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  1. Sweet Labor
  3. Tags: m/f, bureaucracy, transformation, sappy holiday spirit.
  5. The Monster Girl Encyclopedia is the property of Kenkou Cross, but he has generously given permission for other authors to fold, spindle, and mutilate his work. Which I have done. Any relationship between characters in this work and real persons, dead or alive, is entirely coincidental - aside from St. Valentine, that is, which I can’t get away from because it’s a Valentine’s Day fic. Although he may not be a real person.
  7. Also Terni is a real city in Italy which I have shamelessly dragged into the MGE world. If I caught anyone, I’m sorry.
  8. ____________________________________________________
  10. “Philip! Get your lazy ass in here!”
  12. Filippo’s ass may indeed have been lazy, but the rest of him wasn’t: as the command was shouted into the stifling air of the second-floor scribery, one of his hands was fanning out the papers in front of him, his eyes searching for the important information on each page, as his other hand deposited the knife back in its drawer and went searching for his stamp bundle. As the shout passed over him, he banged his hand into the side of his drawer, cursed, and put the papers back in order with the first stamp on top of them, then crawled off the crowded bench, stretched slightly, and headed to the Direttora’s personal room with his heart in his throat. She spoke Lengani as well as he, so the Common was a bad sign…
  14. “I said get your - oh, there you are. Took you long enough.” Direttora Francine Clarke sniffed at him. “I’m taking you off the Plaza del Marigno stuff, and anything on the waterfront you haven’t started yet. You can finish up the rest of those in your spare time, it’s just paperwork now.”
  16. Filippo brushed his unkempt brown hair back with a hand, trying to hide his nervousness. The comment about spare time at least implied that he’d still be here, but why was the Direttora taking him off almost all of his current projects? Fortunately, he didn’t have long to wait for an answer, as his boss found the set of files she’d been looking for and dumped a huge mass of parchment on her desk with a thump.
  18. “Here.”
  20. His eyes widened. He’d heard about this, of course, but never expected to get that particular case. His mouth opened, and he managed to clamp down on the first three or four things that tried to come out, instead producing a weak “Why me in particular?”
  22. Direttora Clarke just sniffed, glared at him, and tapped a particular section on the top page. At moments like that she reminded him uncomfortably of the nun-teachers he’d had in primary school; rumor said she’d been a priestess in the Order Lands before emigrating here. Given some of her habits he could believe it. He took a closer look at the front page, his eye catching the applicant’s name - “Iolanthe of Echidna”. Well, that explained the sniff and glare…
  24. “Ah.” Now this made sense, at least… he sounded much more cheerful as he went on. “You need someone to check the construction spells they’re using, which wasn’t officially part of the contract. Fabio’s held up with that broken leg, and Gerhard -“ He broke off. No need to explain why Gerhard Kreust, notorious monster-hater, didn’t want this contract, prestigious client or no. He might have been less… vocal about it, but he was just as much a Purist as Clarke was.
  26. Filippo sometimes wondered why devoutly-religious people would hold on to a tenet of their upbringing when their God had specifically spoken against it, but… that showed you what some people considered important, he guessed.
  28. “Indeed.” Clarke looked at him flatly. “Just… do your job, Berzetti. I don’t need any trouble from this. Get going.”
  30. Filippo nodded, and scooted backwards out of the office at high speed.
  31. __________________________________________
  33. Filippo stepped outside the building and promptly plowed through a swarm of illusionary pink hearts. He turned and leveled his best chastising look at the girls in the window, which wasn’t too good - they just giggled back at him. Well, he supposed they could be preparing for a part in the festivities.
  35. He walked down the road, pausing only to pick up some breadsticks from one of the street vendors. He munched idly on one as he came to the main thoroughfare, the Via Angelico, and turned to look out over the city… you could see quite a bit of it from this vantage point, from the Castello just above him all the way down to the docks in the bay. They were emptier than he was used to, but the city was just as vibrant and busy - more so, even.
  37. He ignored the Large Mouse scampering for an alley as he approached. He’d long since gotten used to the monsters; they’d been in the city for six years now, since the end of the Demon War - well, officially. Unofficially they’d been around quite a bit longer, from what he understood.
  39. He hadn’t been quite as blasé in the first few months, but by now the only ones who he reacted to were the unusually large or imposing ones, like the Zipangese centipede-girl who was scuttling down most of the other side of the street, accompanied by two ordinary-looking human women - though he didn’t have to concentrate hard to see the ephemeral fox-ears on one of them.
  41. As he relaxed from where he’d been pressed against the nearby house, he finished off the last breadstick and set off at a higher turn of speed. He really shouldn’t be lazing around on the job, after all. No, he reflected, the ones that he noticed were the old acquaintances who were suddenly walking around sporting horns and hooves. You always wondered - had they always been monsters and just hid it in the unfriendly political climate, or had they chosen to change later?
  43. “Filippo! Hey, Filippo!”
  45. Filippo turned, wondering who would be looking for him out here. The voice was that of a young boy, about seven or eight by the looks of him; a fresh breeze brought a floral scent to his nostrils as the boy pulled up in front of him, panting and sweating. “Don’t move so fast, okay? I can’t catch up with you!” The boy ran a hand through his pink hair and straightened up.
  47. Filippo gaped. He did know who this ‘boy’ was.
  49. “Oh, my apologies, milord Bellincioni. How can I help you?”
  51. The dark-skinned boy waved a hand at him. “I keep telling you, I don’t do milords. Call me Ajmal~ Anyway, you’ve already got the
  52. Echidna dungeon case file, right?”
  54. He nodded, not at all surprised that mil- that is, Ajmal knew about his latest assignment already. Even with his apparent age he didn’t look like a particularly shrewd individual, but the Houri had been married to Terni’s High Priestess of Eros for over a century now. With the Priestess in question being in charge of one of the goddess’s most holy sites, that meant she was by default a major political player in the city - and the real religious leader, too, even if the Archbishop in the Cattedrale might dispute it. “I have, yes, m- sir Ajmal. Would you happen to know something about it that you’d like to tell me?”
