Chapter 26 - Bootstrap

As the teleportation light faded from my vision, I immediately turned back. Half expecting a horde of nutty monsters, I breathed a sigh of relief when instead of monsters, I was surrounded by opulent NPCs. If the tropes were to be believed, it would be one king or another begging us to go fight a demon lord or some such.

I noticed the glow dimming from the circle of Runes beneath my feet. I discreetly aimed an Identify at the whole motif. A window of "Summoning Circle" appeared.

'Interesting... Runes are individual constructs, and multiple Runes can be connected to form a "Circle". Not unlike using singular functions in the main program. I will have to individually check each Rune later, perhaps it can help me in teleporting back home.'

I left it at that, deciding to inspect the NPCs instead. 'Here I thought my robes were high class. Their clothes make ours look like low-end casual wear.' And their clothes suited their alluring faces. All the men were statuesque, and women bewitching. Honestly, I was starting to feel a bit envious.

I felt one of them looking at me fixedly. She was right behind the one who I assumed was in charge. She quickly averted her eyes, a slight blush coloring her cheeks. 'Cute. Considering these are NPCs, the level of details is approaching creepy! If I was back home, I would not have been able to distinguish them from real humans.'

Soon, the NPC in charge walked forward. I hoped he won't drone on - I had no MP, barely any SP, and around a third of HP remaining.

"Heroes, welcome!" 'Oh, so we are heroes from the get-go then? That saves some trouble.'

"I am Siegfried Von Lohengramm, head of clan Lohengramm and current leader of the Clan Council." 'Clan Council? Not a King or an Emperor?'

He stopped for a breath, perhaps hoping his words held significance to us. I had no clue though. None of my companions spoke either.

"Please, do not worry, everyone here is an ally. These are my peers and fellow members of the Council. Our representatives will lead you to your rooms to take care of subsistence and repose." 'Oh, done already? Good.'

Thankfully, the guy ended his speech quickly. I bet he took pity on us. 'I ain't complaining, food and rest sound like heaven right now!'

As soon as he said that, a young girl NPC from the side latched onto Taro. Another guy came and conversed with Julie. I noticed some hesitation from the remaining two women when the other ran to Divin. The one who stared at me earlier walked towards me with a bland face.

"Greetings sir," she said - bending down and picking up her flowing purple gown slightly, "I'm princess Francisa Von Lohengramm, at your service. May I have the pleasure of knowing your name?"

'Oh... A princess NPC?' I was a bit surprised. I assumed we were summoned by a cult, given the introduction by "clan head", but there was actually a princess here. 'Another thing to investigate, if time permits.' I directed a discreet Identify in her direction.

[???] Princess - Level ???

'What the shit? Oh damn, she is waiting for my reply.'

"I'm Pat. Nice to meet ya. Guess you're stuck with me, eh?" I joked, hoping to break the ice a bit. 'Just how high leveled is she?'

She let her gown go and took an unwavering posture, giving off a smile that didn't reach her eyes. 'This is not approaching creepy, it totally is. This NPC is giving me the stink-eye!'

"Oh no. It is an honor, sir... Pat. Please, follow me. I shall guide you to your room." she said coldly. 'Is this supposed to happen? Isn't the princess supposed to fawn over the heroes?'

I looked at our group. Taro was already being escorted off by the young girl... 'Princess', probably to his room. The rest, however, exchanged unspoken words with each glance. 'Looks safe, should follow the NPCs for now.'

¤ ¤ ¤

'Ah, I had forgotten how good hot water feels against the skin! Especially when you are exhausted.'

Lazing about in the bath, I almost forgot that I was inside a simulation. The bath felt magical indeed, relieving the tension I did not know I held. As much as I would have liked to, however, I could not stay in there forever. Eventually, the water turned cold and I got out dripping the remnant drops on the marble floor. I wiped the moisture off and put on the loose clothes left by one of the maids. 'I wonder what's for dinner?' I hummed a merry tune as I got back into my room.

