came rushing out of the mine crazed and violent. People were killed and injured before guard managed to subdue them. Some have regained their senses by the time we were departing for here, but they didn't remember anything." The princess sighs and leans back. "I had the place closed off and put under guard. I'm not sending more people in until I get someone from church or with magical education to take a look at it. But seeing as the place was clearly in mercenary clutches, I figured hearing about it may be of interest to you."

"It is. Thank you very much, highness." You said. You had suspected the mine may have simply been a hideout, or perhaps a secondary source of income. But this manner of effect... could it be indeed related to the Taint somehow?

"Just call me Alicia." She offers a weary smile.

Klaus takes word during a momentary lull in conversation. "Alicia, did your men find any clues among the traitors or bandits aligned with mercenaries? Something to further tie them together?"

"Some, yes. We have the testimonies and missives from and to Beardsley, the man was helpful enough to not burn all his letters." Alicia looks down. "Although he's doing his best to weasel out of literally trying to kidnap Prim and gloating in my face, his days are essentially numbered. We brought him, of course, in a cage."

"Between all that and what happened to our scouts, the case against mercenaries is overwhelmingly clear. But that just takes us back to what the councilor was saying." Klaus muses. "Was there anything that could shed more light on any connection mercenaries could have to the church or alliance bureaucracy?"

"Not as far as I'm aware." Alicia shakes her head. "What happened to your scouts?"

This prompted Claudia and Klaus returning to events of past few days, including your involvement in them. While the human nobles talk, you let your mind wander back to your mission.
You currently found yourself in heart of alliance power in this part of the continent, if not the world as you knew it. And although alliance's troubles were maybe not technically your concern, looking at the faces of the people that have shown you nothing but kindness and understanding - with possible exception of very justified suspicion from Alicia, initially - you found idea of not lending them your assistance a deplorable one. But what could you do? What your nature predestined you for, violence, was unlikely to be the best answer in the very specific kind of struggle the princesses were currently facing.

It was of scant reassurance that as Klaus had said, it seemed impossible for whatever mechanism alliance had to enforce its justice to come to any other conclusion than that of mercenaries being a hostile force. That could mean the purpose of the legal maneuver was to stall for time and that in turn meant they'd be at work preparing something nasty to be sprung before that time was up.

Either that, or your assumptions were wrong and mercenaries could exert sufficient influence to get away with what they did. You did not like that idea.

"...so they volunteered to join mr. Mouse's quest." Claudia said, concluding retelling the tale of the scouts. She had omitted the more gruesome details.

"Thank the Goddess you managed to save them. And the leader still has the gall of claiming innocence? Unbelievable." Alicia shakes her head and there's a moment of silence in the shared outrage.

You're the one to break it.

"This councillor... can he be trusted?"

Alicia gives you a look. "If someone asked me that a month ago, I would have been indignant. Now though, I can't but doubt and second guess." Her gaze drops in a mournful expression. "At least, as you heard him, he's not afraid to be blunt. I imagine Beardsley would offer more platitudes and probably avoid voicing the assessment entirely. But no, number of people I trust without reservation has shrunk and most of them are right here at this table now."

Briefly you feel your face heat up as you consider whether that number includes you.

"Don't worry, mr. Mouse. They can't fool us again." Prim speaks up. "Especially not when we're looking out for each other with the other princesses!"

That does remind you of something.

"Are there other princesses in the city now?"

"Yes, actually." Alicia says. "I believe princess Kaguya is around, at very least, at least I've seen someone I recall to having belonged to her retinue. I'm not sure about others."

"What about princess Maia?"

"I haven't heard of her in a while. Wait. She has history with mercenaries. Why are you asking?" Alicia frowns. "Do you think she's in trouble?"
"I do not know. I remembered princess Maia because I believe I may have met her."

"What?" There's a chorus of expressions of surprise and you spend a few moments recounting the brief encounter.

"So that's where she was." Claudia tapped her chin, lost in thought. "I have heard of her going on some adventure. She doesn't have a fortress to watch over so she has freedom to roam. However, I haven't heard of her since either." The princess-knight gives you a concerned look. "Normally I'd say she's capable of taking care of herself, especially because she knows her way in these circles..."

"Something I don't envy her." Alicia remarks, grimacing.

"In any event, if she thinks she is among friends, she may be in danger." Klaus says. "We need to try and reach out to her if it's not too late already."

"You're right, and we will." Alicia nods. "Thank you for bringing this to our attention, Mouse."

"Looks like we have our work cut out for us." Klaus said. "Have you decided what your plan for next day would be? If it helps, we have audience with the lady Celestine planned for tomorrow dawn, if you'd like to join."

"Or you could try to reach her tonight still. Although it's getting late..." Alicia says, looking out of the window. "We could try."

>Take Alicia's offer and try to see the lady Celestine now
>You'll join the nobles on their audience in the morning
>Actually, you have other plans for the morning (optional - share them)
>You're not sure yet, you'll decide in the morning
>other idea
>You'll join the nobles on their audience in the morning
>"We will have a lot to talk about, better to wait then to have a rushed meeting. We can only hope any enemies won't use that time to prepare as well."
Is Kaguya the princess of the eastern breakways? It could be useful talking to her eventually, since it's one of the places we need to investigate because of their different beliefs.
Just got to be sure to bring Smutkin and Phineos along when we do.
>You'll join the nobles on their audience in the morning
>You'll join the nobles on their audience in the morning
Yeah, she and Ruu Ruu of the Dwarven lands are the only princesses left.
>Take Alicia's offer and try to see the lady Celestine now
>You'll join the nobles on their audience in the morning
I'm inclined to belive Maia's working with them, even if she doesn't know all the details, because of that expedition for the item.
>You'll join the nobles on their audience in the morning
The offer was tempting. To go and see the lady Celestine right now, that might be a boon for your quest, possibly giving you options what to pursue tomorrow... on the other hand, you can only make first impression once, and forcing a meeting at this time might not come across well. Additionally, you have a lot to go through, brief meeting this late would probably not help you much.