  56. Ajmal made a face at him. “Well, it’ll do, but you really don’t need the honorifics, I promise! Anyway, it’s not just getting the wrong person assigned to them or anything, but the place has been having some problems. I was hoping you could… help them out a little while you were there, if you know what I mean…”
  58. Filippo’s blood ran cold. Yes, having a source of patronage as Ajmal seemed to be implying would be a major improvement to his job and status, but… there were limits. There had to be. “…You - aren’t suggesting that I falsify the City reports, are you? I don’t think -“
  60. The Houri looked blank for a moment, then alarmed, shaking his hands wildly at the clerk. “Oh, no! No no no, nothing like that. It’s just… well, honestly - “ his blush was hard to see on his dark-skinned face, but Filippo could tell it was there. “If you happened to see anything wrong, it would be nice if you could point it out to them, get them to correct it, not just write them off and deny them their permits. I know they’ve been having some problems getting paperwork done, they’re not used to the bureaucracy here…”
  62. Ah. Well, it would be more work, possibly quite a bit more if things were as bad as the angel of Eros seemed to be implying, but at least it was something he could do within the bounds of his morals. Filippo breathed a sigh of relief as he replied, “Certainly, m- Ajmal. I know this project is important to the Church; I’ll see to it that things there smooth out a bit, then.”
  64. Ajmal nodded, looking much happier as his pink ribbons bounced behind him - or maybe they were part of his body, Filippo had never been entirely sure. “Thank you. I’m sure the Goddess will smile upon you, too.” He turned and went skipping off down a side street; Filippo stood for a moment longer before shaking himself and striding purposefully down the next few blocks.
  66. It looked like he had his work cut out for him. After a few more steps, he started whistling…
  67. __________________________________________
  69. Filippo caught the sounds of hammering, drilling and nailing from some distance away. He’d actually been concentrating on his more arcane senses, expecting the telltale thrumming of earth magic to be easier to pick up, but he hadn’t yet - either they hadn’t started the more magical work, or they were keeping their power well under control.
  71. As he got closer, though, he began to sense a certain discord in the background noise, one that became greater as he got still closer and began making out the voices. That was a little too much argument to be going on at once…
  73. Several wagons, laden with decorations and sugary supplies, rumbled up the street past him as he came to the newly-cleared two-block-square lot where Terni’s latest large construction job was located. He had to admit, the feast-day preparations were always intense, even more so these days, but this was the first he’d heard of someone constructing an entire building for it - much less one that was mostly underground!
  75. He walked past the sketchy outer gate, looking at the interior. There didn’t seem to be any security guards, and the laborers working around the area, mostly Mamono, were -
  77. “Hey hey hey! What are you doing here, scrawny guy?”
  79. Ah. There were guards, or at least a guard: she’d simply been lounging against an interior wall rather than standing watch outside, although given how narrow the street was she may have had a point. The menacing-looking spidergirl did take up quite a lot of space, after all.
  81. Filippo had his documentation ready, though. “I’m Signor Filippo Berzetti, from the Officio dell’Edifica e - “ He broke off when he realized the Mamono in front of him - he thought the name for her species was ‘Ushi-Oni’ - probably barely spoke Lengan if at all. “From the Office of Buildings and Property. I’m here to inspect the, ah - “ his eyes flickered to the painted wooden sign leaning up against the wall. “‘Love-Love Dungeon’ to make sure it meets the city building codes, and won’t fall down when you use it or anything.”
  83. “Pft. I hope it doesn’t, I have to be in there as a monster.” The Mamono looked over his documentation, then gave him a hungry look. “Want to blow that off and go -“
  85. Filippo drew himself up. “No. I have a job to do. Can you tell me where your boss is?” He was sweating buckets internally, but he’d learned that you had to show no fear when a Mamono was in hunting mode. He’d been raped twice before he’d figured out that lesson.
  87. “Aw, suit yourself. And she’s probably somewhere in the back.” The Ushi-Oni waved a vague pedipalp somewhere in the vicinity of a group of tents, or possibly underneath them, then stalked back to the wall and picked up a flagpole.
  89. Well, he thought, that wasn’t very helpful. Still, he might as well look around and see what he could find.
  90. ________________________________________________
  92. An hour and a half later, Filippo was becoming increasingly worried. Not so much by the construction itself - there was no sign of slipshod work or corner-cutting, although there were signs that some things hadn’t been properly pre-planned and had to be bashed into shape later - but by the fact that he’d talked to over twenty workers now, and still had no better idea of how to find the project lead. He had a description in his files of the construction company’s boss, a Signora Yvette Maeda, but he’d seen no sign of her - and a seven-foot tall blue-skinned woman ought to be easy enough to find even without the horns.
  94. He’d also fended off four more passes, although none as forceful as the first, thank Hermes. He supposed they could smell his lack of girlfriend or wife, but it wasn’t as if he could acquire such a thing on short notice…
  96. He paused, and caught up with his ears registering a surprising sound: the rhythmic clang of a blacksmith’s hammer. Was someone making spare parts on-site? Curious, he skipped down the next two doors on the corridor, turning in at the third to look at the room.
  98. There was a full blacksmith’s shop set up in the large room - he could see various pieces of apparatus, bellows, furnace, large chimney leading to a piece of glowing stone rather than outside - he could feel air magic coming from it - a bed of glowing coals, and an anvil. The woman leaning over it was working on - was that a sword? It shone oddly in the room’s reddish light, but he could clearly see the silhouette of a horn on her forehead and a bluish skin tone. And she seemed taller than he was…
  100. He coughed. “Miss Maeda, I presume?”
  102. The woman froze briefly, then struck the sword twice more before putting the hammer aside and looking at him. As she picked up a rag to wipe her hands, his heart sank: now that he got a better look at her, her skin tone was lighter than the Blue Oni’s, and she only had a single horn in the middle of her forehead.
  104. And one eye, which was now blatantly obvious.
  106. “Oh, are you looking for the Boss? I’m sorry, she’s not here.” The Cyclops strode forward tentatively, holding out a hand. “I’m Audrey Jumal, our resident artisan. Are you a new employee, or looking to be hired or something?”
