Samantha watched the passing meadows and scenery as she sat in the shuttle. The image of the trees zoomed past her as the small pebbles and rocks clattered beneath the metal belly of the large shuttle. She could hear the engine roaring at the front and felt the cold winds brush against her skin. The princess looked up to see vent-like openings at the top of the ceiling.
“What are those?” Samantha pointed to the vents above. “It’s like it’s spitting out cold air or something.”
Daniel explained. “It’s an air conditioning unit, princess. They kind of work like Cold Stones except they breathe air instead.”
“Ooh, that’s interesting. Why haven’t I read about this?”
“It’s probably because Sofiene never did update themselves about technology. They were always about magic.”
“True, Sofiene was an empire of magic. They were never really one about technology.”
Daniel shrugged nonchalantly and leaned against his elbow, looking out the window. “Well, when we go to Machinos – I imagine you’re going to be a bit culture-shocked.”
The princess frowned. “I’m not that naïve.”
“I don’t mean culture-shocked in a bad way, princess. I mean, there will be a lot of things that you’d want to bring back to Sofiene.”
Samantha nodded slowly while looking out the window again. She couldn’t believe what she had seen so far. A flying metal bird that lifted off with weird blades spinning on top, a metal beast with four wheels and two floors to accommodate people, a golden cavern, and arachnoid people – there was so much she had learned without the aid of books! A weird yet fulfilling sense filled her. Oddly enough, it was exhilarating instead of fearful. While most princesses would have been terrified, Samantha couldn’t help but feel excited.
“I just wish I took down all of this in my notes,” Samantha shook her head. “It’s such a big world.”
“And people are still discovering things day by day.” Daniel chuckled with a distant smile. “In the past, the world was so small but now – lands that have never been heard of fill the pages of every book people can get their hands on.”
“That’s true. I just hope I’ll live long enough to see it.”
“Princess, considering the knights you’re bringing, I’m sure you’ll be fine. Beatriz, Brandon and, I won’t let you die.”
The princess nodded, feeling assured by Daniel’s words. She looked out the window and pondered. What was Sofiene like now? Were the people safe? There were so many concerns. Her own safety wasn’t too much of a concern anymore. That’s why I have knights, the princess reasoned with herself. She let out a sigh and looked over the blue skies that loomed above.
Suddenly, the princess heard a loud crackling. “All passengers please get ready to dock off. We will be arriving in Machinos Empire in five minutes.”
Samantha’s eyes widened in astonishment. The shuttle moved that fast!? She looked back to see that Chemia Village had also faded into a shadowy silhouette. She looked forward to see that Machinos Empire now was within her sights. The princess couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She had only heard stories about the Machinos Empire and her father never sent her with the ambassador to deal with them.
But there was nothing in the world that could have prepared her to see that large technological empire of that was Machinos.
The mere sight of Machinos Empire caused Samantha to gawk in astonishment. Machinos Empire, formerly known as Ingeniare City until it had expanded its territory, stood tall with colossal buildings staring down at her. Walls seemed to glisten against the sunlight as it shone on the glass windows. Screens flashing an array of pictures with bright colours decorated the streets. Loud honking of horns filled her ears along with the loud announcement of news filled the air. Samantha gasped when she heard a loud screech and looked above to see metal railroad tracks with long metal snakes slithering across. They zoomed through the city and let out a small hum as they moved along. As the bus entered the city, Samantha watched the citizens of Machinos go on with their daily lives. She frowned a bit; all the citizens seemed intensely focused on the little gadgets in their hands. Wherever they seemed to go, they seemed wired to one another. Samantha saw other metal beasts hover on the streets before going on their merry way.
“Wow,” Samantha whispered. “This is amazing.”
“That’s because the Machinos Empire is also where the most brilliant minds gather. Brilliance in the fields of Science, that is.”
“Science...? Is that another form of magic?”
“It’s sort of like magic but with a more... rationalized explanation.”
“Magic has a proper explanation too!”
“Yeah but,” Daniel scratched the back of his head sheepishly, trying to explain to the princess. “Magic has more spiritual and voodoo explanations. Science has something called Math to explain things.” He then raised an eyebrow. “You do know what Math is right?”
Samantha rolled her eyes. “I’m not that dumb. Magic also requires some level of Mathematical capability.”
“True especially for the Magic of Probability.”
“Yeah, you have to take into consideration so many factors.”
Daniel nodded with a small smile. “Actually, when you think about it – Magic and Science can come to an agreement.”
Samantha protested. “But that’s like saying Magic and Religion can get along!”
