The Alchemist Forum was a paradise for all alchemists within the Bull Kingdom, whether they were mere apprentices or venerable masters. There were dozens of buildings surrounding the forum, awash with color from bright tile murals and exceptionally detailed paintings depicting plants and flowers of all kinds. The forum itself had over two hundred smaller stalls filled with gorgeous flowers and other luminous and regal alchemy ingredients. All the rarest and most expensive products were kept indoors where they could be easily protected, but there were enough exotic plants around that the density of magic in the air around the forum was considerably higher than in other areas of the city.
It was a very important place to the Bull Kingdom and was afforded all the security such a place deserved: dozens of guards posted around the clock at key points in the forum and dozens more constantly patrolling around the shops and stalls. Most of them had little to actually do, though, as their presence was so great that street crime in the area was nearly nonexistent. The primary job of the guards was actually to remove any loitering mages who were hoping to use the atmosphere to train, rather than to do business.
Despite its name, there were far more than alchemists browsing the various wares in the vast jungle-like marketplace. Alchemists were certainly in the majority, but there were also enchanters looking for interesting or unconventional materials to mulch into paper or ink, and servants of nobility looking for flowers to fill out a garden or courtyard. There were even a number of merchants looking for new products, trying to buy the seeds of whatever caught their eye.
It was to the Alchemist Forum that Elise was leading Leon, questioning him about the ways of the Valemen along the way. Leon had done his best to answer, but since he had spent so little time among the Brown Bears—barely a few days every couple of months—he couldn’t provide every answer she sought.
“So there’s none at all?” Elise asked, the disappointment in her voice impossible to miss.
“Well, human sacrifice isn’t common, but it’s still around in some places. I grew up in the east, and Torfinn Ice-Eyes all but put a stop to the practice a few years ago. Which, as I said, doesn’t mean it’s gone completely. I’ve personally seen some of the priests put a couple murderers to death in the name of the Mountain Father.”
“You said that it’s only recently dying out in the east, but what about the west?” asked Elise. She was quite fascinated with the strange and mysterious culture of the Valemen, especially since it was something she could get Leon to actually say more than a few words about.
“I can’t say anything for sure about the western vales, but I have heard a few stories. Most of them aren’t particularly pleasant…” Leon trailed off, hesitating to repeat what he had heard, but Elise wasn’t dissuaded.
“Surely you don’t think I can’t handle a few horror stories?” she asked with an impish and expectant grin.
“… I’m sure you can…” Leon muttered, a faint smile appearing on his own face. “There have been some recent changes in the north. A man named Hakon Fire-Beard has united most of the western vales, and his methods of ruling are… extreme—assuming that what refugees that flee his territories say can be taken at face value and haven’t been overly exaggerated.
“They say Hakon Fire-Beard is extremely fond of burning people alive, and that he’s put entire villages to the torch to appease the Mountain Father. He also allegedly has captured warriors of rival tribes crucified for a whole day, then burned as a sacrifice to the Sky Mother.”
“Hmm… So there’s no cannibalism? No flaying of enemies and wearing of their skin for clothing?”
“No. Or at least, not that I’m aware of.”
Leon chuckled, then said, “You sound almost disappointed.”
“I am! You’re basically telling me that those mystical and unnatural rites that everyone in the Bull Kingdom knows about aren’t true!”
“So sorry to let you down,” Leon said with a sarcastic grin. “The people in the Vales value peace and stability as much as the people in the south. They’re just not quite so organized, which leads to more conflict.”
“Well are there at least demon-worshippers? Tribes of werewolves that interbreed with actual wolves? Ancient vampires that live in caves high up in the mountains and feed on any unfortunate soul that strays too close?”
“I… Where do you even hear these things?”
“So they’re not true?”
“The first two, definitely not. The last one, most likely not, but the Frozen Mountains are quite large, so who knows?”
[There were demons in those mountains, though. Or at least, one demon…] murmured Xaphan.
[But you weren’t being worshipped, were you?] Leon shot back.
[No, though I should have been. It isn’t every day a Lord of Flame shows himself…]
The demon didn’t continue, so Leon turned his attention back to Elise. She was cutely pouting because Leon had ruthlessly shot down her preconceptions, but her face brightened up considerably when she felt the distinctive change in the air as they got close to the Alchemist Forum. She took Leon’s arm and started walking as fast as she could without losing her dignity.
They both couldn’t help but let out an “Ahhh,” of wonder and delight as they entered the forum, as the bright and vibrant colors, heavenly scent of the flowers, and high density of magic in the air created a near-overwhelming feast for the senses.
The two wanted to stand right where they had stopped and savor the atmosphere, but the throngs of people coming and going from the gigantic market weren’t going to stop on their account, so Elise and Leon pressed onward. For ten minutes, they did nothing except wander the outer stalls of the forum, where the wares were little more than decorative. Elise even spotted a number of one of her favorite flowers, a lotus-like plant that gently glowed red in the mornings, purple during the day, and blue in the evenings. She made a big enough show of smiling and staring at them that even the socially inept Leon could tell that she wanted one, so he dug out a few silvers and bought one for her.
In response, Elise threw her arms around his neck in a joyous hug, making the few dozen people around them who were witness to her happiness smile uncontrollably at the scene. Once Leon managed to extricate himself from Elise’s arms, the stall keeper handed him one of the flowers with a wink and a nod and even knocked a couple silvers off the price—only taking a single token silver coin from Leon.