"I am grateful for the offer, but I believe it would be for the best if I joined you at the audience instead." You told the princess who acknowledged your choice with a nod.

"Yes, you're probably right. It's really getting late after all, we should probably retire as well." There's some nodding and assenting murmur around the table at that and you and the nobles all get up.

"We'll be looking forward to seeing you tomorrow, then." Claudia says.

"In fact it would probably be best if we stopped by your chambers so we arrive together as well." Klaus thinks aloud.

"That's a good idea. Sleep well, mr. Mouse!" Prim says.

And so you find yourself walking back towards the corridor where your suites are located, hoping to yourself you don't get lost on your way. Hopefully even if you did it should not be too hard to find someone knowing where that ogre is staying.

You let your mind wander as you go, considering the variety of clues you have to pursue. Presence of princess Kaguya could mean you could ask her about the distinctive take on theology and whether she could share something that would help you against the taint. Additionally, if so many princesses were in attendance, could it be possible the dwarven one was around? Her insight might also be valuable in your mission; on the other hand, such concentration of these paragons of the human alliance also presented a hazard given the mercenary threat - were you taking it seriously enough? You already resolved to do something should you find a way to do so, but your options at this time were limited...

"Mister Mouse, the ogre?" A voice shakes you from your reverie. They belong to another young boy, a servant or a page probably.


"I have a note for you, sir, from a clerk that said it's super important."

"Thank you." You took the piece of paper, folded and sealed. The boy darted away as soon as you took it before you could ask him anything. With a shrug you broke the seal and unfolded the piece, which turned out to in fact be two sheets. You began to read the topmost one:
"Honoured guest and friend to house Arcturus,

I have been made aware of your endeavours in support of her highness and great praise of your capabilities.

As her higness's loyal servant I have a proposition for you how to best support her.

Nature of the proposition would make it preferable to not burden her highness with knowledge of the affair;

Difficult times call for difficult measures and difficult decisions.

Please, meet me after midnight in the location indicated by instructions on this sheet to discuss the specifics.

I've also taken liberty of issuing a document that will ensure cooperation from servants of her highness as a proof of my good faith and justification for this message.

Respectfully, your very recent acquaintance."

Next few lines comprise instructions how to reach a particular office in the cathedral complex, it doesn't seem to be too far away from your lodgings.

Moving onto the other paper you are met with an intricately penned document that apparently marks you as a friend of the Alicia's noble house and urges her servants to be supremely cooperative on authority of the house bureaucracy. There's signature that if you squint you could probably make out to resemble "Rowan"

"Smells fishy." Despite how familiar you've become with Chloe's voice, her sudden appearance still gives you a start.

"Gah. How long are you around?"

"I heard most of your conversation earlier. It doesn't look very good, does it?"

"Difficult is what I'd say." You tell her. "Let's not give up in advance."

"Of course." The elf shrugs. You put the message and the attached document away and resume your trip to your suites.

"Do you think it's a trap?"

"Of course. Although you already know that I may be a bit biased." The elf adds with a bitter tone at the end. "Just don't leave me behind naked next time you head somewhere." She adds with an accusatory glare.

You can't help but grin a bit. "Did you enjoy the bath?"

She pouts and frowns a moment, but relents soon enough. "It was... nice." She shakes her head. "I think your enthusiasm for this quest is contagious. Elle seems to have really taken it as her own."

"That's reassuring."

"You're supposed to be the one doing the reassuring."

"Sorry, that's not what I meant... I'm just glad to hear my companions have taken our quest as their own. It feels good to not be alone."

You spot a flicker of softness underneath the smugness Chloe liked to put on when she smiled. "I know, I know." She said. "Just tell me if you decide to go to the meeting. I'll have your back."

"Thank you, Chloe."
Before you can pick up another conversational topic you have already made it to your suite, the twin golems dutifully guarding the door.

"Welcome back, Leader" Diana says. You can distinguish them without difficulty now, although you're pretty sure it's because their apparent choice of specialisation left visible mark on their appearance. Diana's form began to show better defined muscle structure, while Minerva's ever so slightly softer curves also gave an eerie sense of radiance that somehow didn't translate into actual light source.

"Anything new?" You ask them, looking idly to the sides. Chloe was once again nowhere to be seen.

"Smutkin the Bard has asked us to tell you he's returned and has something to share." Minerva says.
"Nothing of interest besides. Phineous and Sparky are in their suite as well, others are still out."

You thank the golems and head straight for suite your men have taken for themselves. Whatever Smutkin found out could have been important.

"You came, good." The bard greets you, standing up. "I have something."

"That was quick." You comment.

"Indeed. Luck was with me. I ran into an old acquaintance, proprietor of an... establishment... I used to perform in. His presence in this district is testament alone to how well he's done for himself."

"What did you learn?"

"Exactly what I said. We talked and he confided that business has been booming for him thanks to a number of well off men with appetite for his services that have come into the city recently. But that alone we could have figured out on our own. No, I have something specific." At this Smutkin gives you a dangerous grin. "A client has been probing for a very particular kind of merchandise."