“Are you saying they can’t?”
“The Doctrines of Deus condemn magic.”
“But isn’t Sofiene a heavily Deusist country?”
The princess shook her head. “Predominantly. Not necessarily everybody.” She then looked at the machines soar through the streets. “But I am curious. How do you do that?”
Daniel raised an eyebrow. “Do what?”
“Reconcile the differences between magic and science. And most importantly, reconcile the difference between magic and Deus.”
The agent shrugged. “It’ll take years of studying then. Even I’m not sure how to structure that explanation.”
The princess nodded. That was an awfully curious query, however. How would one reconcile the differences between magic and science? And consequently, settle the difference between magic and religion? Religion believed that Deus was the only one capable of magic and magic wielders were considered as blasphemy to the religion. The only reason why Sofiene had managed to thrive so long was because the king and queen were from two worlds: one of Magic and the other from Religion. Maybe that’s how I developed my affinity for healing magic, Samantha thought. Soon, the bus stopped when she saw another large building in front of them.
“We have arrived at Machinos! All passengers may alight from the bus now.” The announcement rang through the bus. “Thank you for using the Shuttle! Enjoy your stay in Machinos!”
As soon as people started getting off the bus, Samantha followed suit. With now only a large satchel to hold her things, Samantha had no problems bringing them down from the bus. The princess slid it off the shelf on top of her and made her way down to the roads of the Machinos Empire.
The princess was greeted by the glorious sight of Machinos City. The texts she read about the city had done the empire no justice. She remembered speaking to the young prince before, Prince Hayden. A quiet spirit, he would regale her of small tales about his city and how it would look. But when he had said that it would be best to see it for herself, she had not expected to see such a large empire with villages surroundings its borders. How does a city even manage itself with separate lands? In Sofiene, the colonies would always send one ambassador to relay their concerns. But in Machinos, everything seemed to reach everyone with a snap of one’s fingers.
“The speed of information here is amazing,” Samantha whispered and shook her head. “It spreads so fast. Almost like a wildfire!”
Brandon nodded. “That’s because they have something known as Intranet. According to the books I read in Libraria, it said that the Intranet is what links the entire city together. Every piece of data and information flows through the wires built in the structures of the city.”
“It is kind of like plumbing in the castle?”
“You can say that. Rough analogy but it works.”
Samantha nodded as she continued to stroll through the city of Machinos. Unlike Sofiene that had a more elaborate design such as carvings and engravings on each wall and parapet, Machinos had a more geometric and simplistic design. It was a large rectangular building with only glass windows to serve as a design. Some others had glowing signs and symbols at the top of the building. She saw a rainbow coloured signed reading Googol on top of a towering building.
“Wow, this place has so much. I wonder how Prince Hayden handles all this,” Samantha murmured.
“Cool!” She heard someone say.
She turned around only to see Beatriz pressing her nose against the glass. Curious about the commotion, Samantha strode over to join her to see what all the fuss was about.
Much to her surprise, it didn’t seem too much. But what got her attention was that it was nothing more than a simple metal board that seemed to float off the ground. She could see bluish lights shining beneath the metal board as it hummed to life. All the children and the people who saw it were letting out sounds of amazement as their eyes widened in astonishment at the sudden flip around of the board.
“Wow, that’s really amazing!” One of the children squealed in delight.
“Yeah, it’s so cool!”
Samantha giggled at the sound of the children. Seeing their child-like innocence reminded her of how she once was. When she had first left Xychosia, she explored the world with a child-like wonder.
“Like, oh my Deus, that should be like, the new in thing now!”
“I know right, fam? We should get our whole fambam one each!”
Samantha laughed sheepishly as the squealing filled her ears. She suddenly felt a chilling mana erupt near her when she found Beatriz gripping the glass with annoyance flashing in her eyes.
“I hate the sound of their shrill voices.” Beatriz growled. She turned to Samantha with a pleading look. “Can I not murder them and sacrifice them to the goddess of Erkalla?”
Samantha frowned. “Bea, no. We’re not here to be murderers.”
“They’re annoying me.”
“Bea, we still can’t kill them just because they annoy you. We don’t kill people on whim.”
“Yes we do. That’s why wars happen. Duh.”
Samantha sighed; when did Beatriz get such a philosophical side? She then looked back to see Daniel and Brandon shuffling towards them with their gear, looking around the place.
“Now that we’re in Machinos,” Daniel said. “Now what?”
