A few days later, I was struggling to stay awake as the carriage I was in took me to my hometown for the first time in months. Lethargy had seeped into my bones. It stemmed from the amalgamation of the rain beating against the window panes, the constant drawling of the carriage wheels over the warded roads, and the lack of natural warmth due to the dark clouds blotting out the sun.
They were all external things that I held no sway over. Yet, the solemn atmosphere they created represented the enthusiasm I had at the prospect of dealing with Mother and my older brother. Especially now that I had a chance to really look over the financial records for anything they could nitpick at and found out just how costly my latest expenditures had been—which meant I had to think of a way to justify those expenses.
It was times like this that I wished I had remained a student for a little longer. Students could get their hands on components much easier through the academy’s suppliers, and at a lower price. I could even get my hands on more exotic materials, like those I used to create the Fume Beast, with less effort through the boutique.
Then there was the cost Alice’s broom, which was listed as an asset for the shop. I could justify that by stating it was useful for making deliveries, which was true enough since that was one of the services we offered. But then it would get to the topic of the necessity when I had to rely on Alice and Johan to do so.
Oh, and then there was the cost of supplies for Aeria’s sweets. It was larger than it reasonably should be. I was using her help more than before, so it was only fair I kept the snacks coming in proportion to that. But her bouts of gluttony were partially responsible for burning through so much of it so quickly.
“Hmm… Maybe I could spin the expenses by stating I had been working on improving the quality, so they could be sold…” I muttered as I went over the papers a final time. “Alice had mentioned that people tended to buy snacks impulsively when at the counter during her time in the boutique, and I do have Honey Taffy that could serve as a product sample on me.”
Aeria wouldn’t be pleased with the prospect of her snacks being given away without permission. In fact, she would be downright petulant about it. But at this point it was something she would have to just deal with, or else we’d run the risk of losing the expense account entirely.
I spent some time drafting the business plan until I took a glance outside the window, past the interior illuminated by the soft glow of a spellstone lantern. The carriage was on the road heading into the center of the town from the eastern side, past the stone bridge that cut over the river and onto the main street. My home was on the northern side and the woodlands behind them curved around the perimeter of the town to the western side, while the flatter lands to the south led to the local farmlands.
Turning to Aeria, her tiny body curled up beneath my half-cloak as she slept, I gently nudged her awake with a finger. “Aeria, we’re here. Wake up and stretch your wings.”
A slight mumble left her mouth before her dark eyes opened and closed slowly. A yawn followed as she sat up, pushing the fabric away before unfurling her wings. After a few beats, she rose into the air and looked out the window at the people moving about quickly, their umbrellas and cloaks woven together as they tried to escape from the biting cold of the wet droplets. “It’s still raining?”
“I know the cold tends to make you lethargic, but you’ll have to keep us dry until we get to where we’re going,” I told her as I finished putting the reports away in my shoulder bag and draped my half-cloak over my shoulders. “You can stay close to me to stay warm.”
At the prompt she flew over and wormed her way between my cloak’s collar and neck, rather than taking her usual place on the top of my head. The dampening fog rolling down her back left a single wet spot nipping at the flesh beneath my clothes as she snuggled into place. “We’re going to Elsa’s place first, right?”
“Yes, we are. We’ll stay long enough to warm up, exchange pleasantries, and ask about the commission. Just remember what we discussed about talking to others on what we learned from that higher spirit.”
Her expression soured. “I know. No telling anyone about what we learned unless you tell me to. Not even them.”
“It’s for the best.” I drew up my collar to cover her a bit more. “After that, we head to the manor and you head straight to my room, so you can get some more rest.”
“Okay…” She sighed as she settled in again until the carriage stopped. The moment we stepped out of it, the dampness and chill of the wind began to gnaw away at us while the scent of petrichor filled the air. Aeria quickly worked the air above our heads to act as a near-invisible umbrella that left the droplets cascading to the ground around us.
We then began our walk through the rain towards Mister Rieth’s place. Even with the poor visibility hampering the crystal lanterns, we both knew the way to it well enough that our time away hadn’t muddled the memory. Sure enough, we found ourselves staring at the entrance to a rather unremarkable, half-timber house that stood two floors tall, with a sign on the side of the door that read: ‘Rieth’s Hermitage’.
There was no light coming from the windows. No signs of movement either. “Are they not here at the moment?”
“I can feel Elsa’s presence in the Workshop,” Aeria said, her wispy voice coming in clear despite the downpour’s cadence. Then she took off towards the rooftop and chimney to enter, leaving the air construct to vanish and the rain to fall on me abruptly. Wonderful.
I moved under the jetty to get out of the rain and then spent the next few seconds waiting until the door opened. What greeted me was a porphyritic collage of nature brought to life, petrous flesh that was both fine-grained and lined with glass-like crystals serving as a base that nature itself forced into a more feminine shape. Thick, fibrous roots that burrowed into what would be her shoulders and wove together until they lengthened into arms, splitting at the end to form seven-fingered hands whose tips were long enough to touch down to the floor. Dense clumps of viridian moss clung relentlessly to the surface of her torso to imitate a dress that one would expect a modest woman to wear.
Her head was the petrified cast of a human woman. Her hair was merely shaped moss that joined with that of her dress from behind, the sporophyte that consisted of red stalks acting as strands. Where there would normally be eyes were instead two holes with polished, black gemstones of some kind sunken within.
“Kowler.” Her voice came out with a granular tint, lips uncannily pulling back with a smoothness foreign to minerals as she smiled. The sinuous digits of both her arms rose to entwine my back and she stepped past the door’s threshold to embrace me. “How good to see you.”
“You as well, Elsa.” The unique fragrance that blended rich earth, greenery, and floral sweetness invigorated me somewhat as I returned the gesture. “I hope Aeria didn’t sneak in at an inopportune time. If it is a bother, we’ll depart and come back tomorrow after I’ve scolded her.”
She merely shook her head as she retreated beyond the threshold once more. “This is a pleasant surprise if anything. What brings you here?”
“Mother requested that we return for a few days and I wanted to ask if it’s possible to enlist your help with creating something that we’re having trouble with. As a commission, if need be.”
“Is that so?” Judging by the way she tilted her head, she seemed mildly intrigued at the prospect. “How interesting. I’ll bring you some snacks and something to dry off with, so why don’t you wait inside the Workshop until Wilhelm returns?”
That said, her fibrous digits then pressed against the petrified wood that composed the floor and instantly underwent permineralization, turning to stone that seamlessly sank into the floor until she vanished from sight. Moving through stone and earth was more efficient for Elsa than imitating walking, so I suspected that she and Rieth had gone through the trouble of petrifying the floorboards for exactly that purpose. It was fascinating to watch really.
Regardless, I stepped through the door’s threshold and shut it behind me.