  108. “Ah, no.” Filippo ran a hand through his brown - now slightly dusty - hair and continued. “I’m Filippo Berzetti, your new building inspector. Sorry about the two guys who were here briefly, we had a hard time figuring out what skill set we needed…”
  110. Audrey’s eye widened, and she looked him up and down. “Ah! I see. And you’re supposed to meet with Yvette to go over the project…” She thought for a moment. “That… may be a problem. She’s out most of the day, and most of the time she spends here she’s talking over modifications with Iolanthe or fucking her boyfriend. The Echidna’s kind of, um, snobbish I’m afraid, and I don’t think you want to walk in on her in flagrante delicto…”
  112. Filippo coughed. “I’d rather not, yes. I’ve already walked in on six couples today…” That was a facet of life with monsters he’d never gotten used to, though admittedly it wasn’t anywhere near as common as certain people claimed. “I can manage the patroness, though. I do have Ducal authority to be here. If there’s no better option, interrupting those two would be better. If I may ask -“
  114. Audrey raised her eyebrow and nodded.
  116. “Why isn’t Miss Maeda here most of the time? I’d expect her to be constantly checking up on her employees’ work…”
  118. The Cyclops sighed. “Boss… isn’t good with that kind of thing. She’s a great architect and an incredible Earth mage, but… paperwork and organizational charts drive her down the wall. We had an Anubis, her second-in-command basically, who did that job very well…”
  120. “Had?”
  122. “Yeah, until about three days before we started on the Dungeon. Then she got a letter from home ordering her to return at top speed, and it had some kind of geas reinforcing it… she barely got to explain what was going on before she dashed off to the portal and vanished. I have no idea if we’ll ever get her back or not.”
  124. “Ouch!” Filippo winced at the thought of losing one of your best employees like that. “Could be almost any reason for that, what with the stuff going on in the Pharaonic Kingdoms.”
  126. Audrey shrugged and went on. “The reason Yvette’s not here most of the time is that she’s out in the city, interviewing people for the position and searching her contacts to see if they know anyone who might be good for the job. Unfortunately, while there’s lots of people coming in to the city right now, they’re mostly not looking for work.”
  128. “I’ll say.” Filippo leaned back against the rough stone wall and spread his hands. “Either they’ve already found a job here with the preparations, or they’re pilgrims for the festival.”
  130. The Cyclops raised her eyebrow again. “‘Pilgrims’?”
  132. The clerk shook a finger back at him. “Matrimony is a holy sacrament of Lady Eros. It seems appropriate to use the term for all of them, whether they’re seeking the spiritual aid of the saint or just looking to tie the knot.”
  134. Audrey grinned at him, looking much more energetic. “Yeah, I suppose so. Anyway…” She looked down at the sword, and then at the pile of blacksilver bars stacked in one corner. “I’ve got some stuff I still have to finish today, but once I’ve got this lot done, I could take some time to show you around. I know where all the plans are and so forth, and it’d let you get started without Yvette here, right?”
  136. Filippo closed his eyes and thought. That wasn’t… quite regular, but it was better than anything else he’d be able to do. And Lord Bellincioni had said to help them any way he could…
  138. “That would work nicely, Miss Jumal. Is there anything I can help you with beforehand?”
  139. ___________________________________________
  141. “So over here we’ve got the trap sections. You can see, we didn’t actually use any wood in the spikes at all… these are all Makai Silver, there’s no way they can hurt anyone.”
  143. Filippo nodded, taking a look at the blueprints for the trap as he looked at the floor ahead of him. He was actually rather impressed; even the spring work and gears were all blacksilver, with no wooden or base metal components that might possibly fly out and injure someone. And the stone itself - he leaned forward, concentrating - had been spelled against uncontrolled shattering. It really was an impressive piece of work.
  145. He wasn’t going to need any of his magical energy today, so he decided on a whim to test them. Sticking his bare hand on the stone was enough to cause one of the spikes to stick out, causing a slight drain in his magical energy where it poked through his flesh. He moved his hand back and forth, marveling at the odd pricking sensation (and trying to ignore that there was a metal spike moving back and forth through his hand at the same time.)
  147. “Huh - you’ve got a fair amount of energy. Are you a retired hero or something?”
  149. Filippo looked up in surprise at the Cyclops. “Hm? No, no, nothing like that. Just a young man from a good family.” If not, admittedly, good enough to make his problems go away by leaning on them…
  151. Audrey looked at him curiously, then looked away again, blushing slightly. She suddenly slapped her hand to one of the pouches at her waist.
  153. “Admittedly, I’m also -“
  155. “Oh, that’s right. I -“
  157. Both began talking at the same moment, and broke off at the same moment so they could hear each other. After an awkward moment, Filippo motioned to her to go on.
  159. “Ah, I have some parts I need to install while I’m down here, I hope you don’t mind my taking the time. Um, if I can ask, what were you about to say?”
  161. “No, no problem.” He waved the girl forward, watching as she bent down in front of a heavy stone slab. From the blueprints it was supposed to serve as a sliding door to the final chamber where the Echidna lay in wait. “I was saying, I’m also a devotee of Hermes. I got most of my magical training at his temples, in Vecchio and here. I’m not an actual priest, or a mystery follower or anything, but… he might have given me some protection against magic loss, anyway. I’ve never actually been hit with a blacksilver weapon before, so I don’t know if I’m more resistant to them or what.”
  163. Audrey looked up. “Black- oh, you mean Makai Silver.” She finished installing some kind of brass chain and tugged on it, watching the slab rise up a few inches. “I don’t know, I’m not much of a theologian - or magical theoretician, at that. Lady Iolanthe isn’t in there now, do you want to go in and inspect the place?”
  165. “We probably should, yes.”
  167. “Stand back, then~” Audrey pulled the large brass lever nearby, which Filippo noted had been disguised as a torch-sconce, and the door rumbled upward into the ceiling.
  169. The room inside was notably larger than the rest - high enough to go up two stories, it was actually under a different lot than the Dungeon was officially built on. It didn’t run into any sewer lines or geomancy networks, though, and they had the proper permits and approvals for it - Filippo had already seen them in the files, along with some comments from his predecessors about how unusual it was for something like that.
  171. It was also elaborately carved on every surface, which hadn’t been in the blueprints. Some of it seemed to be meaningless runes - at least, they weren’t any alphabet he was familiar with - but the rest was clear enough, and he spend some time entranced by the figures of heroic women and naked, alluring men until Audrey’s cough behind him reminded him that he had a job to do.
  173. He bowed his head and began reciting silently. Hermes, great in alchemy, astrology, and wonder-working, grant me Your sight that I may see. Before his eyes, the reinforcing lines of Earth magic that underlay the entire structure were revealed in amber light, and he traced them up to the dome at the top, checking the plans to make sure everything was where it was supposed to be.
  175. One section seemed somewhat out of place, and letting the sight fade, he motioned to Audrey as he walked to the back right-hand section of the circular room. The soft sound of a chisel sounded from there - he hadn’t heard it before, so there must have been a sound-dampening effect as well - and when he got closer, he saw an ant-girl busily chipping away at a frieze of a snake-haired woman and vine-haired man.