Brandon shrugged and searched the area. “I was planning to get a mode of transportation for us to get through the lands easier. That way, we can track down our knights more efficiently.”
“And where did you plan to find that?”
“There’s a pirate network around here in Machinos. Pirates don’t just limit themselves to taking gold, you know.”
“And where do you plan to find them?”
Brandon looked around. “One of them goes by the name Lenard. He’s normally pissing off some random people by messing around with something he calls a “website”. Oh, and also their bank accounts.”
Samantha’s eyes widened. “He can do that!?”
“Yeah, if you given him the right materials and Hot Pockets, he’ll be more than happy to get money from people.”
“He’s a pirate.”
“Are you serious!? You’re actually condoning this!?”
Brandon shrugged with a slight twitch. “It’s what pirates do. What do you want me to do?”
Samantha sighed before looking through the city, noticing a large citadel in the middle of the city. She could see a red flag bearing the royal symbol of Machinos Empire: bloodied grey gears. A symbol of its once bloody past that involved civil wars that threatened to tear the entire empire asunder. Thus, to mend things – they instead split Machinos Empires into several villages. Each village specialized in their own belief and would serve the Machinos Empire in their own way. Come to think of it, the princess thought. She hadn’t heard from Prince Hayden ever since her birthday party.
“Actually, maybe we could ask Prince Hayden as well.” Beatriz hiked her thumb, gesturing to the citadel behind her. “We won’t need to steal money and blacklist ourselves. I’m sure the prince is more than willing to help.”
Daniel winced before slightly pointing out. “Uh, there’s a problem with that.”
“Well, recently – the Queen of Machinos passed away.”
Samantha’s eyes widened. “What?” She looked up only to notice that the flag was halfway raised. “Oh… that’s why the flags are halfway raised.”
“I’m sure the princes would be mourning,” Daniel added. “So, we might have to be careful on what we say and do.”
Samantha nodded and turned to Brandon. “Brandon, how easy will it be for you to find your friend?”
The pirate shook his head. “It might take awhile. But it shouldn’t take so long. He was more of Luke’s friend.”
“Who’s currently dead,” Beatriz pointed out flatly. She slapped her palm against her forehead. “Ugh, why do we have to deal with people who are in mourning? Forget the damn transport; we might as well start walking!”
“It’s not that Lenard’s mourning. It’s more that he doesn’t know that Luke’s dead.” Samantha wistfully pointed out, slightly wincing. “Right?”
Brandon massaged his temples with a sigh. “He’s probably found out by now. He always finds a way to know things.”
Daniel shook his head. “Alright so we’re left with either the prince or Brandon’s companion. Your choice, princess. This is your expedition.”
Samantha paused for a moment to think. Although Brandon’s choice sounded like a better plan, she didn’t know how volatile Lenard could possibly be. She also didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news, especially since she knew that she was partially the reason why Luke passed away. The princess hung her head until she felt a hand drop on her head. Samantha blinked in surprise and looked up to see Brandon smiling at her.
“Samantha, it’s not your fault.” Brandon explained. He shook his head with a bitter smile. “If it should be anybody’s fault, it’s mine.”
“But Brandon,” Samantha began with a shake of her head.
“Sam, there’s no use freaking about it. He died and with us mourning for his death constantly, it would be a disgrace to his sacrifice.”
“—Princess, just stop. Having self-pity will not help anybody.”
Samantha nodded weakly. Tears threatened to spill out of her eyes but she knew better than to burst out crying. Her fists clenched tightly; how could she be thinking about that now? Brandon was right! Her self-pity wouldn’t do anything for either of them. She wiped her tears and shook her head, exhaling sharply. A queen was always faced with tough decisions. She would be no proper queen if everything made her cry so easily.
“Brandon, please tell me about Lenard.” Samantha suddenly said.
Brandon raised an eyebrow. “Huh?”
“Before we consult with your friend, I want to know how he is like.”
“So our trip will not go to waste.”
The pirate shrugged and explained. “Well, Lenard is what they call a ‘cyber-pirate’. He doesn’t sail the seven seas like I do but he does know how to plunder from the confines of his walls. He uses the Intranet of Machinos and the mana flow to connect to other places. He’s currently working on a device that allows him to tap into the very mana of the person to gain information.”
“He and Luke were really close so I don’t think it’s wise to mention about his death. Oh, and don’t mention too much about being a noble too. He’ll clam up.”
Beatriz shook her head. “Come to think of it, all this time – people knew that Samantha was a noble because of the way she did things. Talking, walking, interaction – everything!”
