The Beginning After The End - Chapter 192
Chapter 192: Eat, Drink, Be Merry
After another failed attempt at trying to coerce Sylvie to take a break and come join me for the dinner, I conceded. As soon as I stepped through the towering double doors of stained wood, opened for me by two guards clad in silver, my worries were replaced by wonder. It felt like I had stepped into a different place.
Maybe I had.
I looked back over my shoulder to make sure that I hadn’t stepped through a teleportation gate disguised as a doorway. Confirming that I was still indeed inside the Castle, I took my time to relish the sights, sounds, and aromas around me.
While the size of the dining room wasn’t anything extraordinary, the details in the decoration took my breath away. The vaulted ceiling itself made this room feel like a separate structure from the castle, and the ambient light cast from the floating orbs above brought to life a scene straight out of a princess picture book.
Unlike the flamboyant party where the witch-like retainer’s frozen body had been showcased as a morale booster for the many noble houses that attended, this event emitted a cozy, intimate atmosphere—with a little sprinkle of a surreal fairytale mixed in.
I picked up two glasses of whatever lavish drink the purple liquid might be from a meticulously-dressed butler poised almost as still as a statue, handing one of them to Emily, who was besides me.
When my sister tried to take one as well, I pulled her back. “It’s alcohol.”
Ellie clicked her tongue and continued walking. It didn’t take long for her discontent to diffuse.
“Everything looks so…magical!” Ellie marveled, unable to form a better word to describe herself. “It smells amazing in here, but where’s all the food?”
“This is still a dinner, not a party,” I explained, pointing to the long rectangular table covered with a seamlessly white tablecloth and topped with perfectly arranged empty plates and glasses. “The food’s going to be brought out once everyone’s here and seated.”
The alcohol—I noted with amusement—lay spread out against the back wall in large wooden kegs.
“I’m getting hungry just sniffing the air here,” Emily sighed, nearly drooling.
I nodded in agreement. The air was thick with a concoction of spices, sauces and herbs that strangely seemed to harmonize alongside each other rather than clash. To blend and mesh the variety of kitchen ingredients together was the subtle oaky scent of the fire crackling and popping in the hearth at the far corner of the cozy dining hall.
Ellie pulled on my sleeve. “Are you sure we didn’t need to dress up for this?”
“The place is a lot fancier than Virion had led on, but yes I’m sure,” I assured. “This is supposed to be a comfortable dinner to celebrate before I go back out to the field, my dearest sister.”
“I’m your only sister,” she retorted, her eyes still curiously gazing about.
“Then you know I’m telling the truth,” I said blandly.
Ellie let out a groan at my witty response. “Whatever.”
“I can imagine how ‘comfortable’ it’ll be already… with the Council, the lances, and the elders all gathered in one place,” Emily chimed in, her sarcasm practically palpable.
I simply smiled, breaking off from the two of them to enjoy my purple drink in peace. Despite being one of the last to leave, Emily, my sister, and I were the first to arrive.
As I sat in the back to enjoy the warmth of the fire, I saw Kathyln coming inside escorted by Hester. Both wore evening gowns that, while minimally adorned, still looked undoubtedly elegant… and expensive.
Ellie and Emily didn’t hesitate to shoot me glares as they saw this, mentally blaming me for their comparatively informal attire.
I winked and lifted my glass, now half-empty. Kathyln thought I was gesturing to her and raised her glass slightly as well, smiling shyly before turning her attention to Emily and my sister.
Elder Hester strode toward me with a glass in hand as well. “Seems like you’ve already made yourself comfortable—in both attire and demeanor.”
“I thought this was supposed to be a casual dinner,” I sniffed, holding my glass out toward her.
“Is this not casual?” she smirked, clinking my glass with hers in a casual toast before the two of us took a sip.
“Casual is wearing your slightly larger pants so that you can comfortably indulge in whatever exquisite cuisine we’re presented with tonight,” I said with confidence.
Hester looked at me with a curious gaze before chuckling. “I often forget that you’re not from a noble house, no offense.”
