Chapter 56.1 Int -II

“Kate! Emilia! My two favorite people!” Paige waved as her two favorite people arrived with the small caravan to their tiny settlement. “Oh goodie, and you even brought your husband Emilia!”

“Charmed to see you again, Miss Paige, and may I say you do look rather fine this evening.” Richard waved from his seat in the carriage as he looked Paige over. Emilia elbowed her husband lightly, though Paige was wearing something unusual, at least for her.

She was wearing a dress! And it was well made, Emilia thought as she looked Paige up and down. The dress was an unusual pattern for the area, with the coloring of the dress, a color that reminded Emilia of ripened wheat was concentrated solely to the middle while the sides of the dress remained a pure white. Her shawl gave a splash of color to her otherwise neutral dress, a deep red that screamed expensive, even to Emilia.

“That’s a rather…unique outfit for you.”

Paige laughed, but curtsied and swept the ceremonial staff in her hands back to her food plots beyond.

“Farmer Paige to you, good sir. And this is just a standard festival garb, Emilia. I’m required to wear this as the host. But I’m rather surprised you all didn’t dress up more, actually,” she looked around at the other carts passing by and shrugged as she saw no one else wearing festival clothing. “Regardless, I welcome you all to this harvest festival as my formal guests,” She was being rather formal, something Emilia had never seen her do in all the years she had known her.

‘She is taking this rather seriously. I thought Zenith was kidding when she was describing all the preparations Paige was setting up, but she really is going all out.”

Taking a look around, Emilia noted that the clearings beyond had changed from what she was used to seeing. The whole farmland had been transformed into a rather festive area, the entire area awash with light as many a bonfire encircled the clearing, bringing light and warmth as the sun started fading away, bringing the chill of the night with it.

It was rather risky to hold it at night, especially with all the monsters that had been raming apart. But Zenith had given her assurance that they had all dealt with the monsters and pledged that all guests would be safe. Most of the Farmers had been skeptical about that, right up to the point where Zenith came riding out on an Elder Boar, that is.

“Paige, it is good to see you about! You should come to town sometime, you know! Even Nick is finally getting out of the forest.” Kate jumped out of the wagon, politely curtsying to the host. “May the soil be well for the upcoming harvest.”

“And may you have a bountiful harvest for the rest of the year. I’m surprised you know that phrase, Kate. Usually, only Farmers know that saying.”

“You learn a saying or two when your main suppliers are Farmers, Paige. This is the breadbasket of Alcudia, after all.”

Paige smiled. “True. Where’s Xavier at? And did Lily and Tyler not make it back?” She looked around as the last of the caravans drove past her toward the clearing beyond.

“The rest of the school is on break, but because of their situation, they had to stay there and do some remedial training. Apparently, they can’t leave until the Cleric’s Protectors are confident enough that their Party can survive an attack.”

“Huh. Well, that’s good that they are getting individualized training. The Protectors are no joke to deal with. You rarely get that kind of training, as a child.”

“Is it harsh?” Kate asked worriedly.

“No, not harsh. Just…very specialized. It’ll be good for Tyler to learn from a master.”

Kate bit her lip. “If you say so, Paige.”

“Hey, cheer up! It’s a festival! And you can always ask Zenith to go with you to Nespe. Or just go with Emilia”

“Would she go with me?”

“Sure! Well, maybe! Or rather..” Paige frowned in thought.

“What about Markus? He could come with us to visit.” Emilia asked suddenly.

“Nah, he’s still in training, which is why he can’t leave the forest for a while. Plus I’d rather surprise them with how much he’s grown when he joins their party.”

“Mmm.” Emilia gave her husband a telling glance. She was sure her thoughts on the matter had to be close to the truth.

“Well, worry not Farmer Paige, we were planning on going that way anyway. No need to bother Miss Zenith about going.”

Paige shrugged, acting like her usual self, though her eyes shifted away from them. “Huh, well that solves that problem! And she may still want to go, just to check up on Lily. No harm in doing that at least.”

“Oh, and did you bring Boary’s food? Cause I think he’s looking for it in the caravans.” Paige clapped happily and pointed over at one of the carts, where the large boar was digging through the food with glee.

Emilia smiled. “You should be more worried than us about that. He’s ruining the food for the harvest blessings that we brought.”

“Eh? BOARY! Get back! Shoo, shoo; this is all the stuff I need!”

They laughed wryly as Paige struggled to move the large boar while making sure her dress stayed clean.

“Well Kate, shall we go find our friend?”