Samantha pouted. “There’s nothing wrong with the way I talk!”
“In the right context yes but in this context, you’re too polite.”
“Too polite? There’s nothing wrong with being polite!”
“Did you not hear me, Sam? In the context we’re in, you’re too polite! And you’re also way too damn formal!”
The princess frowned; there was nothing wrong with the way she spoke! Was it really that polite that people figured out right away that she was a noble? She frowned for a moment and then looked at her clothes. Was it also because the way she dressed? She looked around to see all the people in Machinos dressed differently from her. The men sported a button up dress shirt with a pair of pants while the women wore a pair of black slacks, a button up dress shirt or blouse with a black blazer.
“They dress so much differently here.” Samantha shook her head. She looked at her own clothes. “Do I really stick out that much?”
“The clothes not so much, the way of speaking uh,” Daniel winced with a sheepish smile.
Beatriz scoffed. “You’re sticking out way too much for your profile.” She paused and grinned. “Then again, I’m all about sticking out like a sore thumb.”
“No matter how you go around it, you do anyway.” Brandon shook his head. “I haven’t met a girl’s who’s whiter than detergent.”
“Hey, so sue me. I haven’t been exposed to the sun in years!”
Samantha looked around. “So, where can we get clothes?”
Daniel shrugged. “There should be a few shops in the Zasela District. The one thing about the Machinos Empire, everything here is sorted by their districts.”
“Isn’t that how most empires are built?”
“Some empires are more relaxed when it comes to sorting. The people of Machinos are as obsessive with order as much as you loving purple.”
Samantha blinked in surprise. “How’d you know I liked purple?”
Daniel shrugged. “You wear purple, your pendant is purple – everything on you is basically is purple.”
“Besides, even on your birthday you were wearing purple. One can only correctly deduce that you have a penchant for purple.”
Samantha nodded slowly before looking around. “So,” she clapped her hands with a beaming grin. “Let’s go shopping then!”
Brandon raised an eyebrow. “You have money?”
“Yes?” Samantha said before digging through her bag only to see that her pouch was empty. “No.”
Brandon smirked. “Thought so.”
“I do have some golden leaves from Fool’s Gold though. Does that count?”
Samantha pulled out a small pouch of golden leaves. “They got snagged onto my mantle while we were running. While I was cleaning my mantle, they fell out so I thought maybe they have some value.”
“Something like that in solid gold might get us some money.” Daniel said. He looked around with a shrug. “So, what do we buy first?”
Beatriz suggested. “How about some legitimate weapons? Something that’s completely Sam-proof.”
“Hey! I’m not that bad in battling!”
“Well, you’re still chicken so in my book – you still suck.”
Suddenly, Brandon came up with an idea. “Hold on. I have a better idea.”
The two knights and the princess looked at him. Samantha saw a roguish smirk curve up the pirate’s lips.
“We’re gonna use those leaves to make more money.”
Samantha, perplexed, stared at Brandon for his idea. How in the world were they going to make more money by using the leaves? She only had three pieces! “Wait, how do you suggest we do that?”
Brandon chuckled and pointed to the streets, noticing a crowd. “Right over there.”
The princess took a look to see a whole crowd of people looking over at a hustler’s table. He had three bowls and a pebble lying on a wooden table. The man had a jolly grin as he placed the pebble under the bowl and began swapping it around. The people gasped as the person in front of the man struggled to catch the pebble only to miss out the pebble by one bowl. Disheartened, the customer walked away.
“If there’s anyone who can cheat a cheater,” Brandon cracked his knuckles with a stretch of his arms, smirking. “It’s a pirate.”
Daniel rolled his eyes with a scoff. “You better be sure about that.”
“Besides, there’s always a way to cheat a cheater. No one’s infallible.”
“You better be sure, just saying.”
Beatriz smirked. “I like the way you think. Let’s give it a shot.”
Samantha shook her head. “I don’t think we should though. Isn’t that… bad?”
Brandon sighed. “You really gotta get that whole black-and-white thing worked out of your system. In a world like this, there are always shades of gray.”
“Hopefully not just fifty shades.” Daniel smiled wistfully.
“Ugh, don’t even go there, Daniel.”
“What? You want more?”
“Fuck’s sake, no.”
Beatriz snickered with a sly and seductive grin. “I’m sure I can help with that.”
Brandon visibly shuddered at Beatriz’s proposal. “No thanks. Not into that.”
Samantha quickly stepped in between them, seeing that they were getting derailed. “Okay, so who’s going to do this crazy scheme you guys came up with?”