"Merchandise? I thought we're talking about..." You begin but trail off at Smutkin's severe expression. "...wait, you don't mean dead bodies?"
"Not at this time, no. They just treat people like things in general. My point was that there's a very particular client asking around for working girls with at least fractional elven heritage."

"What makes you think that's of interest for us? Elves are after all known for their beauty." You say, choosing to ignore indignant muttering coming from somewhere in the shadows.

"Perhaps. But this one specifically turned up along with the uptick caused by the presumed mercenaries. My gut feeling tells me it's worth pursuing."

"I see. Thank you, I'll keep that in mind."

"Wait. That's not all. There's one more thing. Prostitutes have begun disappearing recently."

You frown. "I suppose it's too much to ask for that they simply left their work and started anew elsewhere? And by missing, do you mean presumed dead?"

"You know better for the first. As for the latter, we don't know, although it seems a valid fear."

"And the guard?"

"Stretched way too thin to be able to care if they wanted to." Smutkin shakes his head. "In any case, I think I know where to ask next. In fact, I have several options, depending on what you consider to be most promising lead."

>Have Smutkin look into the mysterious elf aficionado
>Have Smutkin look further into the disappearances
>Have Smutkin try and find out more about the mercenary presence in the city in general
>Have Smutkin drop the mercenary thread and try to look into the civil servants and their connection to the Black Dog
>other command

As for yourself...

>Go to that midnight randezvous. Trap or not, it may be too informational to pass up
>Ignore the invitation and retire for the night. You have an important audience to attend tomorrow, better be presentable.
>Look around the guest quarters. Maybe you could try to find Kaguya or maybe find someone else of interest among the guests
>other plan
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apologies for the tardy and lackluster update. There's been some snags.
>Have Smutkin look into the mysterious elf aficionado
>Go to that midnight randezvous. Trap or not, it may be too informational to pass up
>Have Smutkin look into the mysterious elf aficionado

>Go to that midnight randezvous. Trap or not, it may be too informational to pass up
>Have Smutkin look into the mysterious elf aficionado
If we don’t have him do I feel Chloe might get reckless and try to find them on her own
>Go to that midnight randezvous. Trap or not, it may be too informational to pass up
"Hmm." You briefly consider the options, but the choice seems clear enough. "I'd like you to pursue the elf seeker lead. At very least it's something specific to look for."

"True enough. Very well, I'll see what I can find out."

"In the meantime, I've received a shady looking invitation..." You bring out the note.

"May I see it?" Smutkin asks and you hand it over.

"Chloe, are you around?" You ask while the bard gives the papers a once over.

"I heard you. Do you want me to snoop around while we're there?"

"Just stay close and be watchful. I don't wish to make matters worse if the man is earnest, or worse, if the trap is set specifically for our treachery."

"Very well." Chloe nods and looks at the bard. "Found anything?"

"The passport looks genuine. The letter... it sounds sinister alright. It may be trap, as you surmised, or it could be an earnest attempt to commit something dubious on princess's behalf. Be careful in there, sir."

"I will. And you as well."

With that you bid the bard, and the orc who was leafing through his notes in adjoining room, good night and depart the suite with the half elf in tow, though not before patting the imp resting in his pillow fort on the head.

Strange. Could the imp's skin have gotten softer somehow? No, it was probably just your imagination.

Turning your thoughts back to the matter at hand you proceed to navigate the maze of corridors following the route described in instructions on the paper. The corridors are deserted due to the late hour, you only see lone guard as you go - she gives you a respectful nod and leaves you otherwise unmolested before continuing on her patrol.

You almost make it to your destination when slender hand takes your arm into a firm grip and makes a good effort to pull you to the side. You know better than to ask, instead you stop and fall silent, holding your breath, looking for a better hiding place.
Luckily it's not needed as it quickly becomes apparent your current concealment is quite satisfactory and voices ahead tell you what your elfin companion kept you from walking into.

"...and for the love of goddess, don't keep it any longer than you need to do your 'analyses'. This kind of records in my business is a disaster waiting to happen."

"Don't worry about that, nothing will be tracked back to you. I value your help too much to jeopardise it, or you." Another voice, one you recognize as Rowan's, says.

"Yeah, yeah. As long as the gold's good."

There's sound of door being closed and footsteps slowly trailing off into the distance. You wait a bit, then decide it should be safe to continue. Looking around you realize you're alone again - though not for long.

"I got a look at the guy." Chloe explains as she enters your field of view. "Looks like a mercenary. Don't think we've seen him enough."

"Looks like our councillor does have some sources. But can either of them be trusted?" You muse under your breath.

"You already know my answer. I'll be right behind you when you're ready."

"Very well."

You check your outfit for any indication of you previously having hugged the wall and when you're satisfied you resume the trip and walk into the final stretch of the corridor like nothing happened. Stopping in front of the indicated door you knock.

There's muffled sound indicative of frantic movement followed by a "Please come in." and you do.

The office is nondescript and barebones. Either the man sitting behind the desk has less personality than an unanimated golem or, which seems more likely, this is not the office he usually works from. Only feature that stood out was a hearth that was alight, providing additional heat and light on top of what a gas lamp on the table offered.

"Ah, mr Mouse, good evening. You arrived a bit earlier than I expected. Nonetheless, I'm glad you came. Please..." The councillor stopped himself as his gaze fell on an empty chair, almost mournfully.

"It's alright." You say. "I'll stand."