  177. “Hey, Kipti.” The Giant Ant didn’t look up, but waved her feelers in a vague sort of acknowledgement. Audrey turned to look back at Filippo. “Is there something wrong?”
  179. “Yes, the reinforcement over here seems to be a bit out of place -“ From here, though, even the remnants of his sight could see the ant-girl’s own Earth magic, held in her chisel and clawed hands. “Ah. Is that just because she’s working here?”
  181. Audrey’s eye went out of focus for a moment. “Maybe, but it doesn’t matter. We’ll be going over all the reinforcement again once the decorations and adjustments are done. We use enough Earth magic that leaving the same spells up through all the work would degrade them far too much to be useful.”
  183. Filippo nodded, making some notes on the file.
  185. “Anyway, was there anything else you needed to -“
  187. “A-hem.” The two of them whirled, to see a snake-haired woman with lavender scales slither in through the door. “I was planning on relaxing here for a while, so if you could clear out that would be good. Oh hey, Jumal. This your young man?”
  189. As the Giant Ant put her chisel in a bag and scurried off, Audrey and Filippo looked at each other, startled, then blushed, looked away, and began stammering. After a moment, Audrey managed to collect herself enough to issue a competent denial.
  191. “Oh, alright. What are you doing here, then?” She didn’t sound angry, but Filippo had learned that it was always best to answer the questions of nobles quickly. He pulled out his identification and gave her his best court bow.
  193. “Signor Filippo Berzetti, milady. I’m a servant of His Grace Duca Roncalli, here in Terni to inspect Maeda Construction’s efforts on your behalf. I was, ah, just admiring the artwork -“
  195. “Oh, it’s quite wonderful~” Iolanthe waved a hand as she slithered into the pile of cushions near the center of the room. “But I’m sure you can come back and do that some other time. I’d like to be alone right now.”
  197. “Certainly, milady.” The two of them spoke in unison, bowed, and retreated out of the room, Audrey lowering the lever and door back into place. Filippo let out a short sigh once he was positive he wouldn’t be heard.
  199. “Hey, she doesn’t go around berating people and she’s paying us great. We can put up with a client like that.” Audrey grinned at him.
  201. “So, where to next?”
  202. _____________________________
  204. He’d been correct the first time. The entire bottom floor of the dungeon wasn’t done yet, and for reasons not entirely clear to him half of B2 wasn’t carved out either. There was going to be quite a bit more magic being flung around, and he’d need to be examining the dungeon as a whole fairly closely for the rest of the construction period. Admittedly it was only eight more days, but…
  206. As they came up the stairs to the ground floor, he saw two Mamono workers, a Werecat and a Giant Slug, arguing and pulling at something each of them was carrying - it looked like a sign of some sort. Audrey swore under her breath.
  208. “‘Scuse me, I ought to go take care of that. Give me a moment…” As she walked off Filippo took the opportunity to look around the upper levels. It looked as if the building that would be constructed over the underground tunnels and rooms was fairly normal, two stories with two short towers at the back - nothing unusual for Terni, although he wasn’t sure they’d have enough time to get it up before the festival, even with the amount of magic they were throwing around. Audrey walked back to him and sighed.
  210. “And neither of them were right. I sent Juu off to find the Hornet who's doing sign work… dammit.” She sat down on a low block of stone and rubbed her forehead around the horn.
  212. “Having your organization person out is really hurting you, I take it… do you think you can get done in time?”
  214. Audrey looked up at him. “I… hope so. It’s going to be really close, though…” She sounded more worried than the words let on, though.
  216. Filippo sat down next to her, thinking. He was going to have to be around here most of the time anyway… and it was obvious where the missing piece was. It would be a great deal of time spent around amorous monstergirls, too - Audrey had tried to direct them around the worst areas, but they’d still stumbled over two copulating couples, in one case literally.
  218. Still. Putting the thought of enough prestige to have Direttora Clarke fired at the front of his mind, he opened his mouth and spoke. “Would you like me to help with the organization? I have all the information I’d need to do that, and I’m going to be around here anyway -“
  220. Audrey gaped at him, her eye going wide. “But - aren’t you the city inspector? Doesn’t that go against your job?”
  222. Filippo shrugged. “Not really. It takes time, yes, but with the way this project is set up I have to be here most of the time anyway. If I can eat with your crew, I’ll have enough spare time to help. And…” he coughed. “Let’s just say that some of the city notables have let me know they’d really like this place to succeed.”
  224. “Oh.” Audrey sat back, subdued and looking down. “Politics. I see.” She smiled slightly. “Well, if it works in our favor… I’ve got an idea. Can you meet me here tomorrow morning at second bell?”
  225. _______________________________________
  227. Filippo showed up early for work the next morning, which fortunately was before the Direttora got in for once (unusual, for all her faults she was something of an early bird.) Gerhard was there, though, looking unusually grumpy, as were a few of the underclerks.
  229. “Hm? Do you need something, Filippo?” Gerhard asked as the younger man walked over to him.
  231. “Just getting my files together. I was hoping I could get one of the locked cases, I’m worried about some of my files being rifled through or stolen while I’m on site.”
  233. “I don’t see why not. What misbegotten site did you - oh, right.” Gerhard looked even more sour, but he strode into Clarke’s office without complaint and returned shortly with a locked briefcase and a key. “Take care out there. Those bitches might do anything to you.”
  235. “I’ll be careful.” Filippo nodded at him - he was a reasonable coworker, even if he shared his boss’s prejudices - and then went to his own desk to gather the remaining papers he’d stored there. With any luck he’d have time to do the remaining paperwork on the waterfront properties, in between his other two jobs.
  237. On the way out he noticed a small crowd of Mamono hanging around the building, probably why Gerhard had been looking sour. He was prepared for the wolf-whistle from the Hellhound, but the other three were snickering at him for some reason. Suddenly uncertain of himself, he tore his eyes away from the Succubus and headed to the dungeon site.
  238. _________________________________________
  240. Audrey gestured to him, one finger on her lips, and they remained outside the tent for a moment. Filippo wasn’t sure why, he couldn’t hear a thing from inside and doubted anyone was in there. After a moment they went through.
  242. He blinked, and realized that there were two people inside. This tall, blue, horned girl couldn’t be anyone other than Yvette Maeda, and she was topless - although wearing thick denim jeans. Her boyfriend was less dressed than she was, but he wasn’t doing anything more lewd than giving her a massage. Filippo’s face burned anyway - he couldn’t hear anything outside the tent, even though the hammers were going full tilt, and he belatedly realized the sound-proofing spell must have kept their cries of passion from reverberating over the camp.