Brandon mischievously smirked and bowed. “Allow me.”
He plucked a golden leaf from Samantha’s hands and strode towards the crowd. The princess, curious, followed after the pirate with Beatriz and Daniel trailing behind her. She swam past the crowd as Brandon sat down in front of the man with the bowls. He placed a golden leaf on the table.
“How about I give it a go?” Brandon smirked. “A Fool’s Gold Leaf against 20 gold pieces.”
The man smirked. “We got a big wager. Why don’t you throw that blade of yours in too for 50 gold pieces?”
Brandon nodded with a confident glint in his lavender eyes. “Done.”
Samantha’s eyes widened as the man revealed the pebble. In the next few moments, he covered it with a bowl. The bowls began swapping fast while Brandon remained calm. His ears twitched slightly and his lavender eyes never tore themselves away from the man’s eyes. She could feel Brandon’s intense concentration until the bowls finally stopped.
“Alright, a wild guess for the dashing lad!” The man exclaimed and gave him a toothy smile.
Brandon remained calm and gently placed his hand on the leftmost bowl. “Right here.”
It was then Samantha had never seen a man so pale. The man shakily lifted the bowl to reveal the pebble underneath. The crowd gasped as Brandon smirked.
“50 gold pieces.” Brandon smirked as he took the pouch. “Thanks.”
The pirate captain calmly stood up and walked away before dropping the bag of gold in the astonished princess’ hands. “Sam, your gold.”
Samantha couldn’t believe what just happened. Brandon figured it out and easily won gold! He cheated a cheater, the princess shook her head. How did he do that? She herself lost track of the pebble when he had begun swapping it around!
“H-how?” She rushed towards Brandon, gawking with clear astonishment and admonishment on her face. “How did you do that!?”
Brandon, chuckling, placed his fingers on his lips with a mischievous smirk. “That’s a trade secret.”
Samantha pouted; she didn’t like it when Brandon had that foxy, trickster look on his face. Ugh stop looking so damn cute, the princess mentally berated him. She was clearly flustered by both the feat and his looks.
“So are we gonna scam more people?” Beatriz asked with a grin. “This is actually fun.”
Daniel looked around before pointing to another crowd. “Hey, what about there?”
Samantha checked the direction that Daniel was pointing at. There, she saw another crowd with a bunch of burly men trying their luck. One by one, she saw their once confident faces become crestfallen as they walked away. On the table, she saw ten hollow blocks mounted on the table.
“Ooh! I wanna try that one!” Beatriz grabbed a gold coin from the pouch of coins Samantha was carrying.
The princess yelped. “Ah, Bea! Wait!”
But it was too late. The petite girl had already darted off.
Samantha sighed and looked around her. For such an advanced city, she was surprised that there was a carnival-like place within it. The people always had serious looks on their faces and often times seemed more absorbed into their gadgets. She watched in amazement as she saw people also blare some loud sounds using their devices with heavy bass and fast lyrics. Must be what they call ‘music’, Samantha thought.
“Wait, we better get Beatriz before she makes a scene.” Brandon said. “You know how strong she is.”
Daniel nodded. “If she can fight toe to toe with Dreadnought, breaking hollow blocks should be like taking candy from a baby.”
Samantha nodded in agreement and ran after Daniel and Brandon. She trembled at the thought. If Beatriz revealed her strength here, won’t people think there was something wrong? The lady-in-waiting’s strength could shatter boulders and swing a scythe that was triple her height! The princess pushed and shoved her way through the crowd only to see Beatriz giving one gold coin.
“I bet you one gold coin for 10 gold coins!” Beatriz grinned. “Bet you I can smash all those blocks unlike those pussies in the back!”
The crowd gasped as the man jeered. “You’re too small! You’re just a kid.”
Beatriz’s icy blue eyes flashed. “What?”
“You’re just a kid!”
“You’re gonna regret that!”
The people laughed and jeered at the sight of the small girl threatening a big burly man. The man who orchestrated the show guffawed at her. Samantha couldn’t help but feel guilty; not many people took Beatriz seriously due to her small size. But that didn’t mean that she couldn’t do much. It was only those who saw Beatriz fight in combat that knew the extent of her true power.
“I don’t see why you shouldn’t let her try.” Daniel suddenly said.
The laughs died down as the people turned to Daniel. The young agent shrugged.
“I mean, it is more money for you. A gold coin is worth a lot in these parts.”
Brandon smirked with a fold of his arms. “Unless, you’re scared to be outdone by a wee lady?”