Emilia watched as Paige started the festivities with a brief blessing and started actively engaging the other Farmers, dragging them to the various activities she had planned and liberally, very liberally, shoving the adults to the tankards she had set up everywhere. She could tell that all her Farmers were vastly overwhelmed by not only the decor and the celebration but also the sheer differences between themselves and Paige.

They were all Farmers, of course, Emilia had made sure to ask her subordinates to confirm her Class, but she was… a far better Farmer. She hadn’t even known that was possible, but even her Head Farmer, John, had confirmed he was vastly outmatched when she asked about his thoughts of Paige.

“No fense’, Miss Emilia, but I’d join her inn’a heartbeat if she’s looking for Farmers. Either that or outright move if she’s lookin’ at expanding. My guts tellin’ me she could outperform the entire region if she had the heart to farm.”

“She is farming though, John. She’s self-sustaining her little group here in the woods.”

“Nah, this ain’t farming. This here’s passin’ the time. Besides, what kinda Farmer wouldn’t want ta expand?”

Not hearing a reply, Farmer John nodded and went to get another drink. She sighed as she came up with a reasonable answer. ‘The kind that isn’t planning on staying here long term,’ Emilia thought to herself.

Sighing once again, Emilia looked for Paige, which was easy to spot her since she was one of the only women dressed up. Watching Paige as she moved back and forth, she hoped that she hadn’t offended her by not dressing up. But it had taken a lot more assurances to just get her the majority of her farmers to even come. The harvest festival was a tradition amongst Farmers, and most of Alcudia in general, but not many of her subordinates were willing to even come once they found out Zenith was associated with the Imperial Family.

“So Zenith, when you said Paige was going all out with her planning, you forgot to mention we were supposed to dress up,” Emilia asked quietly as Paige started the festivities.

“Hm? Tyler said that it was common to dress up though? Why do you think I’m wearing this right now instead of something more comfortable?” Zenith waved at her clothing, a green dress with a cascading pattern of fall leaves embroidered down the dress. It was artfully embroidered and was not typical of any dress she had seen Zenith wear before. “Even the guys are dressed up, though I don’t know why Paige chose leather armor as their formal wear.”

“It was common to dress up; until the Scion came. No one wants to catch his eye, Zenith. No one with a brain anyway. And she chose well for the guys; the leather armor symbolizes that the husband is the protector of the hearth.”

“Hm. I guess the Imperial Scions do have a bad reputation.” Zenith said quietly as she picked up a random cup. Sipping lightly, she thought about Emilia’s answer. Protector of the hearth. That sounded suspicious like… “Who came up with that tradition?”

“Queen Rebecca. Or maybe Peter did. Either way, the queen started hosting festivals every year during her reign. Made her rather well-liked amongst her citizens, especially around here in Farmer’s country.”

“Hmph, so the queen is good at doing something then. She wasn’t much help for Lily.” Zenith frowned as she sipped on her cider.

“She did help some. Her presence in Nespe is increasing the security of the city, which is something at the very least. And I hear she’s very taken with Lily’s party. She practically coddles them.”

“Well, I just hope she’s not around too much. It’s not good to have them depend on someone for every little want or need,” Zenith looked over, her eyes locking on Emilia. “She’ll be fine. Her party too. We’re keeping an eye out for them, though we are more low key about it. Tyler and Nick are good at keeping track of people.”

“You say that Zenith. It’s just hard,” she stopped and looked away, leaving the rest of her sentence unspoken. Hard to trust your word.

Zenith must have realized what she was going to say. “…It’ll be fine.” Taking a glance around, Zenith leaned in conspiratorily. “Though… have the prices started increasing yet? They should be rising, by all accounts.”

“Hm?”

“The war. It’s been almost five years since the war lulled down, so the castles should be almost finished now. They’ll need rations at the very least pretty soon.”

Emilia looked away, thinking furiously. The castles?

“You didn’t hear it from me, Emilia. But I would keep some of your assets…liquid. And just in case, be more careful about any Scouts that come to Cidala. Something doesn’t seem right with them.” Zenith smiled, a bit forced. “But that’s all a problem for tomorrow you. Come on, we should go and do a few activities with everyone.”

Emilia realized why Zenith was being so cryptical. Trust. It still didn’t help soften the blow of the news, but Zenith was right. That was something tomorrow’s Emilia would have to deal with.

“So is Paige going to do the blessing tonight? Or at sunrise?”