  244. “So you’re Filippo, huh? Nice to meet you.” Yvette held out her hand, unconcerned by her state of undress. Filippo shook it - he’d dealt with Mamono wearing less. “I understand you’ve offered to help us with some organizational matters while we’re here. That’ll be a huge help. …Damn, but I miss Amina…”
  246. Filippo smiled. “Don’t worry. I’m glad to be of service. I do need to talk to you in your official capacity, though - I did a preliminary survey yesterday, and I’ve got some stuff I wanted to go over, make sure I’m putting down correctly…”
  248. “Oh, sure!” Yvette snapped her fingers and the master plans for the site appeared, spread out on the table she was leaning her feet on. “Want anything to drink while we’re working?”
  250. “No, thanks, I’m fine.” Filippo looked on with some dismay as the Blue Oni poured herself a mug of brandy. This was going to be one of those days, wasn’t it?
  251. _________________________________________
  253. “You seem surprised. Is something wrong?” Audrey looked over from where she was coaxing a set of bolts into shape.
  255. “What? No, no.” Filippo looked up from the set of plans Maeda had given him. “I’m just surprised that Miss Maeda managed to down that much brandy and rum without any ill-effects. I’d thought Blue Oni were bad around alcohol…”
  257. “They are. And Yvette’s worse than most.”
  259. Filippo blinked.
  261. “Which is why she casts Neutralize Poison on everything she drinks, as a matter of course. She knows just how bad she is, and she has no desire to go there again.” Audrey shivered, then focused her attention on her work again. “I saw her dead drunk exactly once. I… I never want to see anyone that way again.”
  263. “Heh. Everyone’s different, I suppose.” Filippo stood up and stretched. “I’m going to need to head down to B3. They’re putting in the fountains and treasure chests, and if yesterday’s performance is any indication they’ll be perfectly installed in the wrong spots. Do you need any help with the B1 traps?”
  265. “No, I should be okay on those. Thanks, though.” Audrey smiled at him and turned back to her work.
  266. __________________________________________________
  268. Filippo stumbled into the the break room, clothes askew and hair a mess. He grabbed three flagons of pomegranate water from the side table and sat heavily at one of the benches, ignoring the not-so-covert thumbs up from most of the girls near him.
  270. “Hey, what happened to you?” Audrey slid in to sit beside him, her nose crinkling and eye narrowing.
  272. “…gah…” He took two more swallows before replying. “One of the Red Slimes dropped on me from the ceiling. She wouldn’t take no for an answer, and she brought me off twice before she left. At least she didn’t seem inclined to stick around, so…”
  274. Audrey sighed. “They can smell that you don’t have a woman, you know. You’re probably going to get raped more than once while you’re here.” She looked at him a bit more quizzically. “Um, if I can ask, why don’t you? You’re a handsome man from a good family, you’re well-mannered and pleasant company, you’re not gay -“
  276. Something went down the wrong way when Audrey casually announced his sexual orientation - not that she was wrong, mind you - and Filippo spent the next few moments choking as the Cyclops pounded him on the back. She was strong, but not as much as he’d expected - of course, she wasn’t as large as most of her kin, either.
  278. “Ah, um…”
  280. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have…”
  282. Once again, they looked away and had an awkward moment. This time, Filippo spoke up first.
  284. “I’ve… never seemed to have the time and money to properly care for a wife, and I’ve never wanted just, ah, casual pairings.” He coughed slightly. “I know most of the men my age are already married, but it’s not as easy when you care about the work you’re doing. Not to mention not getting paid as much as you should for it…” His voice trailed off; he was getting into dangerous territory and couldn’t keep the bitterness from showing.
  286. Audrey’s eye widened - just slightly, but he’d already learned to read her expressions reasonably well. “Something… happened?”
  288. “It’s a long story.” Filippo hunched over his second flagon. “There’s, well… actually the other reason is that my parents set me up with a ‘nice lady’ about eight years ago. She seemed so nice at first…”
  290. “And then?” She actually sounded pained, although Filippo had learned that most women hadn’t been anything like Rosafina had. Eros’s priests were careful to help the victims after such events, though in his case they’d only been able to help with the mental wounds, not the social ones. “She… left you for another man?”
  292. “Worse.” Filippo tossed down a huge swig and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “She stole a large sum of money from the Bank and fled to Lower Skalt. And she set things up so I’d take the blame for it.”
  294. Audrey sat back, shock plain on her face.
  296. “I was eventually cleared of the charges, but my name got dragged through the mud first. My family tries to pretend the whole thing never happened - and they’ve distanced themselves a bit from me to avoid getting mud on them - and her family still blames me for what happened. That’s half of why I haven’t advanced further in the service ranks.”
  298. “Sweet Maou…” Audrey mumbled. “I - I can’t even imagine putting m- a man through something like that. I… are you… all right?”
  300. “I think so, but… well, it hasn’t helped.” Filippo took a smaller sip this time. “And, well, my current boss doesn’t like me that much. Mind you, I don’t think she likes anyone that much. She only puts up with Gerhard because he hates monsters just as much as she does.”
  302. “Oh. One of those types.” Audrey’s lips pursed. “I’m surprised she didn’t tell you to stall as hard as she could on us…”
  304. “I don’t think she can. I’m sure those notables I mentioned are putting pressure on her, too, and if there’s one thing she is, it’s a brown-noser.”
  306. “Ah. Makes sense, I suppose.” Audrey stood up, finished with her small meal. “Um… I hope your job improves, okay?”
  308. “Thanks.” Filippo waved at her as she left, looking after her for a few moments before shaking his head and returning to his drinks. Next on his list was something called “stud squares”… it didn’t seem to involve bound or captive human men, though, so he was puzzled by what it was supposed to be. He opened up his own file and began cross-referencing.
  309. _____________________________________________
  311. “Maou! What happened to you, Filippo? You look worse than yesterday!”
  313. Filippo had gotten in late, only to be surprised at the door by a briefly irate, then horrified, Cyclops. He blinked blearily a moment or two, and then looked down at himself - there were tears in his overcoat, and he was covered with a thick layer of brick dust. He probably had something on his face, too.