The man flushed bright red and growled. “Fine! Let’s bet that one coin plus your little weapons for a hundred gold pieces!”
“Your bet, not mine.”
Seeing that the man agreed, Beatriz took a step forward and planted her hand against the blocks. For a moment, she just stood there – not moving. The lady-in-waiting’s eyes closed and her breathing began to slow down. Samantha shivered; was she going to use magic? She looked around in Machinos. The last time she checked, the people of Machinos hated magic. They always thought that magic was the irrational and illogical way to solve things.
However, the petite girl did it differently. She lifted her fist and slammed it straight down on the ten hollow blocks with a loud kablam! A thunderous explosion echoed through the streets and all the people stared at her as if she grew a second head. An unsettling silence filled the streets as Beatriz dusted her hands from the cement and dirt of the hollow blocks before grabbing the bag full of coins.
“I’ll be taking that, asshole.” Beatriz grinned as she walked off. She then turned back with a mocking grin on her face. “Next time, don’t tell me what I can do or what I can’t do.”
The people who saw her feat were speechless. Samantha could have sworn that their faces were even paler than Beatriz’s skin. Did they know who she was, the princess wondered. But the looks on their faces seemed to show that they didn’t. The princess sighed in relief and walked along with Beatriz.
“He-he, easy peasy.” Beatriz smirked and dropped the bag of coins into Samantha’s arms. “Like taking candy from a baby.”
“What did you do!?” Samantha gawked. “I’ve never seen you shatter bricks before!”
“Oh, just a little mana redirection here and there along with some immortal strength.”
“You’re kidding me!”
“Hey, I have pretty good control. And, I have you to thank.”
Samantha blinked in surprise. “Me?”
“Yeah,” Beatriz shrugged. “I can’t keep throwing my power around. I might turn you into Queen Regina’s favourite cheese by accident.”
“Or even transform her into a frog.” Brandon added with a chuckle.
“Hey, that spells for babies! I might as well melt them into a puddle of ooze!”
The mere mention of ooze sent shivers down Brandon’s spine. “Ugh,” he shuddered in disgust. “Please don’t.”
“Why? You’ve seen blood. Why aren’t you freaked out and disgusted by that?”
“That’s because it splatters. Not oozes.”
“Yes it does. I can show you!”
“No thanks! Willing to keep my limbs and my head attached to my body.”
Daniel rolled his eyes. “Are we really going to talk about this now?”
“It’s normal friendly conversation.” Beatriz scowled. She raised an eyebrow. “Why you such a prude? We’re not in church.”
Daniel wanted to rebut but was unable to. Beatriz is so vulgar, Daniel thought. How did she become a knight? Many knights were more outstanding, chivalrous, with a strict sense of honour. Beatriz was the complete opposite of what knights were! Cocky, vain in her own power, and vulgar – three things that normally got people killed. A frown marred his features until Samantha tapped his shoulder.
“Don’t worry about it, Daniel. She’s always like that.” Samantha smiled. She then turned to her knights. “So, maybe we should go consult Brandon’s friend first?”
Brandon nodded. “I agree. Lenard’s not usually the type to easily drag out of his room.”
Beatriz raised an eyebrow. “Why? He hates people?”
“Yeah, sort of.”
“Good, then we’ll get along.”
Samantha nodded. “Brandon, if you can lead the way?”
The pirate nodded and beckoned them to follow him. Daniel travelled behind when he started investigating the suspicious looks on everyone’s faces. With both Brandon’s and Beatriz’s skills out, Daniel shook his head. It was sure that the scene that displayed their skills would go viral. And people would find out we’re here, Daniel sighed. As much as he wanted a more honest way of earning money, there wasn’t really any choice. With scammers on the streets, they too left themselves open to being scammed.
He looked towards the different buildings that stood as giants in the empire of Machinos. Googol, Facemash, Aeala Malls, Small Mart (which ironically was anything but small!), and many other buildings stood beyond his line of sight. Back from where he was from, he didn’t have buildings this big. All he had was the fields to run and play in with the beach to go swim in. It was not an industrialized town but nonetheless, his most cherished memories lay in that town.
The village, unfortunately now lay in ashes ever since the civil unrest in Sofiene began.
Daniel sighed deeply and continued to make his way through an alleyway that Brandon led him through. There was an old man selling his wares, with nothing but the clothes on his back and the tattered cloth to carry his wares. Children, covered in muck and dirt, stood at the side and inhaled deeply through a paper bag. Rugby, Daniel thought. In Militaris, he knew those children would have been shot and left with nothing but a cardboard sign that they were pushers. He shook his head. Children as young as five being gunned down – all because of an all-out war. At least they seem to be safe here in Machinos, Daniel thought.