"A-alright. Ahem." The man takes a moment to compose himself. "I'm glad that you received my message, and your presence proves that my assessment of your character was not wrong. You care about her highness, but also understand the gravity of situation and, I believe, the... constraints placed upon her highness in pursuit of her goals and duties."

"Let's get down to it, then. Your note spoke of a 'proposition'. What do you have in mind, and why approach me with it?"

"Yes, indeed. You see, as I said earlier in presence of their highnesses and lordships, situation is quite dire but the alliance military command is unwilling to accept the facts."

"You seemed to suggest they feel helpless and prefer to hide in denial, or perhaps stalling for time."

"Quite so. Some do likely simply try to stall, hoping for a miracle that's unlikely to come. Unless..." Councillor looks you in the eye. "...one such is manufactured."
"Manufactured miracle?"

"Well, maybe not so much a miracle as a scourge. Were something... appropriately monstrous to happen that would obviate even to most reluctant officers would be forced to act."

"What exactly do you have in mind?" You asked, beginning to suspect where this was going and next words from Councillor's mouth prove you right.

"I'd like you to..." He inhales. "...assault the chancellor's household and assassinate the chancellor Ventre."

So that was how it was. The councillor clearly assessed you to be willing to do the dirty work due to your monstrous nature. Question was, what were his intentions?

"And how is that supposed to help?" You ask. "Wouldn't a monster attacking your official simply make mercenaries seem even more so like a necessary evil?"

"Under other circumstances that would be most likely indeed, sir Mouse. However, these are anything but. Chancellor has recently run very afoul of the mercenaries, openly accusing and criticizing them, which mercenary representative strongly protested with some thinly veiled threats others have chosen to ignore. He is also recognized as a honourable man."

"Doesn't that mean the man is essentially your ally?"

"Indeed he is. However, he's unable to impact the necessary changes. Turning him into a martyr, however, should.

"So you're willing to get him killed in hopes of a good tradeoff?"

"Exactly, mr. Mouse, I knew you would understand. In regards to your other concern, that of your nature, it really is not an issue as the mercenaries are quite open about inviting anyone into their ranks - including monsters. And I hope you will forgive me the indiscretion but your face is not particularly well known, or distinguishable from other ogres."

"Still, why ask me?"

The councillor sighs.

"The mission is not a trivial one. Chancellor is guarded by troops loyal to him. Your combat prowess, as I understand it, should be quite up to the task, however." he inclines his head and asks you with a pleading expression. "Would you be willing to lend me your support in this matter?"

You briefly ponder your response, trying not to stare too hard over man's shoulder where slender silhouette could barely be made out in flickering shadows.

>This is ridiculous. Refuse to take part in this scheme and resolve to bring it up with the princesses.
>This is ridiculous. Refuse to participate, but leave councillor's offer to yourself.
>Pretend to go along with the plan, but reveal the scheme to someone when opportunity presents itself.
>you have some more questions before you decide
>Try to talk him out of this idea
>other response
>Try to talk him out of this idea
>"This matter of the mercenaries goes beyond mere politics councillor, if I were you I would take care what actions and company you keep. I've seem enough of the works of mercenaries to know that they worm they way beneath how things are, twist the truth in their favor and have friends in high places. Assassinating an ally does not ensure that a martyr is made, only that an ally is dead."
Honestly, I'm more trying to convince Chloe then him. I don't trust him one bit.
Dude has to come up with a better idea.
Supporting, this will only end horribly
While you couldn't yet be certain of the man's true loyalties, one thing seemed certain - his choices followed a pattern of callous expedience. You struggled to imagine a situation that would force you to contemplate sacrificing someone you considered your ally to further your goals, however noble they may be.

Although now that you think of it, is that truly so? Your quest, your ambition, is world-changing. Would you risk it failing if the cost you needed to bear was life of a comrade?

You pray you wouldn't have to make such a call. In the meantime, you have a specific situation before you and it looks insane. Whether councilor's scheme was driven by good intentions or something else, you could not see any good coming out of it, and not just because of the pervasive Taint.

"Councilor, as much as I acknowledge your willingness to make 'difficult' choices on behalf of the princess, you are working off flawed assumptions."

"What do you mean?"

"You are treating mercenaries as a faction vying for power in a political game. I assure you their ambitions and methods go far beyond that. I have already discussed the matter with the church representatives before. I expect you're familiar with full account of what happened at lady Alicia's fortress, and obviously you're already aware they are willing to work with monsters." You make a pause to allow the scheming councilor to absorb your words, and to make what you say next pack a bit of extra punch. "My kind does not treat politics and contracts as yours do." You fix Rowan with a stare. "If I were you, I'd be choosing my actions and my company with exceptional care. The enemy we are facing is very adept at worming their way beneath how things are, twisting the truth and subverting the authorities to their advantage."

The councilor maintained his composure, but was now eyeing you carefully when you finished your brief speech.
"I see your point, mr. Mouse." He said finally after a short while. He leans back in his chair, looking briefly at embers in the fireplace. "I must say, pardon the implied preconception, I did not expect to hear such warning from you." He resumes eye contact. "I assure you that I'm not making my choices lightly, nor am I in habit of underestimating my enemies. Still, I am grateful to you for sharing your position. I will keep it under careful advisement." He pauses, as if to think something over. You take the chance to consider whether your words got through to him, but it seemed unlikely. Aside from man's unknown intentions, if he considered his plan clever to begin with it would be very difficult to convince him otherwise. "Very well, then," Rowan picks up eventually. "I'm thankful for the conversation and trust earnestly that it would remain between the two of us."