  315. He grinned slightly - it was a bit painful to do more - and walked past her, motioning for her to follow. As she did so, looking puzzled and worried, he began explaining. “I had to take a long detour, and hastily dodge some small mobs. Also I had some shingles fly in my general direction, I think that was what happened to my coat.” He poked a finger through one large opening. “Damn, that’s going to be a pain to fix…”
  317. “Let me.” Audrey pulled out a set of silver needles form one pouch and began to tap on his garments; after a moment, he felt a tugging sensation and saw the fabric begin to reweave itself. “But - mobs? What on earth is going on out there? Is it anti-monster fanatics, something we need to worry about here? I should tell the guards -“
  319. “Wow. That’s handy. Thanks.” Filippo coughed, letting a little dust out of his mouth. “No, nothing to do with Mamono. It looked to me like out-of-work sailors and dockworkers, tearing up the market and cafés. I saw the Guard moving in, so it’s probably over by now. I hope they didn’t kill too many of them…”
  321. “I… hope so, too.” Audrey flushed a bit and began brushing at Filippo, taking large amounts of dust away with a tiny sponge. “Has it really been that bad on the sailors? I wouldn’t have thought -“
  323. “Here more so than other places, I think.” They’d come to the stairs by now, and Filippo looked up at the three-story tower that hadn’t been there the day before. “That looks according to plan, I think… it wasn’t just the spices and cloth, the harbor used to get lots of passenger shipping, too, pilgrims coming to the Basilica. Now they all come in by portal, or most of them.”
  325. “Mm. Yeah, I can see that…” Audrey sighed. “I… hope they find somewhere they can be happy. I know I wouldn’t want to stop making things, even if people learned how to roll swords out like cylinder seals.”
  327. The two went in to Audrey’s room in a more somber mood than usual. Neither of them talked much that day, although at least Filippo finally caught up on his earlier paperwork - though he found himself hoping the riots hadn’t damaged any of it, even if it wouldn’t be more work for him.
  328. ________________________________________
  330. It was hardly the first time he’d been to the Basilica, although normally the place wasn’t this crowded… admittedly, that was a pittance of the throng that would be here on Festival day. But the Basilica del Valentino wasn’t just Eros’s primary temple here in Terni, it was the home of Eros’s most venerated saint and the spiritual heart of the city.
  332. He found himself moving over to the pole on the western side of the courtyard. By tradition, the heart-topped staff marked the location where Valentine himself had been martyred, executed for the crime of marrying couples of disparate social status - a much greater crime in the heavily-stratified empire of that time, admittedly.
  334. “Oh good, you made it here. How’s things going, Filippo?”
  336. Filippo looked over at the person talking to him, and noted with amusement that Lo - Ajmal was now wearing a black suit, black shoes, black bowler hat, and black-tinted glasses that looked impossible to see out of. He looked like someone playing a sinister spy on the music-hall stage, and Filippo tried to stifle a giggle.
  338. “Oh, don’t worry about me. No-one else is actually going to see me in this ridiculous getup, I just couldn’t resist the joke~” Ajmal slipped a small parcel into his hand. “So what’s the news?”
  340. “The prognosis is good, I think, milord.” Filippo executed a flowery court bow, and the Houri stuck out his tongue in return. “They’re all good workers, they just have some problems with proper direction. I’ve been able to talk to all of them and get them more or less organized. You wouldn’t happen to know what happen to the Anubis who used to do that, by the way?”
  342. “Not a thing. Though admittedly I haven’t asked Mama.” Ajmal tilted his head sideways. “How many times have you been, ah, jumped by Mamono, and is it becoming a problem?”
  344. “Three.” Filippo blushed beet red. “And, ah… not really. They don’t seem overly clingy, and Lady knows it’s been a long time since I had a woman.”
  346. Ajmal paused. “Do you - I mean, are you -“
  348. “I think so, Ajmal. But - there’s no real way to know. Not unless I fall in love again, and who knows when that’ll happen?”
  350. “There is that.” Ajmal looked down for a bit and idly kicked a stone. He seemed troubled by something.
  352. “Though I do hope the news doesn’t get back to a certain Francine Clarke. I’m under enough of a shadow at the Service as it is.”
  354. Ajmal grinned suddenly. “Let’s just say, a little bird told me that that’s not going to be a problem this time. - And Filippo? Eros knows, you know.”
  356. Filippo grinned. “That’s true. Shall I go, then? And who’s the packet for?”
  358. “It’s a little something Iolanthe wanted.”
  359. ___________________________________________________
  361. Filippo sat on the conveniently-placed bench - though why there was supposed to be one in a subterranean tunnel he wasn’t quite clear on - and relaxed. He’d actually been enjoying himself quite a bit here, and he realized he’d miss the place when it closed down.
  363. Though that was going to be later than he’d thought. Like a number of the more religious parts of the festival, the Love-Love Dungeon was going to be staying open for another five days, until the Feast of Ashes. Iolanthe’s package had turned out to contain a note for him as well - from his boss’s boss, asking him to continue inspecting the site until operations there closed down. He smelled a runaround, but he wasn’t going to complain about it this time.
  365. He heard a series of melodic clangs from down one of the connecting corridors, and frowned. That didn’t sound like construction work…
  367. “Halt, spawn of the devil!”
  369. “Never! Your precious gods can’t save you now!”
  371. That was… unusual. Standing up and walking up to the intersection, he looked right to see two Mamono sword fighting with each other, a human-looking girl who was nonetheless almost dripping with dark energy, and a more childish than usual Imp. Their swords flew everywhere with great power and a complete lack of skill, one ripping a large gouge in the wall -
  373. “Hey! Stop that!” He strode forward with intent to separate them by force if necessary, but they jerked back from each other and looked guiltily at them. “You’ve just made a bunch of work that someone else is going to have to fix. Why were you hammering away at each other, anyway?”
  375. “Um…” The human-looking girl blushed. “We’re supposed to test the dungeon out? Make sure it can stand up to a Hero fighting a monster?”
  377. “Heroes have better aim than that, dear. And aren’t you a little young to be working here?”
  379. The girl’s red eyes flashed at him. “My husband likes me this way, I’ll have you know. …anyway, my entire family is like this, even the Vampires.”
  381. Ah. That explained it. “Well, come along. You can put those swords where we found them, and then we can explain this to - “ the boss? No. “Miss Jumal.”
