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400 Leavers & Stayers

 As Rhode stepped into the room, Christie was seated in front of the easel and carefully portraying a beautiful scenery painting.

The little girl's skills seemed to have improved yet again. At least to Rhode, the sceneries that Christie drew was almost similar to photographs... Or perhaps, more beautiful than photographs. He didn't immediately speak and he chose to quietly observe the little girl from the doorway.

The current Christie was so much different from when Rhode first met her. During those times, her body was weak and haggard. According to Marlene and Lize, Christie was all skin and bones which was a heartbreaking sight for everyone.

Now, with sufficient nutrients and food, Christie's body condition became much better than before. At least she seemed like what a girl of her age should be. However, unknown if she was weak inborn, the development of her body wasn't going on too well. Just look at Anne who was only about one or two years older than her, the maiden had a body that even Marlene and Lize were envious of... Of course, there tend to be differences between all humans.

Rhode had been very busy these few days and to be frank, there wasn't much time for him to accompany Christie. However, this little girl had been obedient and she didn't display any unhappiness. She continued to rest in her room, leisurely painted and read some books. But, all these activities seemed a little too bland for Rhode.

Christie was always serious whenever she's painting and she didn't detect Rhode's presence. On the other hand, Rhode only quietly observed the little girl. Only after a few moments when Christie laid down the painting brush, Rhode stood up and lightly coughed.

Christie curiously turned around and a delightful smile instantly unrolled on the little girl's face at the sight of Rhode.

"... Rhode..."

Christie jumped off the chair and scuttled towards Rhode before diving right into his wide-opened arms. Rhode hugged the little girl's soft body and revealed a gentle smile.

"I'm back, Christie. How have you been?"

"... I'm good..."

Christie hurriedly lifted her head from Rhode's arms and nodded.

"That's good..."

Rhode couldn't help but smiled in response as he extended his arm to gently caressed Christie's long hair.

"All these while I have been busy and I didn't look for you..."

Rhode paused for a moment.

"Christie, I will be leaving here tomorrow to the Land of Atonement. You should also know that the place will be our guild's territory."

"... Yes..."

A trace of disappointment revealed in Christie's eyes, but she still obediently nodded. Rhode was hesitant but he eventually continued.

"But... If you want to go, I can bring you along. But Christie, you need to know that the conditions there are harsh and it wouldn't be as bustling as Deep Stone City. If you don't wish to go, then I wouldn't force you to."

"... Ah..."

Christie's gloomy eyes suddenly flickered. She wanted to give her answer almost immediately but some concerns caused her to ponder for a moment.

"... But... if Christie follows... will I give... Rhode... everyone... more trouble...?"

"Don't worry about this."

Rhode smiled as he shook his head.

"I can guarantee that you wouldn't cause any trouble."

Up until this moment, a smile resurfaced on Christie's face. She looked up towards Rhode and happily nodded.

"... Ok... I want to go. I want to be... with Rhode... and Anne... Sister Marlene... everyone..."

"Sure, since you want to go then we will all welcome you."

Rhode released his hug and scanned the little girl from head to toe with a smile.

"So then, Christie, go get changed. We will have dinner soon. And remember to pack up your stuff okay?"

"... Ok..."

Christie delightfully nodded and swiftly began to pack the sketchpad and paint brushes. On the other hand, Rhode quietly observed the little girl and hopelessly revealed a bitter smile while shaking his head after a few moments, before stepping out of her room.

Rhode had been hesitant of bringing Christie over to the Fortress from the very start because he knew that a year later, there might be a fierce war. However, Rhode was also worried of leaving Christie alone in the stronghold especially after hearing Shauna's report - Rhode wouldn't be so innocent to think that the Southern bastards would only want to simply discuss some business with him. This bunch of bastards definitely were up to no good. Now that Rhode's entire elite forces were shifted towards the Land of Atonement, he didn't have the free time to appoint someone to specially protect Christie. However, this increased the chances of her facing threats. Many people knew that Christie and Rhode had a close relationship. Furthermore, Rhode had always doted on this 'sister' of his. From their exact same looks, it was enough for Christie to be targeted by many opposing forces.

Rhode didn't wish that Christie would end up suffering in the Fortress, but he was also worried about leaving Christie alone. In the end, he decided to let Christie make her own decision. If the girl chose to stay, at most Rhode could send someone to look after her since there's the Summon Gate around. However, if Christie was willing to follow him to the Fortress, then... Rhode would need to work harder.

But that's not a bad thing.

Rhode shook his head with a bitter smile. He descended the steps towards the hallway of the first underground floor.

At this moment, the entire basement was empty with only odd sounds resounded from the hallway. Rhode directly stepped towards a sturdy, locked door and knocked.

Those disorderly noises stopped shortly after and a timid voice sounded.

"Ah, p-please wait, I'm coming!"

Accompanied by this panicky voice behind the door, sounds of clanging could be heard. After a few moments, everything returned to silence. As the door unlocked, it slowly creaked and Lapis appeared before Rhode.

"Ah, S-Sir?"

Lapis was startled and she hurriedly took a few steps backwards. The maiden subconsciously patted off the dust on her clothes before timidly returning her gaze.

"Y-You're back..."

"Yes... Since I've completed the Fortress matters, I have returned to check around."

Rhode curiously looked over Lapis and the state behind her seemed to have just suffered from air strikes.

"What are you doing?"

"Ah, I, I was only doing some research regarding the alchemy of Behermes Family. As for the modifications on the list of magical equipment, I think I have just figured the way of doing it. But I still need to continue experimenting..."

"Alright, we will leave this for later."

Rhode interrupted Lapis' speech with his hand. He knew that although Lapis usually was a timid yes-woman and didn't have her own views, when it's regarding her own profession, she wouldn't stop speaking for at least 30 minutes to an hour. Rhode didn't have the mood and time to listen to her on this topic, which was why he swiftly cut off her words.

"The Fortress there is ready and I want you to pack up now. Bring everything over to the Fortress... Don't worry, I have prepared a specialized alchemy workshop for you. I think you will like it there."

"Alchemy workshop?"

Lapis' eyes instantly glistened by the two keywords. The maiden nodded with might.

"Okay, Sir. No problem, I will get prepared now..."

"Don't forget your dinner soon."

"Of course, Sir, I will not forget!"

Lapis immediately closed the door and scuttled off to get ready. Shortly after, Rhode could hear the usual clanging sounds from behind the door again.

She's really...

Rhode shook his head helplessly and turned around.

As he arrived in the living room on the floor above, Shauna's eyes brightened and she instantly ran to his side.

"S-Sir, you're here at the right time. Someone's here to see you."

"See me? Now?"

Rhode frowned after hearing Shauna's words.

"Who is it?"

"He's Matt, from Silver Libra Trade Association..."

"Oh?" Rhode twitched his brows. "Let him in."