You take that as a cue that you've outstayed your welcome and offer a slow nod of very nonexplicit assent to which councilor responded with a small smile.

On your way out you stop and turn in one last effort to get the man to reconsider his approach.

"Things don't always play out the way we expect them to, councilor. Assassinating an ally will never guarantee birth of a martyr, but it most assuredly leaves you short one ally."

"Noted." The official nods solemnly. And then you're out, closing the door behind you, with some deliberation...

...which turns out to be unnecessary as a light chocolate coloured hand beckons you from behind a corner.

"What a den of vipers." Chloe says as you navigate the corridors back to your suites. "But at least it wasn't a complete waste of time. Look." She takes out a folded slip of paper.

"Have you taken a look yet?" you ask as you take her prize.

"No time, had to keep out of view."

"Thank you. Excellent work."

"Don't mention it. But let's not tarry here."

You gladly oblige and your footfalls echo through the deserted halls, eclipsing soft, barely perceptible steps of your companion entirely.
You make it back to the suites without incident. Chloe vanishes out of sight once more, which may have been a good thing as you meet the lone guard on your way back so she won't feel compelled to report two persons returning the path one had initially taken.

Once you reach your room and finally take the moment to examine the note Chloe had obtained, your initial suspicion proved correct - it looked like it was the report Rowan's contact delivered to him and referred to in the brief exchange you witnessed. The councilor must have hurriedly hidden it into when you arrived unexpectedly early. Whatever the case, it was in your hands now.

Report's content was curt. It listed several names, presumably of locations in the city, with short description of mercenary presence. If the slip was to be believed, the mercenaries had significant amount of forces prepared in vicinity of barracks and headquarters of the guard, which was not very surprising especially if they planned something. Neither did it come as a surprise that unspecified amount of troops were apparently lodged in warehouse and industrial districts, presumably not as much for strategic as financial reasons. It seemed like an information that would be valuable for planning of defences and for a moment you feel almost bad for having it taken from the man, although you're not sure what exactly he would do with it.

You note that "chancellor's manse" has been noted to be "virtually impossible to infiltrate, loyal guards", which supported Councilor's assertion that the chancellor was not cowed by the mercenaries. That leaves some more sour taste in your mouth at the thought of having been asked to assassinate the man. Although apparently he explicitly wished you to stay out of the city, maybe your goals could align with his?

There was one more, possibly most crucial, detail on the note, almost a postscript at the end: "Volt due to arrive in 2 weeks with additional forces."

What could it mean? It would obviously mean position of forces loyal to the princesses would further deteriorate, of course, but other than that? Would the mercenary leader act as soon as he arrived? Or perhaps was something meant to happen before he did?

Those were questions you would not find answer to without further information and so with somewhat heavy heart you laid yourself to rest on the luxurious bed prepared for you.

It was a little bit how you imagined laying down on a cloud would be. One of those fluffy white things cruising overhead on nice days. It also reminded you of your childhood and your mother's soft embrace. The darkness enveloped you before the memories threatened to begin to make you cry.
You awaken refreshed, but much too soon and idea of getting up seems almost agonizing, but there is no escape. Diana stands over you, having informed you that the princesses have arrived as promised yesterday, to pick you up on their way to the audience with lady Celestine.

However reluctantly, you quickly put yourself to order and leave the suite where Alicia and Prim are waiting.

"Good morning, mr. Mouse!" Prim says cheerily, followed by slightly more reserved greeting from her sister.

"Have you rested well?"

"Heavenly." You nod.

"That's good to hear. Let's go, Claudia and Klaus should meet with us at the garden."


Your small group sets out and it turns out you're heading upwards and into the more central portion of the cathedral compound where the audience would be taking place. Apparently it was not meant to be some sort of hall but rather one of the atrium gardens lady Celestine was fond of.

When you eventually reached it, it was not difficult to see why. You found yourself in a sizeable atrium with several trees and shrubs, a small pond, even a waterfall pouring down rocky face that constituted one of the walls, and beds of flowers that may well have been a natural meadow. It was quite an intricate piece of landscape for being indoors and you wondered if it was part of natural landscape that has been built around or an entirely artificial construction.

Even so you had little opportunity or chance to mull over it as there was something - someone - else in attendance that usurped major portion of your attention.

Lady Celestine. This was your first time viewing her in person rather than on (frequently defaced) portraits and it was readily apparent artistic portrayal did not do her justice. The two women, possibly handmaidens, although quite beautiful in their own right, were completely sidelined by the reincarnation of the goddess.

The elven woman that was receiving your group with a smile was radiating (metaphorical) warmth and tenderness with her kind smile and gentle mannerisms. Her outfit gave a very... how was the word Phineous taught you? 'ionic'? impression being essentially a weave of pristine white ribbons that only barely covered the very feminine figure framed by a curtain of golden flowing hair.

She really did remind you the Queen Olga, in both likeness and contrast - both with elfin features accentuating their forms, but where Olga gave off air of elegant dominance, Celestine showed inviting warmth. Like night and day, or sun and a distant star.

"Be welcome, my friends. I'm delighted to be able to meet you, even though I wish the circumstances were different." She addresses the nobles. "And you, child of darkness, I'm so thankful for what I heard of your actions; and that I am able to meet and talk to retainer of the dark Queen. Thank you for arriving, and for being a friend to us." She looked your group over. "The news you are said to bring me are heavy. So please, let me hear it all with your own words."
"Of course, lady Celestine." Alicia is first to pick up.