  383. He led them off with a chorus of ‘But aww!’s.
  384. _____________________________________________
  386. “I’m… not sure.” Yvette Maeda tapped one of her horns with a pencil. “From what I’ve seen, he takes his job quite seriously. Even if he does have a shitty boss. The only time he blew up at someone here was when Tsalal was joking about leaving the turrets without supports.”
  388. “I know. Well, that’s why I…” Audrey looked away, blushing.
  390. “But yeah, if he could come it’d be great. I still have no word from Amina, and no idea if she’ll ever come back.” Maeda stared off into the distance. “But I’ve got no idea how we could keep him around, really. If you’ve got any ideas, feel free.”
  392. Audrey stepped back out of the tent, head spinning. Filippo Berzetti was a meticulous organizer, good with people of all shapes and sizes, and…
  394. And…
  396. And she didn’t want him to leave. There. She’d finally set it out straight.
  398. But… by the same token, she loved it here at Maeda Construction. She didn’t think she’d be able to give it up for a life in a single city, no matter how many Mamono it had or how many different things she was doing. Was there any way they could be together?
  400. And… would she truly be able to express her feelings to him? She’d always had a problem with words, and emotions, and…
  402. She paused.
  404. Wait.
  406. There was a perfect solution to this, of course. Easy even.
  408. All she had to do was think of the proper form for the gift, and learn a new crafting skill in three days. Nothing she hadn’t done before.
  410. She ran out, past the surprised guard, and raced to the hostel she was staying in for the duration. She needed her mother’s old cookbooks, and… molds. She needed something to make a mold of, that she could cook in - plaster was out. Could she get clay accurate enough without cracking? Probably. She knew a bunch of tricks for clay.
  412. Also - she had to get his tools away from him for an hour or so. Still, that might be possible.
  414. Audrey’s brain started ticking furiously.
  415. ___________________________________________
  417. Filippo left the office, and probably wouldn’t have looked up if it hadn’t been for the sneeze. For some reason, there was a Harpy - about seven or eight years old - perched on the roof of the adjoining building, looking intently at the main door of the scribery. When he saw her, she blinked owlishly - despite not being colored like an owl at all - then put one finger to her lips and hissed. From context, Filippo guessed she was trying to say “be quiet” - Lengani usually used that expression to say “hurry up”, but she wasn’t from around here in all likelihood.
  419. He kept wondering why she was there all the way down to the dungeon, and in his state of mind it was lucky that he didn’t run into any more frenzied mobs or amorous monsters. The guard, now in a spot where she could see outside easily, waved him in without comment.
  421. “Oh, there you are.” Maeda was standing in the door, fully dressed and thrusting a sheaf of papers at him. “Here’s the work orders for today.”
  423. “Thank you.” He ruffled through them. “Audrey’s not here?”
  425. “Nah, she’s already way ahead on work and got her stuff done for today. Normally she’d be around, but she wanted to take a day off for some reason. Not like her much, really.”
  427. “Yeah. I hope she’s okay.” It wasn’t just politeness - he was discovering he liked the shy Mamono girl, and he’d been looking forward to see her. The job site looked better and better every day…
  429. “Have you been having any problems with your boss lately, by the way?” At Filippo’s raised eyebrow, she continued, “I ran into her once at the Palace. She’s a piece of work, isn’t she?”
  431. “Oh my yes.” Filippo nodded. “But she’s been staying as far away from this one as possible, which means leaving me alone. Which I’m just as happy - damn.” He’d just reached for his burin and failed, which meant…
  433. “Uh-oh. What happened this time?”
  435. “Somebody stole my purse, that’s what.” Filippo sighed, putting the papers down on the nearby table and pulling a short crystal wand from the inside of his coat. “Can you hold this for me? I need to concentrate for a bit.”
  437. “Sure thing. What’s it for?”
  439. Instead of answering, Filippo just whispered for a moment. There was a clap of rushing air, and his purse reappeared within his outstretched hands. He opened it carefully. “Oh good, everything’s still here. They didn’t get a warlock to open it or anything.”
  441. Yvette whistled. “Nice trick.”
  443. “Hey, didn’t they give you the standard warning about pickpockets when you got here? This is standard issue for my work.” He took the wand back from Yvette, then turned it over and frowned.
  445. “Something else wrong?”
  447. “Yeah, it’s starting to crack. It should still be good for a few days, even given how often I use it here, but I’ll need to look into a replacement. Pity the Witch who did these is out of the city.”
  449. “Good suppliers are hard to find.”
  451. The man and the ogre both nodded sagely.
  452. _________________________________________
  454. “Okay, that about wraps it up.” There was only one day left before the Festival of St. Valentine, and there was a crackling tension in the air as everyone prepared for the feast at high speed. Slowly, though, it began to unwind as everyone finished up their last tasks and laid down their tools with a sigh of relief. The only ones still standing were Maeda, her boyfriend (casually carrying a pallet of cakes on his back), Filippo, and Audrey, who had run up from nowhere carrying a basket filled with potions.
  456. “Yeah. Still have three or four stocking trips to do, and…” Audrey frowned, holding up a puce-colored fluid in a flask. “I think I may redo that one just on general principle. I’ve got time.”
  458. “True. Although it’s not like you to take this long…” Maeda’s boyfriend, who’s name he’d never learned, reached out to ruffle Audrey’s hair. Filippo felt vaguely uneasy for some reason.
  460. “I’ve been… a little distracted lately. Sorry. Don’t worry, I’m okay.” Audrey stammered more than a little trying to get that out.
  462. “S’okay. Hey Filippo, we ready to cut the ribbon tomorrow?”
  464. “I think so… no wait.” He ruffled through his file and cursed. “Do you have the certificates in your office, Yv- Miss Maeda?”
  466. “Yvette’s fine. And no, I thought you were supposed to give them to us at the end?”
  468. “Yeah, but they’re not here. Most likely they’re back in Clarke’s office in the scribery. I’ll need to run and get them. Give me half an hour, okay?”
  470. “Don’t worry, we’ll be here.” Filippo set off at a high run. Behind him, Audrey grinned and set back off downstairs, clutching a bag that wasn’t part of her usual array.
  471. ________________________________________
  473. The lights were still on in the scribery, which was good. Filippo could actually unlock the lock on the outside door - and wouldn’t face any penalties for doing so, thanks to some odd bylaws - but it always made him nervous using that kind of magic, even if Hermes approved.
  475. There weren’t too many people in the building, though, just two under clerks working somewhat lazily at their desks. Filippo went over to talk to them, and suddenly stopped short. He’d worked with Gaspare Mondadori several times before, not to mention seen him regularly in the halls, and he was positive the man hadn’t had dog ears before this. Or paws, though he seemed to be holding his pen without difficulty.