I slowly opened the door, then stopped right there, stunned for a moment at the sight. The princess NPC had changed clothes! Now wearing a silky black night-gown that barely reached her knees, she arranged the plates and laid some food for us both. My sight wandered over her body for quite a while, since she hadn't noticed me yet. Her attention was not on the task at hand, lost in her own world. I watched with silent mirth as a circus of emotions passed her beautiful face. A moment of apprehension, another of determination. A slight shame here, a bit of sadness there. Some excitement, some shyness. So much realism, that for a moment my mirth turned into pity. Her attire, behavior, sentiments - hell, her very presence left me in no doubt of her purpose here.

'Doesn't this part come later, typically at the end?'

And yet in the reversal of common lore, here stood this young woman, a few years younger than me. I did not know why she was doing this, but I was pretty sure she did not fall for me in the few minutes that we talked and walked. Whatever her circumstances were, I myself was a bit alarmed about the whole situation. It would've felt just right in a dream; in the real world (or as real as this simulation could get), I had other concerns. First, I had great reservations about such an obviously reluctant offer. Second, I doubted there was any protection method present. I did not want to catch anything nor leave anything behind. My decision made, I coughed lightly to bring her attention back from the clouds.

She looked up startled, almost dropping a dollop of porridge-like stuff on the table. 'Hmm... Even the reactions are exceptionally life-like. I wonder what manner of data-structures are driving these? There's surely an ML layer behind all this, perhaps even multiple pseudo-intelligent overseer AIs like Betty.'

I drove the thought of Betty out of my mind. 'This gorgeous NPC princess demands your focus right now!' I mentally reeled myself. I had to take care of how I interacted with them; for all I knew, my words and actions could also affect the main storyline like several other games from back home.

"Sir Pat, forgive my presumption. I was hoping to dine with you tonight if it so pleases you," she lay the spoon down and curtsied again. Given her awkward stance though, I realized it was more out of habit or nervousness than anything else. She flustered a bit, hands clutching air instead of non-existent skirts. I pretended at having not seen her dither, instead smiled and said, "Of course, it would be my honor to dine with you."

Saying so, I took my seat. I was pretty sure that I was being rude in some way. She gripped her length on her gown and pressed it downwards, hoping to cover her legs some more perhaps. Instead, the action emphasized another part, rather parts, of herself. Fiddly as can be, she dragged the chair back and sat herself down. 'Oh shoot, was I supposed to do that?'

I mentally kicked myself for missing that. My hunger soon brought my attention back to the plate though. Sure, I never starved in the Tutorial, but I had gone for a month without food. It had left a void in my heart. And stomach. The roasted chicken and mashed potatoes in butter were simply paradise. I left the supposed porridge aside - too sweet. Sips of wine instead? Just right.

We ate dinner in silence. I was indeed curious about many things, but it could wait. The food demanded and deserved my full attention. I did not know what the princess ate, or if she had at all, but she was done before I was. As I wiped my plate clean and gave a sigh of satisfaction with a rub over my tight belly, I felt sweet fatigue wash over me.

I excused myself from the table and went to wash off, assuming the maids would clean the table off later. Then immediately jumped into bed and dragged the covers on my prone form, ready to sleep the night away. 'The princess should get a clue with this.' It was damn cold, and that was okay. It felt right somehow, after enduring the same temperature daily for a month.

¤ ¤ ¤

My elation did not last for long. The maid did not come to clean up the table. Neither did the princess make herself scarce. No, she did the exact opposite. She slid herself under the covers.

I was flabbergasted. Never have I ever been in a situation where a pretty lady came on to me so strongly and I wanted nothing of it. Thankfully, she kept her hands to herself.

"S-Sir Pat, I..." she stuttered in a morose whisper. She jumped into my bed and then got cold feet? NPC or not, I was starting to feel sympathy for her. I opened my eyes and looked into her deep blue ones. So caught in her melancholic beauty was I that for a moment I forgot to breathe. Only for a moment though, as I spoke up:

"I'm sorry, princess. I've been fighting monsters practically non-stop for a whole month. Normally, you would see me act very differently, so don't take this as a fault on your part. I am simply burned out and want to sleep." I said, hoping my words were kind yet firm. I saw a mixture of relief and disappointment on her face, quickly hidden behind a mask of understanding. 'Girl, make up your mind already. You are making me feel indecisive, and I have already made my decision!'

