The Selection

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Chapter 13 - Princess Irene - Rumors

I slowly open my eyes when I hear the sound of cicadas chirping. I grimace from the ache in my head, my hand applying pressure to try and alleviate the pain. Argh…my head… It seems I’m still alive…

As I open my eyes again, I regain my senses and feel something heavy on top of my stomach. While lifting my head, I shift my gaze toward it and find Leila asleep with her head and arms there on the right side. I smile, also finding Irene in the same position on my left. My eyes linger on her sleeping face. I shake my head and then relax my facial expressions when I start to see her reflection again. I rest my head on the ground. I close my eyes.

I have no idea how we’re still alive… That Anomaly’s behavior was really strange when it decided to leave us instead of finishing us off… I close my eyes as I think back to that moment. The wolf’s red eyes stared into mine, almost feeling like a sense of familiarity. What if the wolf’s actually a reincarnation of…

I shake my head to rid myself of absurd thoughts. As I open my eyes, a realization hits me. I narrow my eyebrows and purse my lips. Wait… The first time I encountered an Anomaly…didn’t something similar happen? It mysteriously disappeared before I even noticed… Given its capabilities, it should’ve had plenty of time to ambush me… Maybe I’m the reincarnation of one of their friends, and when they stared into my eyes, they realized who I was and left me alone…

My mind becomes blank for several seconds. Afterward, I let out a few giggles realizing my stupidity.

“Uhnnn…” Leila mutters as she sluggishly lifts up her upper body with a yawn. She rubs her eyes with her finger and asks, “Kai… You’re…awake…?”

“Oh sorry… did I wake you…?”

“I think so… We should probably get going soon anyway… How’re you feeling?”

“Ah, perfectly fine now as you can see, thanks to your magic,” I say with a smile and shift my gaze toward the bloodstained hole in my armor with my body left perfectly intact.

“Be a little more serious… If I delayed healing you any later you really would have died, you know…” I can tell that she’s serious, and a shiver goes down my spine, my smile disappearing. I think about the possibility of the potential unfortunate outcome in silence, but soon break out in laughter.

“Well, I’m still alive, though. So it’s fine isn’t it? You…” I stop talking and smiling. Leila wears a solemn expression on her face with tears welling in her eyes.

While darting her eyes around, she quietly says, “I was really worried…that you wouldn’t wake up…and before I could tell you…that I…”

She blushes. My heart beats progressively faster. I gulp while attempting to maintain the same expression on my face. Could this be…? A love confession?! From Leila…? That’s impossible

“I…” she suddenly says in high volume, but she doesn’t finish her sentence. I cock an eyebrow at her open mouth with no words coming out. Her eyes are focusing on a single point now. I turn toward it and then find Irene. Her eyes are open. It appears that she’s been awake for quite some time.

“That you what?” Irene asks. Leila’s face is flushed red, and her lips twitch in place. I think of a probable possibility of her hesitation.

Hmm, maybe it could be that…? I think back to when I first met her and verify, “That you think of me as a great friend, right?”

"Huh?"

There’s a dumbfounded look on her face. With a smile, I continue, “When we first met you told me that you really hated Humans… And I know now that you’re not too honest in expressing your feelings, so you just had a hard time telling me that, right?”

Leila’s expression lightens up, and she answers, “Oh, yeah... That’s it. You really know me well…”

She laughs lightly and then sighs. I quirk an eyebrow. Afterward, I turn my head towards Irene when she clicks her tongue. “What’s wrong, Irene?”

“Nothing…”

I’ll never understand women… I sigh before saying, “Anyway… We need to get going to Byzia.”

I stand up. Leila and Irene do the same. “Yeah, let’s go. It seems we slept for too long; it’s already past dawn.”

I survey my surroundings while turning my head towards every possible direction we can go in. I come to a standstill when I realize I have no idea where I am. I skeptically curl one side of my lips upward and ask, “Uhh…which direction’s Byzia again…?”

“Jeez… You really are hopeless, aren’t you?” Leila sighs and then opens her backpack. She shuffles through it and then pulls out a parchment. She kneels down, lays the map on the ground, and says, “Good thing I bought this magical map when we were still in Drymo.”