What follows next is the princesses (and Klaus) going over recent events and Black Dog's role in them. Your part comes up frequently, although your personal quest remains largery unbroached save for being mentioned that you're on a mission. Still, it makes for quite a grim sounding tale and Celestine's face twists into a mournful and concerned grimace as it develops. Eventually Claudia is the one that closes the story.

"And that's how we arrived with the mercenary lieutenant in tow." the warrior-princess concludes, referring to the man you captured.

"Those are heavy news. I'm so sorry you've had to suffer through all this."

"Lady Celestine, do you believe us?" Claudia asks.

"Of course I do." The elf says, then looks to the side. "But I'm not sure what can I do to help here."

"Well, we wanted to personally vouch for mr. Mouse here." Alicia says. "He's on a quest that we think you can help him with significantly."

"That quest you mentioned... what does it entail?"

"I feel he'd be better suited to explain it himself." Alicia shakes her head, prompting Celestine to look straight at you.

Right. This was the time. Suppressing the vain attempts of the Voice to do something horrible, you drew breath to speak...

>No point in beating around the bush. You're here to purge the taint from creation of this world.
>Our quest is important, but we intend to help our friends against the mercenary menace first.
>Maybe you could start out with the general motivation - we're fulfilling our parents' final wish for us.
>other idea

Merry Christmas frens
>Maybe you could start out with the general motivation - we're fulfilling our parents' final wish for us
>No point in beating around the bush. You're here to purge the taint from creation of this world.
And don't forget to mention that freeing the world from the taint is something our queen wants us to do as well. But the strength to resist the corruption was from our parents, even being capable of being loyal or grateful to her was because of them.
I meant to go straight for the taint purge first, and the parents as an explanation for why we, as a monster, would even want to do that.
this, straight first and parent's wish as our motivation
"Lady Celestine," you speak, mustering confidence. There was no point in dancing around the issue. "I've come to ask for your help in my quest to purge the Taint of the Nameless beast from this world."

"The... Taint?" Celestine's brow furrowed in confusion. Could it be possible she didn't know? But wasn't she the supreme authority of the church?

"Indeed, the mark left on the world by the beast that ravaged the goddess." You clarify.

"Oh... the forbidden texts." Elven queen's expression darkens, ears drooping along with corners of their lips. "Those tales... tales of corruption, they tie into the age where shadows intermingled with light." She lifts her gaze and passes over yourself and the nobles in attendance. "Have you been...? No, no, you haven't. Then why...?"

"Lady Celestine?" Alicia asks, her voice concerned.

"I'm sorry, Alicia." The reincarnation of the goddess regains her composure to some extent. "I did not realize that you were familiar with the forbidden lore..."

"We were not, but what mr. Mouse came up with seemed to make sense, and was given further context by the abbess." Alicia explains. "We were... hoping you'd help us cast more light on the matter."

"I wish that I could." Celestine says mournfully. "I've been taught of the previous time where shadow and light existed intermingled, to much suffering of the children of light." The elven lady looks back to you. "But I thought what... what mr. Mouse refers to as 'Taint', was simply a justification. Yet, you speak with sincerity and conviction. Please forgive me for asking this, but I cannot do otherwise: how are you able to do so? I've never heard of another child of darkness to be able to carry such light with their words."

At least this was easy for you to answer as you intended to mention this anyway. "It's my parents... the man and woman who raised me, that bestowed that gift upon me. I'm simply doing what I can to carry their final wish."

"Your parents..." Celestine's expression takes on some of the warmth and light it had previously lost. "Mouse... would you allow me to try and observe you... with my vision?" As she asks, she extends her hands towards you, reaching towards your hand.

Seeing no reason to deny her, you extend your arm and let her slender hands grasp your large, calloused, thick skinned one. Her grip begins as gentle, tender and reminds you of your mother's. You feel a wave of energy ripple through the room, somewhat reminiscent of what you remember from when you grasped the beast's relic for the first time, or when Sparky was throwing his heals around. That must have been Celestine drawing on her power for her clairvoyance...
Then something goes wrong...? Celestine's grip tightened. You look up at her gasping in alarm, eyes wide.

She was falling. Without thinking you caught her in your arms before her attendants did, Alicia being the next person to get on her feet.

The air of otherworldly grace was momentarily gone. You were holding not a goddess, but a beautiful woman, frail, fragile and helpless. Somewhere in the back of your mind something roared with combination of glee and frustration as you wrestled it back into its cage. With the corner of your eye you could see Klaus gripping Claudia's hand, to which she responeded by placing her other hand on his.

"Lady Celestine! Lady Celestine, what's wrong?" Alicia asked from high elf's side. Prim was standing behind her, eyes wide open, covering her mouth with her hands in a gesture of shock.

For her part, Celestine blinked and you noticed tears flowing down her cheeks.

"Oh mother... oh, progenitor... what have I done...?" She mumbled, shutting her eyes.

"Lay her down." Alicia says and turns to the attendants. "Bring some water."

You move to carefully place the elven woman on one of the benches that lined the atrium. One of the handmaidens hurried off, presumably to fulfill Alicia's order, the other followed you to stay close to Celestine.

For a brief moment all of you simply wait and watch as Celestine's breathing steadies and her expression relaxes, as does her grip on your hand.

Then she opens her eyes and her vibrant, verdant gaze meets yours.

"I'm so sorry. Child, I'm so... so sorry."

You realized what she was sorry for and you found no words to offer. At least not for now.

"Lady Celestine..." Prim found her voice. "Why are you crying?"