I chuckled. “None taken. It’s always amusing seeing some of the nobles trying to hide their contempt when a lance like myself does something blatantly ‘improper’.”
“Proper etiquette is ingrained in everyone since infanthood,” Hester admitted. “My mother would faint if she saw you in that attire at an occasion like this.”
“Truth be told, my mother would probably faint as well if she knew I was attending this kind of dinner wearing this,” I chuckled, feeling a pang of guilt and sorrow at the mention of my parents.
We sipped our drinks in silence for a bit, watching the chaotic movement of the fire as if it was a show.
Finishing off the last of my purple liquor, I asked Hester a question that had been on my mind since I first met her. “Hester. If you don’t mind me asking, what is your relationship to Jasmine Flamesworth?”
Hester, who had been watching the fire as intently as I had been, shifted her gaze to me. “You two are acquainted?”
She took a few moments to gather her thoughts before letting out a sigh. “Then I guess it’s safe to assume that the Flamesworth family has made a rather negative impression on you.”
“It’s gotten a little better since I met you, but yes,” I confessed.
“Jasmine is the daughter of my younger brother—my niece,” she began, idly twirling the remaining liquid in her glass.
Hester proceeded to tell me a little about the Flamesworth family. The story of Jasmine wasn’t anything I hadn’t already been told or guessed myself. Basically, the younger brother—the one with the most pride in their family’s line of fire mages—thought of Jasmine as an embarrassment to the Flamesworth house. At first, he did all he can to try and draw out any latent potential in fire-affinity, hopeful that she might even be a dual-elementalist. Once her father realized that wind was the only affinity that his daughter had, he isolated her until she was old enough and kicked her out soon after.
Hester’s remorseful tone throughout the story helped quell some of the anger I had toward their family, but there was still a bitter taste in my mouth.
“Your brother, where is he now?” I asked.
“Trodius is a captain, his division being one of the main forces at the Wall,” she answered. “You don’t plan on—”
“No, I have no intentions of harming your brother,” I scoffed, turning back to see some familiar faces. “I was just curious. Oh, and about your comment on every noble having proper etiquette ingrained in them…”
Buhnd and Camus had just walked in through the doors. While Camus wore a traditional elven robe, Buhnd had apparently decided to attend the event disguised as what seemed like a farm worker.
Hester, following my gaze, rolled her eyes as she saw the dwarven elder finish a glass in one gulp and proceed to grab two more before walking to us. “There are always outliers.”
I chortled. “An outlier indeed.”
It didn’t take much longer for the rest of the guests to filing in. Virion congratulated me on my training with a hug and a snide comment about Tess not being able to make it. I greeted Merial and Alduin Eralith, Tess’ parents cordially, exchanging a few pleasantries. Alduin sort of digressed, talking about the war and some of the dilemmas he’s been having in allocating the elven armies around Elenoir when Merial scolded him for talking about that here and dragged him away. My exchange with King Blaine and Queen Priscilla—or is it Mr. and Mrs. Glayder? Although the royal families all dropped their titles as kings and queens, it was always uncomfortable in discerning how to exactly address them—were even more succinct. While Kathyln’s mother was brusque by default, I knew that the former King of Sapin still found it uncomfortable to be around me; a human that became a lance for the elves. Most likely someone he considers disloyal to his home kingdom.
Needless to say, by the time I’d finished talking and toasting (thereby drinking) with the elders and the Council my inhibitions had been lowered to a noticeable degree. It was only noticeable to me when I clasped an unwilling Bairon into a hug and repeated that ‘there were no hard feelings’. The lance tried to pry himself away without drawing attention but I utilized one of the techniques I had learned from Camus to create a vacuum between him and me.
Finding real life applications for spells is the next step in mastery afterall.
After saying my fill, I released the fuming lance and proceeded to greet Varay and Aya. The two lances had just come back from a mission near the border between Sapin and Darv after sightings of another retainer. Unfortunately, the final retainer was gone by the time they had arrived. We continued talking until an unexpected surprise showed up. Garbed in a bright yellow dress that looked like it might’ve belonged to a child was Mica.