As they navigated through the alleyways, the shining city of Machinos soon faded into the background. Daniel soon found himself in the slums of the city where children and people had no access to even the simplest of necessities. Their houses were built into make-shift shanties; the main components of their houses were rusted metal sheets, wood, some computer components, and all sorts of other materials to at least form some sort of shelter.
“This place is downright desolate,” Samantha shook her head. “Nobody should have to live here!”
“It’s the heart of the slums.” Brandon shrugged. “It’s where Lenard lives.”
“But look at the conditions!”
“Every city has something like this, Sam.” Daniel explained. “You probably just never have seen the poor districts of Sofiene.”
Guilt welled up inside her. All this time, she had been living in comfort even as an exile. She wrung her hands together and looked warily at the people. Her blouse may have been casual looking but it made her sorely stand out among the inhabitants of the poor district in Machinos. Even her knights blended better. Beatriz always looked beaten and battered because of her mana ripping through her clothes. Daniel had a tattered poncho covering his clothes and Brandon’s coat was soiled with all sorts of dirt and dust.
“I really stick out,” Samantha shook her head. She looked at her clothes. “Do I need to tear this apart more?”
Daniel shook his head. “Nah, you look fine.”
“Yeah, it’s just you look too clean.” Beatriz wistfully added.
Samantha gawked. “Are you saying that I should smear my face with mud or something?”
“That can be arranged.”
“Bah, just think of it as having a mud facial.”
Samantha shuddered. As much as she liked going to a spa and having facials, she didn’t like the concept of mud being unceremoniously slapped onto her face. The princess sighed and continued on through the alleyway. She winced at the puddles of water she stepped on as it splashed against her leg. The princess shuddered as the sweat and the dust clung to her clothes and skin. And she just took a bath yesterday!
“Are we there yet?” Samantha asked.
Brandon nodded. “Almost. Just watch your step.”
Suddenly, they heard a loud alarm blaring through the alleyways. The inhabitants, spooked out of their skin, immediately began scrambling. Children were ushered by their parents. The women gathered all their items and the men began counting to make sure everyone was accounted for.
“Wh-what’s going on!?” Samantha yelped.
Brandon scanned the area and shook his head. “I don’t know. Never experienced that when I went to visit him before!”
“It’s a crackdown.” Daniel said. “A raid.”
Beatriz stared at him incredulously. “A raid!? A raid for what!?”
The agent remained silent as the footsteps of the soldiers marching in became louder. “A raid for a criminal.”
Brandon’s eyes widened and he paled. “Shit! Lenard!”
“We better find him before the government does!” Beatriz exclaimed. She summoned her scythe. “I can keep these bozos busy!”
Samantha swallowed hard. She had never been involved in a raid before! Let alone be caught in the middle of its crossfire! No, the princess shook her head. Now was not the time to falter! She steeled herself and channelled her mana into her pendant and her ring. All the mana she had accumulated swirled in both the gems of Azaleth and Sofiene. She backed herself against Brandon and the others while looking around. Where were they going to attack? From above? From below? It could be from anywhere!
“We can’t confront them like this!” Daniel protested. “We’re in too tight a space!”
“We might cause more casualties than actually do something.” Brandon added.
Beatriz rolled her eyes. “What!? Stop being such pussies! Why am I the only one hyped up for this!?”
“Because you’re okay with killing people!?”
“You’ve killed people too!”
“Yeah but not for meaningless slaughter!”
“Yeah, but at any moment – these guys are going to come at us with their own weapons and riddle us with holes!”
Brandon sighed and turned to Samantha. “Well, your call.”
Samantha, surprised, gawked at the pirate. “Me!?”
“Yes, you. After all, you are our leader.”
“—Sam, now’s not the time to get jittery. Make a decision!”
“And make it quick!” Daniel added. He pulled out his rifle. “We can’t just stand here like statues either!”
Samantha, mortified and petrified, scanned the entire alleyway and saw the soldiers coming. She remembered the feeling of having soldiers rush her down to kill her. A shudder rushed through her body and the fear seized her. An unsettling feeling knotted her stomach as she looked as more forces poured into the alley. She looked at the dilapidated houses as the people looked on in fear. She had to do something! Suddenly, an idea hit her. It wasn’t the best but it was surely better than nothing!
“We split up,” she suddenly said.
All three knights gawked at her. “What!?”