“Don’t know. Tyler said he never stayed awake for them, so I don’t know when it happens.” Zenith shrugged. “Whenever it is, I hope it’s soon. Markus needs to go to sleep soon.”

“Do you want me to ask about it?” I’m sure the Farmers won’t mind if we move the blessing forward.”

“Hmm…” Zenith shook her head after a moment. “No, it’s not my tradition, so I don’t have a say in the matter. Paige has a set order for events for this, so I might as well let her have her fun. Still, what is the blessing about anyway?” She turned to go grab another drink from a nearby table.

“It’s a blessing of the land. A harvest goddess is chosen from the crowd and blesses the food, which in turn blesses the land.”

Something felt wrong to Zenith, but she couldn’t place what it was. “So why did Paige have to be the one to lead it?”

“Don’t know. Initially, the Queen would only choose Farmers, but she eventually left it up to the crowd to decide because so many people complained that they couldn’t be chosen. Are you okay, Zenith?” Emilia asked after seeing Zenith stumble.

“Yeah, yeah, I think so. I think Paige made everything a bit alcoholic,” she said after looking at her cup suspiciously. “I need to go tell Markus not to drink anything Paige made. And maybe lie down for a bit.”

“Hey, it’s time to wake up.”

“Hrng, a little longer.”

“You’re going to miss the blessing if you continue sleeping, Zenith. Paige has already started the ceremonial dance.”

Zenith woke up, the alcoholic fog that had been plaguing her waning with her slumber. She sat up and gasped as she finally realized what was wrong. “Where is Tyler!?”

‘Harvest festival, Protector of the hearth; blessings; ceremonial dance. Shit, it’s a full-blown ritual!’

“Emilia, who is the goddess of the harvest?”

“Hm? Paige is. Do you need to sleep a bit more?” Emilia frowned as Zenith stood up and quickly looked around for Tyler.

“No, I mean, who is the Goddess of the harvest? Who do Farmer’s worship?”

Zenith thought of all the gods she knew, but none of them were remotely close to anything about farming. She paled as she realized one key fact; she only memorized the ones related to magic circle creation, not their subsidiary roles. Sure, there was lore for every god; which was what made it easy to recognize which symbols complemented each other, but she hadn’t been required to know who was in charge of something as stupid as Farming!

“Peter said who it was at one point, but it was hushed up pretty quickly,” Emilia said quickly as she noticed the worried look on Zenith’s face. “I remember it since some Farmers asked me about it, so I asked my husband about it. It was something… something like…”

Zenith stopped and waited for her to answer, though she still looked around for Tyler. Ahead of her, a large bonfire was already going, In it was a multitude of fruits and vegetables piled up. The smell of the smoke wasn’t acerbic, no, it was fresh like ripened fruit. Zenith paled further as she thought about what was happening.

“Quickly, Emilia!”

Emilia bit her lip. “…something strange. Something to do with the season, I believe? Or maybe it was the time of day?”

“Come on Emilia, which is it?!”

“Solstice. Goddess of the Solstice. Strange name, right? I mean, at that point you could claim anything can be a god.”

“Son of a -” Zenith cursed and ran toward the clearing, looking for Nick or Tyler. Paige had been so good recently, and Tyler said it was a tradition already so she hadn’t thought about what that entailed. “Tyler! Where are you?”

“Over here, Zenith. What’s wrong?” Tyler asked as he looked over, frowning lightly.

“Is this a ritual?”

“Of course it is. It’s a fairly standard one too. See?” He pointed over to Paige, who was slowly walking around the bonfire.

“No, I mean is it an actual ritual?”

“Yes. A blessing is common. I made sure of that last year, remember? We all went to the winter harvest festival to make sure Paige didn’t screw anything up. It was right after Nick was able to leave the forest.”

Zenith blushed at that memory. Sure they had gone to the festival, but she hadn’t spent a lot of time outside at the festival. “Was there a ceremony like this? What I mean to say is, did someone else do this exactly?”

Tyler frowned and put his cup down. “Yes. Markus was even allowed to vote for who was the harvest goddess there, and we watched the ceremony and went to bed right after. This is all standard stuff.”

Zenith stamped her feet angrily. Pulling a stone from her picket, she quickly shoved mana into it, the world turning fuzzy as the ward activated. “Was it a Farmer?”

“What?”

“The person who was chosen. Was it a Farmer? Had Paige ever been selected when she was a Warrior?” Zenith whispered.

“No, Paige never was selected. Said the harvest goddess had to be a Farmer.”