"I understand. Please accept my apologies and forgive my forwardness!" she asserted, sliding out of the bed. "I shall come at sunrise tomorrow. I hope sir Pat has a restful night."

"Um... Yes. Goodnight." I felt a bit guilty about throwing her out. I wasn't kidding about the burn-out though, I was asleep within a minute after she was gone.

¤ ¤ ¤

I woke up just before dawn. The window was facing my bed, so the pre-dawn light made its way right onto my snoring face. I forcefully opened my eyes, as the sun peaked over the window-still, gathering my thoughts over the events of the previous day.

A light knock brought me out of my stupor. I removed the dirt from my eyes and sat up in bed. "Come on in!" I responded and in came the princess and a maid. The maid cleaned the tabled and left a jar of water there, moving on to draw a bath.

"Good morning, sir Pat!" the princess greeted. I could see her resolve remade, blue eyes bright like the sky outside was turning into. Even her dress was an odd mix of blue folds and pink frills. 'The nightgown suits her figure better,' I appraised thoughtfully.

"Morning, princess!" I greeted back. We tactfully skipped over last night's misadventures. "Here to have breakfast?" I asked.

"Yes, if sir Pat doesn't mind my company?" she said. I replied an affirmative and she signal another maid, who was presumably standing outside waiting for the order, to lay out the food.

I got out of the bed and drank deeply from the jar, making my way towards the washroom. Yes, with sleep and food, the other parts of my anatomy had kick-started as well. The mechanism itself was, from a distance at least, no different than a modern commode. Get close and you'd notice that it was actually a proper chair with a hole in the center. Closer still and you'd notice all the Runes decorating it inside and out. I Identified at least three different disinfection Circles.

Soon after finishing my business, I made my way to the bath after the earlier maid vacated, just in time to see a Rune fizzle out in the water. 'A temporary heat Rune? I've learned more about Runes in the last 24 hours than the entire previous month!' Cursing the futility of the Tutorial and not loitering long like last night, I quickly made my way towards breakfast, sitting in front of the beaming princess.

"I shall show sir Pat around the palace grounds after breakfast, then we shall attend to the throne room for lunch with the other heroes and clan heads," she laid out my agenda like it was natural, "if sir Pat obliges, I would like to give a small tour of the noble quarters in the evening as well." I wondered how the nights of the rest of my fellow test-subjects had been. 'Guess we'll talk at lunch directly.'

"Sounds like a plan. And, uh, call me Pat. Just Pat." I chuckled. Mixing "sir" with my nickname and coming out the mouth of a princess felt quite odd.

"If it pleases you si- Pat. I would appreciate it if you called me Francisa as well," she grinned back.

"Will do, Francisa. So, I was wondering, and do forgive me if I offend in some way, but you are a princess, right? Are there kings and queens as well? How do the clan and their head factor in the hierarchy?" I questioned after chewing a mouthful of fresh bread.

She looked up at me from her own loaf, collecting her thoughts. I could feel her getting ready for a lecture. "Our ancestors were actually the ones who were kings and queens. Clan Lohengramm had a kingdom once, back when my grandfather was but a child. Circumstances, however, forced us to gather here. All the families you met yesterday were of royal blood, but none of our kingdoms exist anymore. Nor do we have space or resources to form any on this continent. Hence, we formed a new way of governance. Royal families became clans, and we rule this part of the human lands with the Clan Council, a congregation of former royals. Being called princess is just a vestige of lost time."

I wonder what these "circumstances" actually were. I was torn between my brain insisting that these "people" weren't truly real and my heart tugging at the extremely vivid depiction of sadness that veiled this pretty girl's face. I slapped myself mentally - 'the princess was monologuing her clan's story and current affairs, I should be paying attention.' I was hanging on to her every word, unwilling to miss even the slightest detail.

And so our breakfast continued, merrily discussing seemingly trite matters, the dark memories of last night's incident long forgotten.

Interlude - Royal Duty
Chapter 27 - Lay of Land