She pools some of her Mana into the piece of paper. Subsequently, a red dot appears on the map in the forest located east of Byzia. The dot disappears after a few seconds. She rolls up the map, stores it in her backpack, and then stands up.

“Okay, based on our location and the position of the sun…” she says and then points in a direction. “We go this way.”

We encounter some monsters on our way there, but Leila easily takes care of them with her magic. Unfortunately, since I don’t have my weapon I can’t help much because I also need to conserve my Mana. We reach the east outer walls of Byzia in just under four hours.

“I can’t walk anymore…”

“Just hold on a little longer, Irene. We are almost there.”

“Hey, we should go that way towards the southern entrance instead of the northern entrance in case our pursuers notified the guards here,” I suggest as I point toward our left.

“Hmm, good idea, but Irene still stands out too much.”

“Ah, we’ll just think of a plan when we get there.” We continue walking, and the southern gates are within our sights within half an hour. We hide at the edge of the forest behind some trees for the time being because we notice something strange. There are dozens of people heading into the city; many looking like villagers.

“What’s going on here? Could it be something happened in their village?”

“Beats me…but we can work this to our advantage. We’ll just casually head in with these crowds of people. We can walk a little distance apart so we can ask different people about what’s going on,” I suggest. We take a short detour south toward the trail so that it looks like we’re coming from other villages in this direction. Now all there is to do is ask someone what’s going on…

I look around trying to find a suitable informant. I lock my gaze on a middle-aged man traveling by himself. I quicken my pace toward him and tap the back of his shoulder. I walk at the same pace as him. With a smile, I say, “Excuse me.”

He frowns as he scans my appearance from head to toe. His eyes bounce up, and he knits his eyebrows before saying, “Who are you?”

Noticing his suspicious tone of voice and facial expressions, I quickly respond, “My name’s Kai, an adventurer. This is my first time here in Xantho, and I’m headed to Byzia to find some new work, but then I saw all these people headed toward the same direction. Did something happen in one of the villages?”

“Ah, I’m not sure if anything actually happened, but everyone’s probably here to hear Osmir’s speech… You’re an outsider, so it’s no wonder you don’t know anything about what’s going on…”

“Osmir…?”

“That’s right. You’ve heard of him, right? He’s the hero who has been defending villages against Velyn’s attacks for several months now. He also led a group of mercenaries two days ago and raided the castle, usurping the throne.”

I knit my eyebrows as I think back to what Irene said about her father. “Velyn has been attacking villages…? That seems hard to believe…”

“Not as hard as believing as that you’re an adventurer… I mean, look at you. You’re carrying two sword sheaths, yet you have no swords, and you have a massive hole in front of your armor. You look sketchy to me…” I blankly stare at him with a forced smile as he points to the areas of interest with his finger. My lips twitch. He narrows his eyes at me.

“If you’re an adventurer, then you must have a license, right? Show it to me,” he demands in an insolent tone of voice. I try my hardest to keep a calm level head and think of an appropriate reply. I laugh lightly.

“Oh, you made the same mistake as most people! I actually specialize in magic, watch,” I say as I place both of my hands palm up and then emit Rich Mana from both hands for several seconds.

“Ho…” he mutters a low energy sound.

“Actually, I was in a huge battle on my way here…and as a result, this happened,” I explain as I point to the hole in my armor. In a demoralized and gradually more lethargic voice I continue, “And I lost my backpack on my way here, so I don’t have my license with me…please don’t remind me…”

I look down and sigh. Afterward, he sighs too. “Alright, alright, I got it… To answer your question, I couldn’t believe it either. I’ve lived here a long time, and he has been a great benevolent king for decades, but he completely changed when he announced higher taxes at the beginning of this year… He said that consequences will be paid for villages that don’t meet the requirements. A month later, I heard rumors about how villages that couldn’t afford to pay were raided by the army… But I never believed them for a second…until I witnessed it myself two months ago…”

I gulp before asking, “You mean…you personally saw Velyn commanding an army that pillaged a village…?”

“Hmm… I’m having a hard time remembering, actually... What did I see, I wonder…” I force a smile, feeling like he’s mocking me. My eyelids twitch. I cock an eyebrow when he sticks out an open palm. “I think five silver coins might help me remember…”

This guy… I frown before I calmly reiterate, “Well, like I said… I lost all of my belongings…”

“Goodbye,” he says quickly as he turns his head away. He starts to walk away at a quicker pace.