“Well, the Queen or Peter had changed that rule due to popular demand, Tyler. Was the person chosen a Farmer?”

“…No. I think it was a Blacksmith daughter. Or maybe his wife? I don’t interact with him or his family.”

“Shit! Tyler, I think Paige is doing an active ritual!” Zenith flustered. This was bad.

Tyler frowned. “No, that’s ridiculous. Why on earth would she do that?”

“BECAUSE WE SAID SHE COULD!” Zenith yelled frantically, trying to get it through Tyler’s head. “WE SAID SHE COULD DO IT! She wasn’t there to see the festival, and we confirmed that everything was the same but it’s not!” Zenith crushed the mana stone, the world around them clearing up.

“What’s wrong?” She turned, Nick, standing right beside them. “I felt the ward. What happened?”

“Paige! She’s doing a ritual!”

“Yeah, we knew she would be. She explained it in great detail, after all, to make sure we were on board with it.” Nick nodded slowly.

“Yes, and I was. Am. But not when she’s performing one! I thought it was just for show!”

“Explain. And are we able to stop it?”

“I thought it was just lip service, celebrating a successful harvest and hope for the next one to be just as successful. Not an actual ritual to bless the land! Tyler, what is she doing now!?” She gasped as she looked toward Paige.

Nick and Tyler turned, though Tyler shrugged when he saw what was happening. “It’s the next part of the dance. The mana stream. You did watch the ceremony last winter…right?”

“I skipped it!”

Tyler paused, worry now in his eyes. “…the chosen harvest goddess releases her mana and dances, making her mana look like a moving river. The bonfire as the sun, the harvest as the land, the mana as the water. Everything you need for a successful harvest.”

“That’s it? Nothing else?” Zenith hoped that was the case, though with Paige…

“…and an appeal to the goddess for a blessed harvest.”

“…which one?” Nick frowned as he thought of which gods it could be.

“Goddess of the Solstice,” Zenith murmured sadly. “Great. Just great.”

“How bad of a ritual is this?”

“…the largest successful one I’ve ever witnessed was a provincial wide blessing. The smallest barely went past the outer city walls or failed.”

“…”

All three of them looked at another. Finally, Tyler spoke up. “This is a problem.”

Turning to the bonfire where Paige was dancing, Zenith thought of all the feasible options. Killing Paige and stopping the ritual midway was out of the question. That left…interfering with the results. “…Tyler. Help me through this. So -“

‘And a left, a left, and a right, right, spin, spin, twirl, twirl-‘ Paige happily thought to herself as she dove deep into her memories.

A harvest festival! She never had the chance to do one as a child, though she had watched her old village mates dance and practice. No one had bothered their small community of people, or at least, none that she could recall with clarity. The innocence of a child. Sure, tensions ran high sometimes but a village grows together.

And by the time she was eligible to do participate as a candidate, she was ill-fatedly whisked away. It was ironic as well that she could barely remember anyone’s face, but she could see the movements in perfect clarity. But that didn’t stop Paige from imitating the dance she saw so very, very long ago.

‘…still, this is pretty tiring, all things considered,’ Paige frowned imperceptibly as her mana started rapidly declining, though it didn’t wipe the smile off her face. ‘Is it supposed to use this much mana? I mean, surely not, right? What Farmer would have this much mana available? I’m practically about to run out of mana soon, and I’m not close to finishing.’

Paige knew without looking that she still had a good quarter of the circle left before she could link up her mana to form the faux-river. Then she realized what had happened. Her affinity. ‘…I’m not absorbing mana fast enough! Most Farmers have an affinity to either earth or nature, otherwise, it’s probably next to impossible for a Farmer to finish this dance successfully!’

That wasn’t good. Paige knew her options were running low. Even if she elongated her movements, she would still run out of mana before she completed the full circuit. She didn’t even dare think about the mana backlash that would occur if she emptied her core fully during the ritual. But that left her with little to no recourse other than…

Divine mana. She had that in literal tonnes, mana capacity wise anyway. Even at her current rate of consumption, it would take her centuries to burn that much mana. Or in her case, being stingy with the remainder of her divine mana had lasted her over a millennium.

Now the question was, would that be a little too conspicuous? Paige thought back to the conditions Zenith had presented her when she started planning the events out. ‘It had to be common practice before she came to Alcudia. No standing out, if possible. Whatever actions must be easily explained.’ Paige quickly ran through the options again, just in case she missed something.