“Daniel, you and Brandon go find Lenard.” Samantha instructed. “You know the city and Brandon knows the person. On that mission alone, Beatriz and I are dead weight.”
Brandon shook his head. “Wait, what are you –?”
“Bea wants a fight. She’s going to get a fight.” Samantha said.
Beatriz’s eyes lit up like stars. “Really!?”
“Yeah,” Samantha nodded. “I just hope that my theory pans out.”
“You’re basing it on a theory!?” Daniel gawked. “And if you get killed!?”
Beatriz scoffed. “Please, me? Die? I can’t die yet.”
Seeing the dark and sardonic look in Beatriz’s eyes sent shivers down Samantha’s spine. The lady-in-waiting then fully materialized her armour on her body. The same abyss black coloured armour covered her body with spines. Instead of just its usual spikes, markings that somewhat resembled spiders glowed on her armour. The pleats on her fauld then resembled the petals of a spider lily. Her gauntlets were now covered with an array of spines that whirled together.
“Besides, I’m no lady. I’m a Dark Knight!”
Samantha yelped as Beatriz suddenly unleashed a large wave of dark energy. Metal panels dented from the sheer force while others cracked by the chilling energy of Beatriz’s mana. Samantha shivered as the mana licked against her skin as she embraced her body. She looked towards Brandon and Daniel who had looks of hesitation on their faces.
“G-go!” Samantha stammered as the cold winds licked against her. “She’ll freeze you guys to death!”
Brandon hollered over the howling winds. “You’re not faring any better!”
“I’ll be fine! Trust me!”
“Kinda hard when you don’t have a weapon to protect yourself with!”
“I have magic, Brandon! Go find Lenard!”
Brandon gave her a disapproving look and clucked his tongue in annoyance. He then turned to the lady-in-waiting. “Bea!”
Beatriz nodded. “I know. Shred all that stand in your way. Nothing touches Sam.”
“Not a single hair.”
“Not even a single breath.”
With that, Brandon sighed in defeat and turned to Daniel. “Alright, let’s go.”
Daniel stared at Brandon, astonished. “You sure?”
“They said they got it. We don’t have time. Those raiders might even be after Lenard.”
A sigh escaped the agent’s lips.
“I know. It’s a bitch but we have no choice.”
“I thought men were supposed to stall and fight?”
“Based on ability, Sam’s right. Bea sucks at recon. That kind of energy will get people flocking to her faster than bees to honey.”
Daniel looked towards the soldiers and the two girls. “You sure you two will be fine?”
Beatriz grinned and brandished her scythe at him. “Hey! What could possibly go wrong?”
The two young men took one last look at the girls before splitting up. Seeing that they were beginning their search for Lenard, Samantha smiled. At least they somewhat trusted her to handle some things! She then looked at the incoming soldiers and then at Beatriz.
“So, what’s the plan?” Beatriz asked.
Samantha thought long and hard for a moment. “We’re going to get captured.”
Beatriz gawked. “What!?”
“I want an audience with Prince Hayden. And the best way is to get captured.”
“You’re fucking crazy! You won’t last an hour in a dungeon.”
“Not if my plan works exactly the way I hope it does,”
“Sam, this won’t work!”
As the soldiers closed in on them, Samantha put her arms up in the air. “Only one way to find out.”
Beatriz shook her head and followed suit. “Tch, when were you this much of a risk taker?”
The princess herself didn’t expect to come up with this plan. But, she knew she had to. If there was anything she learned from being a princess, it was to be friends with those in power. And as much as Lenard had the skill, she knew that Prince Hayden had the resources they needed. They needed a strong ally to cloak their movements. It was a game of manipulation.
And she could only hope now that it was going to work.
The soldiers closed in on them before roughly grabbing them. Samantha winced as her wrists were tightly grip and crushed in the sweaty palms of the soldier as she was kicked down to the ground.
“Sam!” Beatriz cried out only to get stomped down as well.
Both girls lay on the floor as the soldiers manhandled them. Samantha kept her tears hidden and a solid look. She could hear the clinking of the handcuffs as they locked around her wrists. But she had another question – what were the soldiers doing in the heart of the slums? She looked towards the silhouette looming above the buildings. If Machinos still followed the old traditions, she would be taken to a lower ranked official first before Prince Hayden. A sigh escaped her lips as she shook her head. Every plan needed a set-up. She couldn’t rely on brute force forever.
“Time to rely on diplomacy.” Samantha murmured as she and Beatriz were roughly dragged to an official’s office.