“Wait!” I exclaim only a moment later.

"What do you want?” he asks. He narrows his eyes into my eyes and says, “I have no business with moneyless liars…”

Afterward, I cock an eyebrow and stare at him like I have no idea what he’s talking about for several seconds. But then, I relax my facial expressions and smile back.

“Oh, was it obvious…? Well, if its money you’re after, my partner back there can supply you with it before we part ways,” I say and point my thumb behind me. He glances behind for a moment before facing forward again.

“Oh… an Elf and a girl, huh… An interesting trio, but it’s none of my business as long as we have a mutual understanding…

“Yeah, you have my word,” I say light-heartedly, but afterward, I narrow my eyes on him as I scrunch my eyebrows together. This guy… He knew I was lying, and just now he pinpointed Leila and Irene outta the crowd in just a second… Who is he…?

“Hmm, yes I remember now… It was just by coincidence, but I was on my way to Riodor when I saw smoke rising from where the village was located, and I took a detour, eventually hiding behind some trees. From there I had a good view of everything going on in that village…” He shivers as he recounts his experience. I’m slightly doubtful if he’s actually trembling or pretending, so I don’t feel any empathy for him. He continues in a morbid voice, “I had a hard time believing it even though I was witnessing it before my eyes…

“I can still remember the screams of all the villagers… I saw armored men cutting down unarmed villagers, sparing no one. Men were the lucky ones, who met their fate swiftly, but women were not so lucky… The savages forced themselves on them with no shame…even the younger ones… When I saw all of their faces twisting in ecstasy, I actually thought that the identities of these beasts were bandits, but then I saw him… Someone who wore armor bearing the national symbol of Xantho in the middle of all the chaos… It was Velyn… He sat there on his horse, apathetically watching the brutality unfold.”

“You’re sure it was Velyn…?”

“Yeah, I know it was him… There’s no mistake.” I focus my eyes into his and realize that he’s telling the truth, but I don’t want to believe it. I gulp before asking another question to confirm a thought.

“Did he participate…? In any of the violence…?”

He thinks for a moment before answering, “I don’t know… He might have before I arrived, but he’s just as guilty for watching.”

“I see… That’s disappointing to hear.” I knit my eyebrows thinking about the reason behind this. “Were his motivations for the attack just the taxes?”

“Hmm… I’m not sure… I may have heard other rumors about it…” he says with doubt. I frown, knowing he’s just teasing me.

“Other rumors…? Like what?” I ask while narrowing my eyes. He only holds out an open palm again. “Five silver again…? Whatever, my partner will supply you afterward.”

My impatience is probably showing through my voice. He smiles and then nods his head before replying, “Well, someone saw someone that looked like the prince’s fiancée, Aurora, leaving the country and the prince, Seirus, has not made any public appearances since then. The consensus is that they eloped. So people say that Velyn is taking out his frustrations on the villages while looking for concubines since he doesn’t have a successor now.”

He pauses for a moment and then raises a finger. “Actually, I heard they actually found the missing women who were supposedly kidnapped in the last couple of months. They discovered them locked inside cells when they raided the castle… Those poor girls…”

“What happened? Don’t tell me…they’re dead?!” I exclaim as I unknowingly get absorbed into the information. When his hand is out again, I only narrow my eyebrows and make a shooing motion with a hand towards him. “You don’t need to keep asking… My partner will cover it.”

“I have your word…? Great,” he says suspiciously, but I ignore it thinking that it’s only a handful of silver.

“I heard they were alive, but I also hear that most of them carry children now.”

“Is Velyn the one who assaulted them…?”

“I don’t know… I only told you what I heard yesterday when the news was announced in Byzia and spread to all the villages in Xantho.”

I widen my eyes and raise my eyebrows when I make a connection.

"Liar!" a loud voice resounds behind me. I know the voice belongs to Irene without looking. The man beside me looks behind him.

Irene... Any of this information would be hard for her to take in… I wonder what they have been told so far? I suddenly remember an important key figure in all this and then smile. “I have another question…”

He turns his head back to me. “Did you see any high ranking soldiers guarding Velyn when you saw him in Riodor? For example… General Dae?”

He closes his eyes momentarily while grasping his chin with his fingers; presumably giving my question some deep thought.