"Oh child." The elven woman lets go of you and gets up into a seating position. "I saw... something sad. My errors. My mistakes. My failures. And... something horrible. I'm sorry, I am not ready to speak more of it now." The high elven queen looks at you again with her reddened eyes. "Yes... yes, I think I need to rest for a while. And think. I'm sorry I... for everything. My responsibility..."

"Lady Celestine..." Alicia speaks again, kneeling to get on eye level with the seating elf. "Whatever you saw, you can always count on us. We will never give up on you."

"Oh Alicia... I know..." Celestine pulls the princess into an embrace. Spontaneously, Prim joins in, followed by Claudia and Klaus that approach to comfort their idol in her distress.

You stay out of it... or at least try to. A pristine hand emerges from the impromptu cuddle pile to grab your hand and give it a squeeze.
Eventually the moment passes and the group breaks apart. When it does, Celestine is standing and once again radiating the soft spiritual warmth as before.

In fact, you feel like she gives more of it than before, even though there's a subtle shift in... tone? As if there's less raw power, but more feeling behind it.

"I'm so sorry. You have come to me to ask for aid and instead you ended up having to support me."

"My lady. We know your care for us. Least we can do is return it." Claudia says softly.

"I treasure that, and you all." Celestine says. "I will not betray the faith you place in me... again." Before anyone can react to the last remark she continues. "But for now I really need some time to reflect. I would ask you that you see me again tomorrow morning." Then she turns at you. "And you, sir Mouse, little light, I'd very much like to talk to you privately. Today. Later. I'm... sorry. I can't... Just please, I need to discuss what I saw with you."

You're not sure how to react on the spot but it's clear this audience is over. Celestine addresses you all in issuing some sort of benediction after which The nobles bow in deference, a gesture you mimic, and then all of you withdraw from the atrium, leaving the elven lady to her rest and meditation.

"I think... I think it went well." Alicia is first to speak. She spoke with some hesitation, as if trying to convince herself, though your last impression of Celestine was not that of a broken goddess. Perhaps it really was for the best?

"I think so too." Claudia nods. "Although I didn't expect I'd ever see our Lady so..." She hesitates. "So human."

"All the more reason to put our all into this. All of us, including lady Celestine, need to be able to rely on each other." Klaus says. "Alicia, did you get a word from the councillor regarding the military?"

"He did send me a note of a banquet held at the traders' guild tomorrow. I intend to attend."

"I see. Well, if there's nothing today, I'd like to check out the cathedral library vaults."

"That does sound like you, Klaus." Alicia says with a smile. "I and Prim are going to head to alliance barracks to check them out and get some practice in."

"Splendid idea. I'd join you but I already promised Klaus I'd go with him."

"It's fine. Besides..." Alicia blushes slightly. "...our plans were not entirely selfless. I intended to stop by a confectionery I remember from our last visit."

Claudia chuckled. "Be sure to pack some of those sweets for us."

"Sure thing! You liked the strawberry ones, right?" Prim asks. "What about you, mr. Mouse? Would you like to join us?"
That was a question. What would you do next? You had several threads that might be worth pursuing, though you could likely get away with some downtime as well..

>Join Alicia and Prim for now as they head to procure some sweets.
>Ask to join Klaus and Claudia in the library instead. Although you may become a third wheel...
>Head back to your suites and see if your companions have brought back something to follow
>Apparently princess Kaguya is around, this could be your chance to look her up and talk to her.
>If multiple princesses are in the city, maybe the dwarven princess is around as well? Someone might know...
>other idea

Additionally, there was a matter of your last night's meeting with the councillor. Would you keep it secret, or would you talk about it now, or later?
>Raise the issue right here in the corridor
>Keep it for later
>Keep it to yourself
>Apparently princess Kaguya is around, this could be your chance to look her up and talk to her.
Maybe we can bring Phineous along. He's a weeb right?
>Tell them we need to talk about something important now, but it is too sensitive to talk in the corridor.
Better safe then sorry.
he comes of as more of a westaboo to me.
>Apparently princess Kaguya is around, this could be your chance to look her up and talk to her.
>Keep it for later
>Apparently princess Kaguya is around, this could be your chance to look her up and talk to her.
>Keep it for later
Happy new years QM
"Actually, I'd like to seek out princess Kaguya if she is indeed around. She may have valuable insights that could be useful for my mission."

"That is a good idea." Claudia nods. "Lady Kaguya is a wise woman, depth of her knowledge is only rivaled by that of her faith. I'm sure she'll be pleased to help you."

"Yes, I don't doubt she'll help once she learns of your quest." Klaus nods. "However, maybe we should introduce you to her, as I'm not sure how much she would have heard of your exploits." He turns to his wife. "Do you know where we could catch her? We could make a slight detour."

"I believe she was also in the guest wing. We didn't see her because she spends a lot of time on prayer and meditation, but as Alicia said earlier, her retainers are out and about." Claudia says.

"Alright, so I suppose our respective paths are clear." Alicia smiles. "We'll see each other tomorrow at latest, right?"

"Indeed, unless we run into each other during dining time." Klaus says.

That reminds you of one thing, your last night's encounter. Although discussing it right here may not be the wisest, several people passed by while you were having this conversation already, all of them giving you some measure of attention for understandable reasons.

"There was one thing I learned and wanted to share, but I suppose it can wait for better circumstances." You remark, prompting the nobles to give you curious glances but accepting your words.