“Mica!” I exclaimed, drawing everyone’s attention to the entrance. The dwarf, obviously unaccustomed to such a fluttery dress, flushed at the attention. Rather than shrink, however, the dwarven lance stuck out her chest and held her chin up and made her way to me.
I pulled the dwarf into a hug, which was a little awkward considering she was about half my height. Virion came by and placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Our scouts in Darv found enough evidence to ensure to the rest of the Council that Mica—or should I say General Mica—was not involved in Rahdeas and Olfred’s plot with the Vritra,” Virion explained with a smile.
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“Mica’s allegiance will always be to the country,” the lance confirmed. “But Mica is a bit confused since there are no dwarves in the Council and Lord Aldir is missing.”
“We have much to discuss and positions to fill, but that can be saved for tomorrow,” Virion comforted. “Tonight, we enjoy the food, the drinks, and the company we have tonight.”
Virion left us to continue his rounds talking to everyone else in the room while Mica and I chatted a bit more. We kept our conversation lighthearted. I teased her about her frilly dress while she retorted that I looked like I had come straight from a training session. She laughed when I told her she was right.
The pleasant chime of a bell signalled for everyone to gather around the table. Butlers and maids escorted all of the attendees to a predetermined seat. Supposedly, being one of the main reasons for having this dinner put me at the far end of the table, directly across from Virion with Kathyln to my right and my sister to my left. The Council was spread across the table toward the other end near Virion while the lances and Elders sat toward the center.
After everyone had taken a seat, Virion tapped his spoon on the glass flute to get everyone’s attention before speaking.
“I’ll make this short since I know I’m not the only one hungry. I believe it’s important for even our strongest soldiers to have the opportunity to rest and be merry. Yes, we’re at war, but war or not, there will always be a battle tomorrow, so make some time to enjoy today. Drink, eat, laugh, so that you can all tackle tomorrow with fire anew!”
We all clapped, while Buhnd’s gruff voice shouting, “Hell yeah!” sounded in the midst of it. Our applause brought forth an organized stampede of servants carrying dishes. It was a full course meal starting with a creamy soup garnished with edible flowers and leaves placed with precision.
My stomach that had been uncomfortable—most likely due to the copious amounts of alcohol I had drank—welcomed the warm, rich flavors. A subtle kick from an unfamiliar spice complimented the thickness of the soup while the leaves and flower garnishes added a surprising hint of freshness.
“This… is so… good!” Ellie exclaimed in between spoonfuls of the soup.
The ceramic bowl of soup had been taken away, replaced by a silver platter with two strips of what looked like raw fish. The morsels of translucent flesh with dashings of two different sauces practically melted in my mouth. Both the green and the brown sauces were unfamiliar but it was a mixture of a nutty and slightly acidic taste that served to mask the unwanted brininess of the ocean dweller and bring out its desired flavors.
While swallowing the second piece of the fish, a pang in my abdomen caused me to buckle.
Did I drink too much? I wondered, casting a side glance at the large cask of priceless liqueur that had been conveniently placed just behind Buhnd’s seat.
“Are you okay?” Kathyln asked, her plate completely clean.
“I’m fine,” I smiled, putting down my fork.
Ultimately, my stubbornness refused to pass the opportunity in drinking such expensive alcohol. I held up my glass, taking another sip and rolling the deep brown liquid in my mouth to savor the taste.
I let the aromatic flavors coat my mouth before finally swallowing it, letting the pleasant burn pass down my throat.
“Can I try?” my sister begged once again after seeing me relishing the drink.
I was about to turn her down again, but paused. “Fine. Just a sip.”
“Uh, Ellie?” Emily chimed in, her eyes widening as my sister grabbed the rounded glass. “You sure about this?”
Ignoring her, my sister immediately brought the glass to her lips. As expected, she most certainly did not take ‘just a sip’ and instead gulped a big portion of the liqueur.
Already prepared for what was about to come, I cast a small circular vacuum of wind that sucked in the spray of liquid that shot out of my sister’s mouth as she coughed.
The servants nearby immediately took action, handing my sister a new napkin while they opened up a container for me to ‘dump’ Ellie’s sprayed contents into.