  477. “Um, Gaspare? Do you know if Direttora Clarke is in? I need to get into her office, there’s some missing paperwork in there…”
  479. “The office is open.” Gaspare smiled at him. “You might want to be quiet, though. Francine’s in there with some people, and they’re a little busy.” His tail wagged slowly behind him as he spoke.
  481. Filippo looked over at the scriber’s other occupant, a young human woman - he peered closer. No, she was actually human - who seemed to be trying to contain a laugh without particular success. “I’ll take that into advisement. Thank you, Gaspare.”
  483. “No problem.” The tail wagged faster.
  485. Filippo carefully crept up the steps, trying not to make too much noise. No one was on the second floor, but the door to the Direttora’s office was open, and sounds were coming from it. It took him a few moments to identify them.
  487. Hoping they wouldn’t notice his presence too much, he simply pushed open the door and went in. The desk had been pushed to the back of the room, and Francine Clarke was on hands and knees on the rug that had been in the middle of it, stark naked. It was hard to make out, though, because of the small crowd of people around her. Filippo was surprised that one of them was Gerhard Kreust, equally naked, his eyes closed in ecstasy as he pounded into her ass with violent thrusts; another was a huge Minotaur male, easily eight feet tall, whose mammoth dick the Direttora was somehow managing to swallow without complaint. Another man, a swarthy human Filippo wasn’t familiar with, was standing in the corner, slowly stroking his shaft as he watched the proceedings.
  489. The other three were female, a Succubus stroking the Direttora’s back and breasts with hands and tail, and a Hellhound lying under her, growling and thrusting into her pussy with a strap-on. None of them looked in his direction, but the voluptuous Harpy in the windowsill did, winking at him without removing her hand from her panties.
  491. Fortunately, he didn’t need either the Direttora or the desk. He simply walked over to the cabinets on the west side of the room - all unlocked - and rifled through them until he found the certificates he was looking for, ignoring Clarke’s yowls of pleasure in the process. He could hear the sound of her claws scraping against the wood of the floor as she writhed and moaned, as well as the yelp of surprise from the Succubus as her newly-extended wings pushed the demoness off her prey.
  493. Filippo gave them all a little wave as he left, but none of them seemed to notice. Admittedly, that was because her tail had finally come in and latched onto the one free cock in the room.
  494. _________________________________________
  496. “Come one, come all! Man or woman, rich or poor, saint or sinner, hero or clod - taste adventure and romance in Iolanthe’s ‘Love-Love Dungeon’!”
  498. The crowd cheered as the Echidna cut the elaborate ribbon, officially opening the Dungeon to outside customers, although to be fair with that much spectacle they’d have cheered anything.
  500. Filippo grinned at his (temporary) coworkers, still a little out of energy but happy to be there. He wandered over to the table where they’d set out refreshments for the workers, grabbing a honey bar and some soup, and sat down to watch the crowd of would-be adventurers coming in. He’d agreed to take a stint at the table, where he’d search them for unlicensed weapons and give them a blacksilver starter to take in, but that wouldn’t be for a few more hours.
  502. “Hey, Filippo.” Audrey sat down next to him in a yellow sundress, and his eyes widened… the Cyclops had been pretty before, all Mamono were, but she seemed to be really trying today. Was it for the crowds? “Are you going to try your hand in the dungeon? As a man working here, you’ve got a free ticket if you want…”
  504. “Nah, I think I’ll pass.” Filippo swallowed a spoonful of soup. “I know some of my old college friends would take it up in a heartbeat, but I’m not the swashbuckling kind of gentleman. I’ll let someone else chase after the Echidna this time. She is the grand prize, yes?”
  506. “She should be. Echidnas in dungeons is a proud and long-standing tradition, and I hope she finds a man who can clear the entire thing and win her hand.” Audrey grabbed a vegetable stick off his plate. “Um, anyway… I hope you’re not too full already. I’ve got something I wanted to give you…”
  508. “Hm? No, I just started. What is it?”
  510. Filippo started in surprise as Audrey pulled a heart-shaped box from behind her back, handing it to him with a blush. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Filippo.”
  512. Dazed, Filippo pulled the box open, to reveal - were those his tools? He could make out the shape of his burin, a screwdriver and pliers, the ruler and plumb line - he pulled out a small compass, which seemed to be made out of some kind of speckled metal - no, wait. He pulled the foil off and grinned, looking at a perfect replica of his own compass made in solid milk chocolate.
  514. “It’s traditional, you know~” Audrey was rubbing one finger to another and didn’t quite meet his eye, but… he thought he knew what the slight blush on her face meant. He took a bite.
  516. “Wow. Really good. Where did you find this, Audrey?”
  518. “I made it myself. All of them.” She blushed even further as his eyebrows went up, but continued. “I’d never worked with chocolate before, but it’s kind of fun. Molds wonderfully, doesn’t it?”
  520. “Mmhm!” His mouth was too sticky to reply properly, but he swallowed the last bit of chocolate compass and began opening up some kind of stick, only to be surprised when Audrey stopped him.
  522. “Not that one. That’s a real crystal wand, under the foil - I noticed yours was cracking, and -“
  524. “Made me a replacement.” He finished unwrapping it, carefully, and looked in surprise. It was the best quality he’d ever seen. “How - how can I possibly thank you for this?”
  526. “Well…” She held her hands together. “I - I mean, the wand is just your payment for services rendered, you’re easily entitled to it, but, but… um, I wanted… it’s a gift, so…”
  528. Filippo stood there looking at the box for a while, then put it aside and took Audrey’s hands in his own.
  530. “I… I love you too, Audrey. Sorry it took me so long to say it.”
  532. As the room broke into cheers around them, Filippo gazed steadily into Audrey’s eye and liked what he saw there. They only stopped when the cheering got too loud and they had to hush the crowd of monsters. There were still customers outside, after all.
  534. “So, um… if you don’t have anything planned for lunch tomorrow, would you like to go out with me? I know this great Xuthic place on the Via Callisto, and -“
  536. Audrey put a finger to his lips. “That sounds wonderful. But… can you kiss me again?”
  537. ______________________________
  539. Outside, an eight-year-old boy was not waiting in line. He, too, had work to do and a wife to get home to.
  541. Still, he could take a little time to appreciate a job well done, a sweet labor of love.
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