“No… I didn’t see anyone like that… ” I sense certainty in his answer despite the slow response. In a skeptical voice, he asks, “How do you know about General Dae anyway? I thought this was your first time here?”

I know he’s just making fun of me again, so I play along. I respond with enthusiasm, “This is my first time here, but I heard stories about many of the heroic deeds accomplished by Dae in the past... I grew up admiring him… What has he been up to lately?”

“You too? I really admired him too because he was truly an individual who cared about his country… Despite working under Velyn for nearly a decade, it’s a shame his good intentions were betrayed by Velyn, though. I heard that he’s working together with Osmir now,” he reciprocates with a tone matching the passion I displayed in the previous statement.

I raise my eyebrows and open my mouth widely. “Say, is Velyn being held prisoner now?”

“No… Neither Velyn nor his advisors were found in the castle at the time of the raid, according to Osmir.” I think silently for nearly thirty seconds while still walking alongside the man. Then the man suddenly stops walking, and I do the same. “It seems you have no more questions for me. Now, where is my payment?”

I do a 360-degree turn around me and then realize we’re inside Byzia already. “Ah, one moment.”

I locate Leila and Irene standing about 25 feet away from me. I wave the fingers on my right hand signaling that they should come over. Soon, they catch up. Leila cocks an eyebrow. With confidence, I inform, “Hey Leila. I promised this guy I would pay him for the information he provided me… I think he was charging around five silver coins for each piece of information, so probably around 40 silver coins will cover it.”

“Actually, it’s ten gold coins.” It takes me several seconds for me to process what he said. Afterward, I gradually knit my eyebrows as I curl my lips into a narrow frown. Suddenly, a strong force falls on top of my left shoulder. Leila’s hand is on top of it. A shiver goes down my spine, and I’m scared to turn around. A murderous intent creeps closer and closer to me.

I only look ahead at the man in front of me who is smiling broadly. I gulp, before finally managing to utter, “Uhh… Ho-how do you fi-figure that?”

“Five silver coins for the first time… but I never specified how much it would be the second time or after that…and adding up everything, it’s ten gold coins. You gave me your word, right?” he asks with a smirk.

“Is that true, Kai?” Leila asks, her hand pressing down on my shoulder harder. Still afraid to face Leila, I stiffly stand in place, but I’m unable to stop my head from shaking.

“Ye-yeah…”

Leila removes her hand from my shoulder and then sighs. “It cannot be helped… We do not want you to be making trouble for us…” Leila says, removes her hand from my shoulder, and then sighs. Ruffling noises resound behind me; probably Leila opening her backpack. A few seconds later, she holds out ten gold coins in front of the man. “Take it.”

"Oh… Thank you for your business,” the man says as his smirk melts into a grin. “Well then, Kai… Good luck in your new life as an adventurer.”

He walks away laughing loudly. When I finally summon the courage to turn around, I find Leila’s narrowed eyebrows and distorted smile. I glance over to Irene for a moment. She’s pouting with her arms crossed. In one of her deepest voices, Leila demands, “Well, Kai… It’s time you filled me in on what you discovered…at the cost of ten gold coins….”

“Ye-yeah…” A drop of sweat forms on my forehead. I gesture my head to Irene and suggest, “But let’s find a resting place first… Irene must be exhausted…”

Leila’s facial expressions relax as she glances over to Irene too, nodding her head at the same time. “True, let’s do that.”

After asking a few people, we settle in a place called ‘Bolt’s Inn.’ We pay for our room, receive the keys, and then head upstairs. After unlocking our room, we close the door and then lock it. We exchange information. Apparently, Leila discovered the same information minus the fate of the village, Riodor. After learning she paid ten gold coins just for that piece of information, she goes on a 15-minute rant on how useless I am. The whole time I don’t respond and only stare at the ground. Eventually, she calms down and there’s a brief silence.

Leila suggests, “Let’s go over the possibilities on who paid Neso off... The first possibility is that Osmir is the culprit.”

“Yeah, but that’s probably not likely because he was already using Dae to get to Irene. Neso wasn’t even equipped with anyone strong. If Osmir paid them off to try and accomplish kidnapping Irene under the noses of Dae and his subordinates, it wouldn’t go as smoothly as with us. So that crosses off Osmir… If Velyn is the culprit, then that must mean he’s against the marriage between Osmir and Irene. So that either implies that Osmir is a threat to the country or…” I pause for a moment and look towards Irene, who is resting on the bed.