‘I can limit my mana usage by increasing my stride. It’ll make it a bit more messy in the end, but it’s the thought that counts. Self-expression is the best expression; or something like that. So divine mana it is. And at least it’s only the end part.’

Releasing her hold on her mana, she quickly thought of the other mana cloud floating inside her mana core. The golden orb was so dense it was practically solid; the wisps of mana swiftly revolved around itself, keeping itself contained and compressed through sheer force of willpower. Just a wisp or two. Shouldn’t take too much for this one ritual.

With but a thought, a strand of mana quickly broke away, the ends of it mana quickly diffusing as the mana filled her mana core, the pale white of her mana cloud quickly fading into a golden sheen.

But to her horror, she realized that the divine mana was spreading throughout the faux-river, dying the pale mana to the same bright golden hue. ‘Yup, Zenith is going to kill me again. Great. Just great. I try to do one thing and it backfires! Meh!’

“Okay, that’ll be fine. This will be fine. Just gotta finish my movements and end it with a blessing.’

Left, right, spin, spin. Her ceremonial shovel danced around her, the cloud of mana rapidly settling in the air as she moved around the bonfire. She could see a few of the children watching with undisguised glee, though most of the adults had dumbfounded looks instead.

‘Well, the festivals were always magical to me. Hopefully, they’ll have good memories of this one too.’

‘Three. Two. One. And…now!’ Paige quickly spun her shovel before planting it deep in the earth. “May the Goddess shine upon us for the new year. And may our harvest be bountiful! Oh Goddess of the Sun, bless us!

“[[Bounty of the Harvest]]!”

As she yelled the spell, Paige hoped that it would work. This should work. I mean, I used divine mana to power this spell,’ she thought to herself wryly. Not the best use of divine mana, not by far, but you have to adapt to the situation at hand.

Paige could feel the power of the ritual coursing through the spell. The golden glow of her mana enveloped the bonfire and the produce; the mana within multiplying as the farmer’s produce inside disappeared. In its place, a golden globe slowly took its place. She smiled. She knew that the blessing had worked.

Everyone watched in awe as the orb slowly fell to the ground. The ground shuddered as the globe touched the earth, a golden wave of mana surging through the land as the smell of fresh produce could be easily smelled.

“[[Divine Bounty of the Harvest]]”

Paige stilled as she heard a small voice whisper inside her mind.

She looked up and stared straight into Zenith’s twitching eyes. ‘Yup. Deny everything.’

“Zenith! It worked! I finished that ritual without a single hitch!”

Zenith almost passed out after hearing her say that. Of course, Paige would think nothing was wrong with her actions!

She looked at Paige and sighed lightly, though everyone else was still entranced by the orb of mana that was slowly being diffused throughout the ground, waves of mana coursing through the land as swiftly as the ambient mana was moving through the air.

“It’s a ritual spell?”

“Mhmm. It’s designed to bless the land and the fruits of the harvest. I think I did pretty good, all things considering. It should radiate out to at least the nearest defensive line.

‘So basically a province. That’s good. It’s at least in line with a typical blessing then. I was afraid it would be an issue.’ Zenith wavered, though she had to ask. “Gold mana?”

Paige stilled slightly and blushed, something Zenith hadn’t seen her do in a long time. “I ran out of mana partway through. Farmers usually absorb mana to complete the spell, whereas…,” she shrugged. “I can’t do that during the ceremony.”

“Ah,” Zenith understood. Her null affinity had worked against her in this case. ‘Still, that shouldn’t interfere with what we are about to do,’ she thought quickly. A lot of people were now looking at Paige akin to worship, which Paige proudly accepted.

Zenith was about to ask a question when the sound of something peeing was heard quite readily in the silent clearing.

Paige stopped and shakily turned toward the source of the sound.

Zenith almost laughed aloud at the look of horror on Paige’s face.

“BOARY! DON’T PEE ON MY HARVEST BLESSING! YOU’LL RUIN IT!”

The boar was peeing on the orb of mana as it silently disappeared into the ground. Paige practically teleported as she moved next to the boar and kicked it readily outside the clearing, though another distinct wave of mana leaked outward; not as strong as the waves before it but, a unique wave of mana, one Zenith had never felt before.

‘Well, one problem solved. Tyler said animals were never allowed near the site since it could ruin the blessing. I hope that decreased the range the mana wave will go.’

Zenith looked up at the sky while Farmer’s congratulated Paige with her blessing and Emilia walked quickly in her direction.

There were only two things she was sure of: the next harvest was bound to be a good one, and she’d have a lot more explaining to do.

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