At first, Leon was only going to give the flower to Elise, but she smiled and leaned towards him while giggling and tilting her head. Leon was utterly baffled as to what she was doing, but fortunately for him, Xaphan was watching in fascination and came to his rescue.
[She wants you to put the flower in her hair, dummy.]
Leon didn’t respond to the demon, but his face immediately went red and his hands started shaking. He managed to gently thread the vivid purple flower behind one of her ears despite his nervousness, though.
“So, how do I look?” she asked, giving Leon a sly look.
Leon was about to respond, but when he made eye contact with her, his words caught in his throat. He had to take a deep breath to steady his heart before he could finally say, “You… you look stunning.”
She smiled and happily took his arm. From that angle, Leon couldn’t see the red that had started to spread through her cheeks.
After several minutes of walking in an embarrassed silence that neither wanted to break, Elise led Leon into one of the biggest buildings around the forum. Its walls were opulently decorated with lavish paintings of forests and mountains, and the entrance hall had no roof both to allow sunlight to reach the indoor gardens and to give them a greater feeling of openness.
As soon as they walked in through the door, Elise was recognized by the Heaven’s Eye representative she’d sent over several hours beforehand. As he walked over, Elise released Leon’s arm and took up a significantly more authoritative attitude.
“Lady Elise! Everything’s ready and waiting for you,” the representative said, skipping the pleasantries and getting right down to business.
“Good. Lead the way,” responded Elise, barely glancing at him.
“Yes, my lady.” The man started walking further into the building, giving Elise and Leon a considerable amount of space to follow.
“This should be quick,” Elise started explaining to Leon, “we’ve already hammered out most of the details and negotiated a fair price. All that’s needed now is for you to finalize the deal and take your Kagu flower.”
Leon nodded in acknowledgment. He was far too busy trying to ignore the stares from the store’s employees—who were extremely curious as to who Elise and Leon were to warrant being led inside—to ask her for any specifics about the deal.
Once they left the entrance hall and started walking through the more private areas of the building that were reserved for transactions far too large or important to be handled by the public employees, it became clear just how rich the owner of the place was. The walls were just as richly decorated as they were outside, but the roof here was made of actual living tree branches, kept alive and permanently green through the use of complex nature magic—a blend of earth, light, and water enchantments that greatly aided plant growth while providing a host of other benefits.
Leon and Elise were shown into the largest meeting room in the building where three people were already waiting. The oldest of these three, a man who appeared middle-aged, immediately stood up to greet Elise. He noticed the flower in her hair and the fact that she had brought a man with her after informing him that she would bring the client to pick it up from his place. But as soon as he smiled knowingly and made a comment about it, Elise’s face became as stern and stoic as Leon’s default expression. With a few barbed words that implied she had been insulted, she made the merchant lower his price by ten percent.
Leon barely registered any of that. As soon as he walked in the door, his eyes were drawn to the beautiful volcanic flower on the central meeting table. It radiated fire magic, raising the temperature of the room so much that the other two people waiting in the room—not even being first-tier mages and thus having little defense against such magical auras—were quite obviously uncomfortable, nearly sweating through their clothes.
Leon drew closer to the table to get a better look at the flower; he could feel Xaphan’s rising excitement so clearly that it compelled him to inspect the flower. It was barely larger than his palm, with hundreds of long, needle-thin red-orange petals radiating out from the central bulb, a shining golden sphere.
[Yes, yes, ever-everything looks fine…] muttered Xaphan, desperately trying to keep his voice calm. The Kagu flower was by far the most important part of the potion he needed. The other two ingredients could be a great many things, though he had specifically asked Leon to find the two he had believed to be the easiest to acquire.
“Is… is there any problem?” the merchant timidly asked. He still hurt from Elise gouging out a huge chunk of the money he had expected to make, so he wanted to make sure that Leon hadn’t seen anything that would drive the price down further.
“It’s fine,” whispered Leon, not taking his eyes off the flower.
The merchant breathed a sigh of relief, and what followed was several minutes of paperwork between his assistants and the Heaven’s Eye representative to organize the money transfer. Leon didn’t even need to pull out his card, Elise had taken care of that part when he had given it to her earlier in the day.
Fifteen minutes after they had walked into the store, Elise and Leon walked back out with Leon carrying a big wooden box under his arm. The box would keep the Kagu flower’s aura sealed within, to prevent it from bothering anyone around him. It had only been unsealed in the meeting room to facilitate his inspection.
“So…” Elise hesitantly began, her severe facade fading away, “do you have any other plans for the day?”
Leon guessed that she was subtly suggesting that she would like to spend more time with him, which excited him to no end, but he could feel Xaphan’s impatience almost literally hammering on his soul realm. “I… I’m sorry, I’ve got to go, these ingredients need some preparation before they’re ready and it’s not something that should be put off… I can at least walk you back to the Heaven’s Eye Tower, though.”
Elise gave him a dazzling smile and said, “I’d like that.”
They walked through the streets in silence, simply enjoying each other’s company. They kept their quiet until they reached the Tower, when they spoke their goodbyes. Just as Leon was about to turn around and head back to the Knight Academy, Elise hurried forward and swiftly kissed him on the cheek.
She laughed quietly, then said, “We’re working on getting that fourth-tier feather for you. In the meantime, don’t be a stranger.”
She happily walked back to the tower doors and, with one last wave to Leon, she went back inside.
After another moment, Leon finally managed to respond. That kiss had made him freeze up, but he gently touched his cheek when he regained control of himself. He looked at the Tower one more time, then made his way back to the Academy with the biggest smile on his face.
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