“Y-You jerk,” Ellie hissed, trying not to draw in any more attention than she already had. “You knew that would happen!”
Suppressing the laugh that was nearly leaking out, I looked at her, deadpan. “Of course. That’s why I said no so many times.”
“You could’ve warned me!” she protested, drinking the cup of water the servant behind her so sensibly placed next to Ellie’s plate.
“I could’ve,” I agreed, leaving my sister aghast.
Emily steered my sister’s bitterness, telling her about some of the modifications she made to Ellie’s new bow.
After the plates were cleared, another—smaller—dish took its place. Even before I looked down to see what it was, the smell had already caused me to reach for it. A handful of shellfish with its black shells laid open, its meat basking in a savory broth that I could practically taste through my nose. Supplementing the shellfish was a side of sauteed mushrooms that looked like they were actually lit on fire.
The servant covered the mushrooms with a crystal cup to extinguish the soft fire. As soon as he lifted the cover, a rich flavor of whatever liqueur the chef had used to ignite the mushrooms with permeated the vicinity.
“Raw fish, and now flaming fungus? Interesting and tasty!” I overheard Emily as she whispered to my sister, who nodded furiously in agreement.
Conversations drifted in the air while soft music played by a trio of musicians cast a comfortable tune to accompany the dinner.
I leaned forward, taking in another whiff of the complementing aromas of the shellfish and mushrooms when another sharp pain stabbed at my sternum.
Am I allergic to something? I thought, bringing a mushroom close to my nose in suspicion.
With the pain gone as quickly as it had come, I decided to lay off the purple alcohol while shoveling in a mouthful of the mushrooms.
The firm suppleness of the mushroom as I bit down into it dispelled any of the remaining suspicions I had of the food.
If I’m allergic to this mushroom, so be it. I’ll suffer knowing that it was for a good cause.
Throughout the next few dishes, I ate in silence. Kathyln wasn’t much of a conversationalist and the few times she did talk was to respond to whatever my sister and Emily were conversing about.
My thoughts began veering toward the war, and the upcoming battles, my only solace being the exquisite dishes that never seemed to stop and my glass of liqueur that never emptied. From tender meats that I was able to cut with my fork, and even a whole boar that was carved so precisely that I doubted I could replicate the task even with my mastery of the sword.
There were other, more bizarre dishes that showcased the more… ‘unwanted’ parts of particular mana beasts as supposed delicacies. It was when the dinner was becoming more lively—most likely due to alcohol in everyone’s system—that I encountered another episode of pain in my stomach.
This time, it was a more gripping pain, as if someone was slowly squeezing, twisting, and wrenching my insides. That was when I realized it wasn’t my stomach or even my liver like I thought it had been.
It was my mana core.
“Is something wrong, Arthur? You seem pale,” Virion said, noticing my state from the other side of the table.
I rose up from my seat, feeling more than a tinge of regret as I stared at the untouched steaming crab down at my plate. “My apologies to everyone, but I think I’ll have to call it a night.”
Virion got up as well, his expression laced with concern.
Holding up a hand to stop him, I made my way to the door, careful not to stumble. “Please, enjoy yourselves. I’ve been a little tired today and I think I just had too much alcohol.”
Without looking back, I headed to my room, one hand using the wall as support while the other pressed down on my solar plexus.
Is something wrong with my mana core?
Cold sweat beaded down my face as the gripping pain became more intense.
By the time I reached my room, I curled into a ball on the floor, unable to reach my bed. My fear and worry grew alongside the pain, until a thought crossed my mind.
Sending a pulse of mana into my ring, I withdrew Uto’s horn and instinctively began absorbing its contents like an infant reaching for its mother’s milk.
Slipping in and out of consciousness, time elapsed like it was caught in a jar of sap. Everything seemed slow and the cold, gripping pain escalated until it soon became unbearable.
Two things happened in what seemed like a span of a second.
First, I felt a surge of unmatched energy and power throughout my body. I could feel it in my pores and the tip of my hair.
Then, I passed out.