And so there is a round of 'byes' and 'see you laters' and you head back towards the guest wing of the labyrinthine complex, accompanied by the Levantine couple (and possibly Chloe in the shadows). As you travel your mind goes ahead of you and remembers Phineous that has so far been stuck in his room; although it was likely he had enough to keep himself occupied, it occurred to you that given his fascination with her culture he'd be both enraptured by opportunity to meet her and possibly have valuable input as well. You share as much with your current companions and they agree to stop by your suites in your search.

You find Phineous sketching something in his scrapbook and as you expected he's enthusiastic about the prospect. He also tells you that Smutkin stopped by, saying he's made some progress in his investigation but not yet anything actionable; your human companions were out in town, luckily away from trouble.

You take the moment of privacy as you pick up your orc friend as an opportunity to also take aside Claudia and Klaus and share with them what you learned from councillor Rowan, hoping they'd find a way to discreetly pass the information to Alicia and wherever else it needed to go.
"He did what?" Claudia is bursting with outrage. "Of all the... with friends like these, who needs enemies?"

"Deplorable methods aside, I wonder how earnest the man is about his motives." Klaus approaches the matter more coldly than his wife. "Monstrous attack on one of the highest officials could easily be used to mercenary advantage. Could it be malice or personal ambition driving him? Or..." He trails off before looking you in the eye. "Where do manifestations of the Taint begin and our own petty evil ends? Or are they one and the same?"

"It's a question I've run into before." You admit.

"Philosophy and metaphysics aside, we need to warn the Chancellor there's a plot against him. We cannot rely on Mouse's eloquence alone in this matter."

Klaus sighs at the prospect of being kept away from the books by this affair but nods in acknowledgment. "Of course, love. But first, let's do what we came here for." He regards you. "Thank you for bringing this to our attention, and for the information." He raises the folded paper you gave him, having memorized what possibly useful information it could have contained. "It'll help us counteract whatever the mercenaries are planning, I'm sure, whatever chancellor originally intended with it."

With that you head out to scour the guest wing for signs of lady Kaguya, with Phineous in tow. In truth, there's not that much scouring to be had as all it takes is heading to the lobby where the clerk is capable of directing you to the eastern princess's chambers. Your eclectic party follows the directions and before long you reach a suite door guarded by a swordfighter clad in ornamental armour. He gives you and Phineous look of barely restrained contempt but offers polite bow to Claudia and Klaus before knocking and disappearing into the suite, making you grateful for their assistance.

When the door opens again, the warrior steps out and to the side and behind him princess Kaguya emerges.

She was a slender woman clad in complex ceremonial garb of the foreign rite she bore with posture and motions of tranquil humility. Serene expression on her face was framed with short black hair as she inspected her diverse visitors. Her brown eyes widen ever so slightly at your sight but her small, soft smile remains and even grows as she addresses the couple.

"Claudia! Klaus! My friends. What brings you here?" She focuses back on you. "Are you their friend I have heard about?"

"It's a pleasure to see you again, Kaguya." Claudia says, her greeting echoed by Klaus. "And indeed, this is Mouse, a person who saved Prim and Alicia from a coup and many of my men owe him their lives. We're seeking you out because he's on a virtuous mission and we believe you have much to talk about." Claudia speaks for you.

"I see. In light of such endorsement, how could I possibly refuse? Please, do come in." She gestures towards inside of her suite.
Claudia's expression warps into a regretful grimace.

"We'd love to, but we have urgent affair we need to handle. We'll be happy to catch up later as opportunity allows."

Kaguya's eyes dim slightly with disappointment. "Oh. Oh well, I suppose it can't be helped."

Klaus and Claudia exchange their goodbyes with the princess-priestess and depart. Kaguya repeats her invitation and you are ushered into the common room of her suite, the bodyguard being last to enter.

"Hayato, would you please make us all some tea?" Kaguya asks. The fighter gives you a look of suspicion as he hesitates, something the princess picks up on. "Don't worry, if Klaus and Claudia vouched for them in person I'm sure they're good people."

"As you command, mistress." The fighter's hesitation is clearly not dispelled entirely but he obeys and vanishes from view.

"Well then, mr. Mouse, tell me of that quest of yours."

You need no further encouragement, and starting at the beginning, you begin to talk. The story of your recent discoveries, how they tie with your life and your struggle. At some point Hayato arrives with porcelain cups filled with hot, steaming, fragrant tea.

And the princess Kaguya listens attentively, processing the tale you share with her. Phineous sits quietly to the side, occasionally scribbling something into his notes.

Eventually your tale comes to a close as you put the empty cup aside and there's a moment of complete silence as you await Kaguya's response...

>Happy New Year, friends
>Peace, freedom and prosperity for each and every one of you.
>We'll return to Mouse & co.'s fates in the next thread.
>I had hoped to fit more into this one but I don't want this to become work.
>feel free to state updated preferences on who the best girl is in the time the thread has left
Happy new year. For best girl, Olga remains in first place, but Celestine has put in a strong showing. Maybe that meeting with her later will help her place in the standings.
Every thread only makes it harder to choose, all girls are great.
Alicia, Elle and Chloe are ahead I think.
Prim is precious, but I can't see her as a waifu.
Klaus and Claudia continue to be the best couple and good friends.
Olga always shows her good side, but it's harder to interact with her during our mission.
Happy bew year.
Elle and Chloe remains my top choices. Olga is still 2nd, but now Celestine managed to enter there as well.
Thanks for running, short but still interesting thread.
>Best girls
Chloe, Elle
Alicia, Olga
>Needs more time for me to decide
Celestine, Harriet, Kaguya
Claudia, Diana, Minerva

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