“All the things people have been saying about Velyn are true, right?” Leila finishes my sentence. Irene doesn’t flinch.

It seems she’s calmed down… At least she’s not throwing a fit every time we mention bad things about her father… I turn back to Leila and say, “Yeah, which also would imply Osmir is as good of a person as everyone claims.”

“Basically, we can’t rule out that Velyn paid Neso. We need to be careful around this Osmir character.”

“Yeah, we should find out more about him before we deliver Irene to the castle. You said his speech would take place outside of the castle at 6 PM, right? We still have over five hours until then to collect other information.”

“Could it be Osmir and Velyn might not be the only ones to consider in all of this? There could be another force driving this other than those two. A force that wants to use Irene for money, power, fame, or pleasure. There might be something special about the royal bloodline so even dining on her flesh is a possibility.”

“I’m not too sure about that last bit…” I mutter.

“It must be someone or an organization with a lot of wealth considering the large donation to Neso. Would a successful tradesman or high ranking adventurer be responsible? No, only people close to Velyn would know about Irene, so that makes any high ranking official suspicious.”

“I agree. And then we have someone who paid the bandits to take Irene as well. They knew of Irene in addition to how many were transporting her. I can’t see how Osmir would have any motives for this…especially with a chance to receive damaged goods… And I don’t see any sense in Velyn being a part of this, or even any high ranking official. They wouldn’t turn to bandits for help. The way I see it, the mercenaries working under Osmir might have their own motives.”

“There’s no fallacy in that assumption. We can also both concur that Velyn wasn’t responsible for any of crimes he’s being accused of.”

“Yeah, a good egg doesn’t suddenly go bad after decades of being a king. It doesn’t add up, and taking into account Irene’s testimony about her father’s character; it’s safe to say that he’s being threatened or held hostage… And the only person to profit is…”

“Osmir. He’s suspicious no matter how you look at this. But something still doesn’t make sense to me… Why wasn’t Neso notified about the successful raid on the castle…?”

“Considering how fast the news was delivered to other villages, I assume that they used Klams to communicate with the other villages…and I definitely saw them using Klams to communicate with each other in Neso when they were planning something against us. Well, that could be the only pair they have, and they might not have a Klam that connects to Byzia, but I find that hard to believe. That a village, which is desperate for money, can afford an expensive magical item, like the Klam…”

“So, you’re saying…” Leila locks her eyes with mine, seeming to reach the same conclusion as I have.

“Someone intentionally didn’t notify Neso…and the Klams that connect to the villages all should be in the castle. Therefore, it’s Osmir or a mercenary working with him… Either way, it’s probably the same person as the one who paid off Neso.”

“That’s not completely true… You said it earlier…that Osmir shouldn’t have a motive for trying to get villagers to kidnap Irene. You forgot to consider another possibility about the Klams. What if the Klam that connects to Neso wasn’t in the castle?”

“I see! So you’re saying that Velyn might have taken it or hid it somewhere, right? If that’s the case, then it would make sense for him to pay off Neso!

“Yes, and now we just need to collect more information. We should split up again and meet back here in three hours,” Leila says as she walks to the door, unlocks it, and then opens it.

“Wait,” I state as I walk toward Leila. I turn my head around for a second to glance at Irene. She’s still asleep or at least not paying attention to us right now. I turn back to Leila and whisper in her ear, “Try to find and question one of the kidnapped women found during the raid. We might learn something interesting if we do, and if Velyn really touched them or not. Are we just gonna leave Irene here?”

She whispers back, “I’ll keep that in mind. It should be fine, right? We didn’t sense anyone following us, and we’ll only be gone a few hours. We’ll lock the door after we leave. If Irene wakes up, she should know by now to stay put considering she’s been kidnapped already.”

“Hmm… I suppose,” I agree and then walk into the hallway. Shortly after, Leila closes and then locks the door. We go downstairs and then exit the inn together, before splitting up in different directions. I should probably use this time to get some new swords…

I grip both of my sheaths and walk down a street. I recall that I don’t have any money and then sigh deeply.

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